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3D-printed guns are inevitable

At the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo, Defense Distributed's Cody Wilson argued that politicians can't stop innovation.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
Cody Wilson, founder and director of Defense Distributed, addresses the 3D-printed firearms debate at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo in New York. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NEW YORK--For months, a debate has raged in the media and on Capitol Hill about whether or not society (and the law) should allow 3D-printed guns.

After listening to Cody Wilson speak for a few minutes, one can't help but come away feeling that the national discussion is moot: 3D-printed firearms are inevitable.

Today at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo, Wilson, the founder and director of Defense Distributed, argued for an environment in which people can use 3D printers to make guns.

It's not that he doesn't recognize -- or care -- that there's some likelihood of increased gun violence in such a world, he said. Rather, it's absurd to try to stop people from using the increasingly popular -- and accessible -- technology to do whatever they want with it, he said.

To date, Wilson has become one of the most visible poster boys for the 3D-printed gun movement. During his talk today, he explained the many steps he and others have taken in their attempts to create a functioning firearm. He scoffed at an expert having told the conference's attendees earlier in the day that 3D-printed guns aren't yet real.

"No, it's here today," Wilson said, claiming that he and others successfully fired 11 rounds through a 3D-printed gun barrel not long ago.

Another leader in the space, Michael "Haveblue" Guslick, also claimed he had fired 100 rounds from an AR-15 outfitted with what he called a 3D-printed lower receiver.

An image of a gun with a 3D-printed magazine that Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed showed during his presentation at the Inside 3D Printing Conference in New York. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

There's no denying that Wilson and those who support him are at odds with the establishment. Wilson faces resistance from those like Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, the world's largest maker of 3D printers. Yesterday, in his keynote address to the 3D printing conference, Reichental acknowledged that the technology could "empower" the "unintended," adding that "legislators have a responsibility to grasp (this), and to make sure the legal and political infrastructure keeps up."

Yet, Reichental also confirmed Wilson's point that 3D-printed weapons probably can't be avoided. He noted that the technology "doesn't care if it prints the simplest or more complex geometry."

3D Systems isn't the only industry insider resistant to the idea. Defense Distributed originally had leased a printer from Stratasys, but the manufacturer subsequently terminated the agreement and reclaimed the property. Also, MakerBot's Thingiverse, a hosting service, booted all 3D-printed gun files from its system, forcing Wilson to start Defcad, Defense Distributed's digital repository.

The world's first 3D-printed gun (pictures)

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According to Wilson, Defcad has logged more than 800,000 downloads of 3D model files that could be used to print gun components. Still, he said he doesn't think there's any reason the establishment should worry.

"No one's going to print out a thousand guns and start a revolution," he said. "I really believe that."

Wilson said regulators need to leave 3D printing technology alone so that those who want to can do whatever it is they like.

"I think if you can't print a gun," Wilson said, "then [the technology] is nothing I'm interested in working with."

There are those who couldn't care less what Wilson is interested in, but that sentiment may not matter. Sooner or later, like it or not, 3D printed guns will be a reality. Will that mean more people have firearms? It's hard to say. Legislators may find ways to enact restrictions, and the technology itself is still young -- at least from a consumer perspective. But if people must pay attention to anything Wilson said today, it's that 3D-printed guns are here. They may be rudimentary, but -- as is the case with all things in technology -- they only stand to improve with time.