3D-printed gun controversy: Everything you need to know

Here's a breakdown of the debate that pits free speech and gun rights against public safety.

Marrian Zhou Staff Reporter
Marrian Zhou is a Beijing-born Californian living in New York City. She joined CNET as a staff reporter upon graduation from Columbia Journalism School. When Marrian is not reporting, she is probably binge watching, playing saxophone or eating hot pot.
Marrian Zhou
8 min read
A Liberator 3D printed gun in a carrying case.

The parts for the Liberator are almost completely 3D printed. The only nonplastic components of the weapon are the firing pin -- a standard metal nail -- and a six-ounce piece of steel whose function is to make the gun spottable by a metal detector.

Defense Distributed

The 3D-printed gun controversy is fast-paced and oft-changing. Here's a catch up.

Cody Wilson, the man at the center of the controversy, resigned Sept. 25 from Defense Distributed, the company that had been distributing downloadable weapons plans for free. His resignation follows his arrest in Taiwan after authorities in Texas charged him for allegedly paying $500 to have sex with a 16-year-old girl. Wilson's lawyers said in an email that they will focus on his case as the company goes forward without him. 

It's unclear how Wilson's resignation or the criminal charge will impact Defense Distributed but it's unlikely to end the battle over how to handle blueprints for plastic guns. The controversy, which has ebbed and flowed for years, flared up again in July after the State Department settled a lawsuit with Defense Distributed that allowed it to release plans online. That prompted 19 states to immediately file a lawsuit blocking their distribution of the files out of public safety concerns. The states scored an early victory when a Seattle judge issued a temporary restraining order on the distribution of the blueprints. The judge later granted a preliminary injunction until the case is resolved in court.

Wilson sought to get around the injunction by selling his gun designs online, rather than giving them away. His website asked for $10 for each blueprint, but let visitors set their own prices. 

The maneuvering underscores the broader fight that's pitting First and Second Amendment rights protecting free speech and gun ownership against public safety. It also comes amid a broader discussion of gun control in light of an increasing number of public shooting incidents. 

This isn't a simple case, so CNET's here to break it down for you.

So what are 3D-printed guns?

As the name implies, they're parts for guns made using a 3D printer and plans created on a computer or downloaded online.

The assembled guns are primarily made of plastic but still capable of firing standard handgun rounds. One of the plastic guns requires a nail to serve as a firing pin and a six-ounce piece of steel to trigger metal detectors, whose sole purpose is to prevent the weapon from running afoul of the US Undetectable Firearms Act, which requires firearms can be spotted by a metal detector.


Defense Distributed's 3D-printable gun receivers.

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

Wilson initially said he would make such weapons in 2012. The world's first 3D-printed handgun, the Liberator, debuted in May 2013.

What exactly can you print?

The Liberator is the closest thing to a completely plastic gun, but it still requires a steel nail that serves as the firing pin. Other Defense Distributed blueprints are for the frames of a gun, which are also known as receivers. Receivers aren't the critical parts of a gun, such as bolts, barrels and stocks, according to Popular Mechanics. In other words, you can't simply 3D print a gun and start blasting away.

The metal parts of a gun can be created on  3D printers  but it's much more expensive

Why are people worried?

Theoretically, the guns Wilson's plans make are untraceable. If the metal parts, such as the firing pin, are removed, you could probably put a Liberator in your carry-on luggage and walk through airport security checkpoints. 

Also, the guns don't have serial numbers -- making them, for all intents and purposes, "ghost guns." Besides that, people don't have to go through a background check to get one, like they'd have to buy a commercial firearm. Authorities are also concerned that criminals could destroy evidence because plastic is easier to destroy than metal. 

"3D-printed guns represent one dimension of a larger problem of do-it-yourself homemade firearms which is an increasing threat to public safety," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the gun control advocacy organization Violence Policy Center, in an email statement. "It is important that policymakers act now to address this burgeoning threat before it is too late."

Who is Cody Wilson?

Wilson learned about 3D printers during his second year at the University of Texas Law School in 2012, according to The Washington Post. He was reportedly inspired by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks to create an open-source platform.

"We wanted to be the Wiki for guns," Wilson told the Post.

Then he reportedly launched Defcad.com, an unregulated file-sharing website that eventually became the first community around 3D printed guns

"I think the state should be as weak as possible relative to the individual," Wilson told The New York Times. "The proper posture of the state is one that at least is in fear of its citizen, not one that lords over it."

In an email, Wilson told CNET that he had "no concerns regarding public access" to the designs. He also told Ars Technica that he'd been cashing in from selling a tool that lets people make a key gun part out of metal and use that part to build an untraceable firearm. The tool is called the "Ghost Gunner."

In 2017, Wilson started Hatreon, a crowdfunding site after neo-Nazi groups got kicked off mainstream sites like Patreon and GoFundMe. Some of the groups turned to Hatreon to finance their cause.

Cody Wilson fires his 3D-printed handgun, the Liberator

Cody Wilson, of Defense Distributed in Austin, Texas, fires a handgun manufactured mostly of 3D-printed parts, in a screenshot from a YouTube demonstration video.
Defense Distributed has already made plans for this open-source weapon -- dubbed a Wiki Weapon -- available online for free, and continues to refine and test the design to improve reliability.

Screenshot/Defense Distributed

Wilson reappeared in the news last month after he won a settlement with the State Department on the distribution of his blueprints online and said he'd resume publication on Wednesday, Aug. 1. He said he'd make the plans available for anyone to download for free.

How does the State Department figure into this?

The State Department, currently overseen by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, regulates the exports of defense products in accordance with International Traffic in Arms Regulations. The department became involved with Defense Distributed because its blueprints are available from anywhere over the internet, according to a State Department spokesperson. That prompted a restraining order several months after the Liberator debuted in 2013. The company then removed the files, according to Ars Technica.

Defense Distributed didn't give up, right?

Yep. Two years later, the company teamed up with the Second Amendment Foundation and sued the State Department, arguing distribution of the gun blueprints was covered by the First Amendment's protection of free speech. 

In July, the State Department settled, allowing Defense Distributed to freely publish its designs, according to SAF's release.


An assembled AR15 semi-automatic rifle with 3D printed plastic receiver. 

Defense Distributed

"The Department of Justice suggested that the State Department and the US government settle this case, and so that is what was done," said Heather Nauert, a spokesperson for the State Department. "We were informed that we would have lost this case in court, or would have likely lost this case in court, based on First Amendment grounds."

The Justice Department declined to comment.

How do the states play into this?

Eight US state attorneys general, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Maryland, New York and the District of Columbia, have filed a lawsuit to block the distribution of 3D-printed gun designs online due to a State Department settlement with the gun Wilson and his company Defense Distributed.

"This is an imminent threat to public safety and violates the law," Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a release. "We have a responsibility to ensure that these files are not made easily available to the public."

The states' complaint asks the court to declare the public release of Wilson's 3D-printed gun blueprints is unlawful and prohibit anyone from releasing the designs once the injunction is established.

The Trump administration has infringed on their states' exercise of police power and enforcement of public safety laws by letting people prohibited from owning a firearm, including children, felons and the mentally ill, have access to these plans, the attorneys general say.

Simultaneously, 20 state attorneys general sent a letter to the State Department and the Department of Justice asking for the same thing.

Seattle Federal Judge Robert S. Lasnik granted a temporary restraining order against the 3D-printed gun blueprints.  

More states have joined the lawsuit against the State Department and Defense Distributed. The suit now has a total of 19 US states as plaintiffs.

What was Wilson's response?

Wilson started a campaign and fundraiser on his website to unblock Defcad.com. Defense Distributed's LEGIO, the company's "political and technical fraternity," is collecting membership fees from $5 to $1,000.

"I literally believe in the Second Amendment to the point of that it's alright and it should be expected there will be social costs for protecting a right like this," Wilson told Fox News Sunday. "Of course we should expect, and have a mature attitude that bad things can happen."

This isn't a new debate, right?

Nope. Wilson's plastic gun designs has been online for years. Download counts at Defcad.com suggest his gun plans had already been downloaded over 20,000 times.

And it wasn't the first controversy on 3D printed firearms.

In 2012, MakerBot's Thingiverse website hosted design files for producing a key component of an AR15 semi-automatic rifle with a 3D printer. Anyone could download Michael "HaveBlue" Guslick's design for the lower receiver and produce it.

MakerBot later removed AR15 and other weapon components designs from its 3D-printing file library.

Where's Congress in the midst of all this?

In 2013, Congress renewed the Undetectable Firearms Act, which required all firearms to contain at least 3.7 ounce of steel so they can be detected. The law doesn't say which part has to be metal.

In the heat of the 3D-printed gun controversy, US Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida has filed bills -- the Untraceable Firearms Act and the 3D Printed Gun Safety Act -- that would make it illegal for anyone to intentionally publish online a digital file that programs a 3D printer to automatically manufacture a firearm, according to a release emailed by Nelson's representative. The bills were backed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Ed Markey, Chuck Schumer, Jack Reed, Dianne Feinstein, Bob Menendez and others.


Sen. Bill Nelson asks for Unanimous Consent on bill to ban 3D printed guns.

Screenshot by Marrian Zhou/CNET

The legislation would require every firearm to have a serial number and to have at least one main component, such as the frame or the barrel, that is made of metal.

First published on August 3, 5:00 a.m. PT.

Updates, 6:24 a.m. PT: Adds 11 more states have joined the eight plaintiff states in the lawsuit against the State Department et al. 

Updates, August 6, 9:12 a.m. PT: Adds Cody Wilson statement from his latest interview on Fox News Sunday. 

Updates, August 10, 10:53 a.m. PT: Adds rescheduled hearing date and more information about the lawsuit.

Updates, August 10, noon a.m. PT: To include additional details on the trial postponement. 

Updates, August 16, 1:25 p.m. PT: Adds Jeff Sessions statement from Reuters. 

Updates, August 29, 10:41 a.m. PT: Adds new developments in the case. 

Updates, Sept. 24, 9:35 a.m. PT: Adds Cody Wilson is arrested in Taiwan and allegedly had sex with an underage girl.

Updates, Sept. 25, 12:15 p.m. PT: Adds Cody Wilson has resigned from Defense Distributed.