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3-D printing handguns in Texas

A participant from Romania builds a 3D printer at the Campus Party 2012 technology festival on August 22, 2012 in Berlin, Germany.

A law student in Texas wants to make a handgun using a device that prints out 3-D objects using melted plastic. Cody Wilson asked people for money online and got $20,000 to try it. His aim is to prototype the so-called "Wiki Weapon" and make the plans freely available to anyone online. 

It's open source weaponry. It's also a example of how 3-D printing could change society even as it begins to revolutionize manufacturing. But Wilson's project ran into trouble recently when the printer company found out and took back its unit. Wilson is not just opposed to gun control, he's trying to make a radical statement about how technology can undermine regulation.

"The project as it started was fully conceived as a political one first," says Wilson. "So it was never just 'oh let’s print the gun,' it was let’s print the gun and then see if other people can print the gun."

But Wilson has hit a few significant snags. For one, he lost the printer he was going to use to prototype the guns. "We leased a printer from one of the big printer manufacturers and I think they just Googled what we were doing," says the law student. "They emailed me and said “you don’t have a license. You misrepresented yourself to us.” 

Even though there seems to be some debate over whether being a liscensed gun smith or gun retailer is required when you're literally printing these guns out, the company that owned the printer being used by Wilson and others for the Wiki Weapon sent couriers to pick up the machine from the company in Austin. 

A 3-D printed handgun might be a cool idea to some. But, there are others terrified that a bad guy, informed by Wilson's approach to this, could whip up an untraceable weapon in a couple of hours and do something bad. Wilson & co. say those people are engaging in histrionics, and that the project is "an emancipator" that rethinks access to guns, and in a world where guns can get printed out in the home, Wilson says gun control is a bit "old hat"

It should be noted that the Wiki Weapon and its makers face some serious challenges. What is likely a one-shot weapon at this stage isn't exactly designed to change the whole industry overnight. But Wilson says small retailers and sellers have congratulated him and his team at Defense Distributed. On the other hand, the NRA? Not so much. Why? Get this: Wilson says the gun lobby is interested in preserving the gun lobby. For a guy who wants to be able to email a deadly weapon and have you create it with a schematic and your own printer, the NRA just isn't interested enough in advocating absolute firearm rights. 

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told us that the bureau is always concerned about new technology "presenting creative ways" for people to break gun laws. It looks like they have something new to be concerned about. 

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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