As a legal fight simmered this week over the legality of creating working guns on 3D printers, libraries and other groups offering access to the technology faced questions from local officials and reporters: Can community makerspaces now be turned into impromptu weapons factories?
In some cases, the answer came back a clear ‘No’ for technical reasons, as the entry-level printers available at some library makerspaces simply arenât up to the task of fabricating a firearm. And many others who lead public makerspaces stressed that existing policies already ban the creation of weapons, and that any design is typically seen by staff members before or during the many hours it takes to print out something as complicated as a gun.
âA library that has a maker space probably has policies that govern its use,â says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Associationâs Office for Intellectual Freedom. âItâs been talked about for a number of years as the devices came online. Thereâs always been a concern that someone would use it in the wrong way.â
“Although libraries are a place to access information,” the ALA official added, “theyâre not obligated to provide space to things like meeting rooms or printers, and when they do, they are allowed to put in regulations.”
Jennifer Bekker, the director of the Denton Public Library in Denton, Texas, sent a memo to the city council that appears typical of responses from libraries around the country. She wrote that libraries in their system have a community-use policy barring the creation of weapons; that 3D printers at the library canât print precisely enough to craft a firearm; and that any object printed must be picked up from the circulation desk, and is therefore seen by library officials before going to a patron, according to a local newspaper report.
The questions this week emerged because of the high-profile case involving Cody Wilson, a self-described âcrypto-anarchistâ and gun-rights activist who has distributed blueprints for a 3D-printed gun on his website, Defcad.com. A few years ago, the Obama Administration forced Wilson to take down the blueprints, but he sued, arguing that he has a free-speech right to distribute the information digitally.
More recently, the Trump Administration reversed course, and settled with Wilson, who then announced that he would resume disseminating the information on August 1. But earlier this week a federal judge in Seattle issued a restraining order that temporarily kept the plans offline, arguing that: âThere is a possibility of irreparable harm because of the way these guns can be made.â But the debate is far from over, and many say that the technical capabilities of 3D printers will only increase over time.
Dorothy Jones-Davis, executive director of the nonprofit group Nation of Makers, which supports makerspaces around the country, says discussion forums run by the group have been buzzing with talk of the issue all week, often because leaders of makerspaces are facing questions from government officials and reporters.
âMakerspaces are taking the stance of âno 3D printing or other creation of firearms,ââ she said in an email interview. âMakerspaces that do not currently have policies and procedures in place are looking to adopt policies and procedures that enforce this stance.â
She says her organization is forming a working group to collect and share the regulations that various makerspaces have developed.
An Emerging Issue
So far the issue has been largely theoretical. âWe haven’t heard any stories of educational makerspaces that have had anyone try to print a weapon of any kind,â said Jones-Davis. âOne non-educational space did say that they had a local reporter approach them to print a gun part and then write about it. They declined, and cited their policy.â
One leader of a college makerspace, who asked not to be named to avoid bad publicity for her institution, said that a student once asked about the possibility of using the makerspace to fabricate a weapon, but that the student was told it wasnât allowed, and the question was posed more out of curiosity than intent.
Gwyneth A. Jones, a teacher-librarian at Howard County Public Schools, just outside of Washington, D.C., said that her schoolâs makerspace does not have a 3D printer, but that she has been watching the issue closely (she runs a blog called the Daring Librarian).
She said people worried about whether kids could print guns in school makerspaces are âbeing alarmist.â
âThe idea that any kid would be allowed to put into a computer at school a CAD design of a gun and then take the 8 to 12 hours it would take to build a gun and use itâpeople need to find things to be worried about. Itâs just never going to happen,â she sad. âAnywhere along those steps a teacher would review what was being created, designed or programmed.â
She says the same kind of fears emerged in the past when new technology enters schools. âJust because a kid has a computer doesnât mean they can hack into the NSA,â she says.
Jones hopes that todayâs schools have reached a more-mature approach to regulating technology rather than simply putting blocks on anything that could possibly be used in inappropriate ways.
âLife is not filtered, and a lot of schools were heavily filtered in the â90s because they were worried, What if Johnny sees something inappropriate,â she says. âI think weâve moved from the filtered internet at schools to teaching kids to be their own filter.â When it comes to using something like Google Image Search in the school library, for instance, she says that if a student stumbles upon something inappropriate, she encourages them to close the window and talk to her about the situation. âYou have to just keep teaching your kids to keep doing the right thing.
Rather than block Google Image Search, Iâm going to teach kids to react appropriately to something that comes up thatâs inappropriate.â
Katie Krummeck agrees that establishing a positive culture within makerspaces is the best approach. Sheâs the director at the Maker Education Project at Southern Methodist Universityâs Lyle School of Engineering, and she works with a variety of schools to help them run makerspaces.
âAnybody thatâs running a makerspace across K-16 into higher ed, you have to be really engaged in the culture of your space and how students are using the tools, and you have to be really responsive to how things emerge,â she said.
The fact that someone has figured out how to use the tools to make weapons she described as âdisappointingâ but not surprising. âItâs human nature to think of all the ways to use those tools, both positive and negative,â she added. âOur response as leaders in the maker movement should be that we believe in the spirit of positive change and cooperative innovation in the communityâand to maintain that culture of positivity.â