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Monday, September 1, 2014

California Law Would Restrict 3D Printed Guns

From Brian Krassenstein at

Last year California Senator Keven De Leon introduced Senate Bill 808. The bill, which is clearly aimed towards 3D printed firearms or ‘ghost guns’, would make it a crime under California law for a person to manufacture a firearm without first obtaining California Department of Justice approval to do so. Additionally, if that gun is approved, the individual would also be required to engrave a serial number on that weapon, which would be provided by the California Department of Justice.

This Weekend, after fierce debate within the Senate, SB808 was passed. It is now headed to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. Brown will either sign the bill into law, or veto it. With this said, his past actions would weigh in favor of this bill being signed into law very soon.
The full text of the bill is available here.

While the bill does not expressly mention 3D printed guns, several provisions of the bill describe activities that are equivalent to 3D printing a gun, and would place restrictions on how these guns could be manufactured. In particular, the bill would add section 29180 to the California Penal Code. This section would state, in relevant part:

Section 29180 (a) For purposes of this chapter, “manufacturing” or “assembling” a firearm means to fabricate or construct a firearm, or to fit together the component parts of a firearm to construct a firearm. 
(b) Commencing July 1, 2016, prior to manufacturing or assembling a firearm, a person manufacturing or assembling the firearm shall do all of the following: 
(1) Apply to the Department of Justice for a unique serial number or other mark of identification pursuant to Section 29182. 
(2) (A) Within ten days of manufacturing or assembling a firearm in accordance with paragraph (1), the unique serial number or other mark of identification provided by the department shall be engraved or permanently affixed to the firearm in a manner that meets or exceeds the requirements imposed on licensed importers and licensed manufacturers of firearms pursuant to subsection (i) of Section 923 of Title 18 of the United States Code and regulations issued pursuant thereto.
(B) If the firearm is manufactured or assembled from polymer plastic, 3.7 ounces of material type 17-4 PH stainless steel shall be embedded within the plastic upon fabrication or construction with the unique serial number engraved or otherwise permanently affixed in a manner that meets or exceeds the requirements imposed on licensed importers and licensed manufacturers of firearms pursuant to subsection (i) of Section 923 of Title 18 of the United States Code and regulations issued pursuant thereto. 
(3) After the serial number provided by the department is engraved or otherwise permanently affixed to the firearm, the person shall notify the department of that fact in a manner and within a time period specified by the department, and with sufficient information to identify the owner of the firearm, the unique serial number or mark of identification provided by the department, and the firearm in a manner prescribed by the department.
Penal Code section 29180(a) applies to 3D printed firearms since it applies to the "construction" and "fabrication" of firearms. Additionally, since 3D printed guns are made by printing off each component of the firearm, and then assembling the components, the portion of subsection (a) that covers the assembly of the components would likely apply to 3D printed guns as well.

The bill also proposes section 29181 of the Penal Code, which would exempt already-registered firearms from the provisions in 29180. This is important because it means that when somebody disassembles and reassembled a registered gun, that person will not be required to seek a new serial number.

This bill, like most gun regulations, has gotten strong reactions from critics.

Krassenstein certainly takes a critical view, noting that no crimes have been committed with 3D printed guns. And Brandon Combs, the president of the California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees, argues that the bill will make no difference in gun crime and that it will be difficult for officers to enforce.

I do not want to wade too far into the debate over the merits of this bill. But I think it is worthwhile to point out that 3D Printed guns are a new, developing technology. Josh Blackman correctly notes that 3D printed guns are largely unreliable and difficult to construct. People can easily make their own guns from other, more affordable materials, or purchase a conventional firearm. The ease of locating alternatives and the danger of using 3D printed guns may explain why they are not yet in wider use.

3D printing technology is developing quickly, however. Printers are becoming cheaper and more advanced, and if this trend continues, 3D printed guns may become more appealing. SB 808 may not be intended to address current crimes, rather, it is being enacted to restrict the more advanced technology that will exist in the future (say, perhaps, in 2016 when this bill will take effect). It is difficult to say how serious the threat of 3D printed guns will be. But most of the criticism that I have seen on the bill overlooks the potential for 3D printing technology to develop, and it is something that critics should address in order for their arguments to be complete.

As a final note, if this bill ends up getting signed into law, I would not be surprised to see it challenged in the courts. As I argue in my paper on 3D printed guns and the Second Amendment, these challenges are unlikely to succeed. So long as people have access to purchase and use conventional firearms, it would be difficult to argue that restrictions on 3D printed guns would meaningfully limit people's right to self-defense.

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