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Abstract

This Comment describes how 3D printers will render current firearm regulations obsolete by allowing individuals to easily produce firearms—production that, when exercised by law-abiding citizens, may be protected under the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. The regulatory system will be undermined in two phases. First, printers will be able to produce the only regulated piece of a firearm, the frame. Second, the printing of complete guns may be realized as 3D print technology advances or firearm design evolves. These developments, which could cause substantial changes in how both criminals and legitimate consumers obtain firearms, could lead to outright prohibition of personal manufacture or specific bans on weapons made by 3D printers. District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision interpreting the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to possess firearms, could be interpreted to constrain this particular regulatory response. Specifically, Heller may create a right for individuals to make their own weapons to be used in self-defense and may protect certain processes and materials involved in making firearms.

Part I introduces 3D printers and explains which gun components they can already produce. Part II explains how firearms are presumptively distributed under federal regulations, describes the structure of the firearm industry, and discusses theories on how consumers and criminals actually obtain guns. Part III explains how 3D printers may change the way firearms are acquired, undermining or even rendering obsolete the current regulatory system. Part IV, after outlining the constitutional right to bear arms, interprets Heller as supporting an individual right for law-abiding citizens to make their own self-defense weapons, and explains why this interest is legitimate. Part IV also analyzes the extent to which Heller may extend Second Amendment protection to weapons made by additive manufacturing. The Conclusion summarizes and stresses the importance of 3D printers remaining unrestricted, irrespective of their influence on self-defense.

Cite as: 42 Golden Gate U. L. Rev. 447 (2012).

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