The design was created by Defence Distributed – a non-profit digital organisation and placed, open source, on their website so anyone could freely download and share it.
Ville Vaarnes, a journalist in Finland, did just that and had the design printed in a university lab using a high quality 3D printer. He then put it together with the help of a gun maker and fired it. The gun broke into several pieces, shattering the gun barrel.
It is illegal to own even a single component of a hand gun in the UK, including a 3D printed gun unless, like the Science Museum, you have a special licence.
Manufacturing our own wasn’t an option as we only have a licence to display hand guns. Having seen a video of the gun being fired, we decided this was the only feasible opportunity we would have of acquiring a 3D printed gun.
From an engineering point of view, the gun isn’t particularly special, but displaying it allows us to start a conversation around how the limitless possibilities free access to information, combined with new manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing, will impact on our lives.
On the face it having a printer that could sit on your desk and print any object you have the design for seems like a wonderful prospect. The gun represents the limitless, freely available objects you could print, but also the possible desire or need for regulations to limit our access to this information or the tools to produce them.
Creating physically dangerous items like the gun isn’t the only potential threat from 3D printing in the future. You could produce counterfeit designs of a copyrighted item, damaging the business that spent time and money producing the original. What incentive does a business have to produce innovative, exciting products if their designs can be so easily pirated? The music and film industries have struggled with these problems for years. How will other industries cope?
On the other hand what about our freedom to design and print whatever we want? The internet is not restricted by borders. You can download files from all over the world. If the information can’t be controlled can the means of manufacture? Should 3D printers require a licence to own?
When the initial story broke we wrote a news story, including a poll question ‘Should we have access to 3D-print plans for guns?’ 780 people voted, 42% said ‘no’ way 43% voted ‘yes’. The rest voted maybe or I’m not sure. Our visitors are clearly split on the issue; law makers have quite a challenge on their hands trying to maintain the maximum freedom while ensuring public safety.
The 3D printed gun was on display in 2013 as part of the 3D: Printing the Future exhibition. The gun is no-longer on display but is now part of the Science Museum Group collection.