3D printing and the law: a smoking gun?

Ai Group recently made a short submission to a Senate Inquiry into the ability of Australian law enforcement authorities to eliminate gun-related violence in the community.

It doesn’t sound typical of the sort of policy issues we usually get our teeth into, but given the potential role of advanced manufacturing in gun technology, it’s actually closer to home than you might think.

Our primary focus was item c) in the inquiry’s terms of reference:

“The adequacy of current laws and resourcing to enable law enforcement authorities to respond to technological advances in gun technology, including firearms made from parts which have been imported separately or covertly to avoid detection, and firearms made with the use of 3D printers.”

Ai Group represents thousands of businesses across an expanding range of sectors, including many innovative and advanced manufacturers who are exploring the potential of 3D-printing technologies.

There are many methods of 3D printing, and many applications; the full potential of these innovations will take a long time to be realised, but is likely not just to change how products are made but to transform whole business models.

3D printing and other additive manufacturing technologies may ultimately require adjustments to various legal and regulatory frameworks. But 3D printing remains in an early and dynamic state. The printing technologies available to the mass market remain relatively crude, able to produce small objects from single materials at a low level of resolution and strength. More advanced printers are available but require significant investment. The technologies and their uses are evolving rapidly, both within industry and in the broader ‘maker movement’ in the community.

It would be highly undesirable to smother this innovation and exploration with specific and restrictive security rules, particularly when existing laws of broad application appear adequate. While legal specifics vary by jurisdiction, we understand that the production or possession of restricted firearms without a license is illegal throughout Australia.

Those provisions apply whether the weapon was 3D printed or produced through traditional methods. They apply both to whole weapons and to firearms parts. It is difficult to see any legal gap that would complicate enforcement of existing law against potential unlicensed producers or possessors of 3D-printed weapons.

Some may be interested in extending regulation to the production or distribution of the design files that instruct 3D printers, or to the printers themselves. This is likely to be complex, ineffective and potentially very costly. The focus of existing laws is properly and more simply on the acts of production or possession, rather than regulating lathes and blueprints.

The Inquiry should of course consider the evidence on the application of manufacturing advances to firearms. While 3D-printed weapons may not be practical, functional or affordable for some time, a watching brief may be sensible.

However, the Inquiry should also be cautious about accepting the idea that 3D printing raises fundamentally different issues to traditional methods in the case of firearms. It should also keep firmly in mind the potential for significant costs from hasty regulation of an emerging technology.

While the inquiry’s reporting date was initially set for October 2, the Senate has today granted an extension of time for reporting until 26 March 2015.

 Do you believe advances in 3D printing should demand new regulations relating to the construction of weapons, or do existing rules suffice? Add you comment below.

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Tennant is Principal National Adviser – Public Policy at Ai Group. He has worked heavily on climate and energy issues, advising Ai Group’s Leaders’ Group on Energy and Climate Policy and developing reports on natural gas supply, energy prices and energy efficiency. He also works on a range of issues related to manufacturing and innovation. Previously he was an adviser in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, working on fiscal policy, stimulus and infrastructure.


  1. Justin Boehm

    Well that is not our normal “Sweet Spot” but a very interesting point is raised – do current regulations suffice?
    I would say in general terms – Yes, as the majority of gun owners are law abiding & enjoy shooting as a sport. However, there seems to still be a high level of illegal gun crime in Australia. Unfortunately most of these guns are in the hands of unsavoury Characters, with access to significant capital from their illegal activities.
    So I would therefore have to suggest that there should be more regulation around this. The balance would be in finding the best way to let business get on with progressing the technology of 3D printing without over burdening it with red-tape.

    1. Tennant Reed (Post author)

      Thanks, Justin. Ai Group doesn’t usually weigh in on law and order issues, but this is one where a novel technology fills some with anticipation of economic opportunity, and others with trepidation over potential security risks. You’re right that that the two need to be balanced. In the case of 3-D printing, it doesn’t look like any additional legal provisions are needed – manufacturing a firearm or firearm components without a license is illegal whether you cast the parts or print them. The question is whether law enforcement will have the resources and the focus to deal with the issue when 3D printing weapons eventually becomes more of a practical option.


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