A War of the Roses: Should Libraries Take A Stance on 3-D Gun Printing?

First Amendment

by:  Andrea Jamison

The battle for gun control and the right to bear arms has been an ongoing debate since the ratification of the Second Amendment in 1791. Much like the English battles that began in 1455  between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, gun debates pit two equally formidable extremist groups against each other. On one hand, proponents of gun control wish to deter the ongoing cycle of random violence against masses of unarmed civilians by creating a socially moral argument, one that is vested in public safety. On the other hand, advocates for gun rights seek to preserve the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens, rights that cement the very foundation of democracy.

The problem is that the politics behind gun control are complex and paradoxical. Debates about gun control often happen as a postlude to mass tragedies or new legislation. These events invariably create a resounding outcry for stricter laws while simultaneously serving as the stimulus for higher gun sales. One recent event has brought the issue of gun control to libraries;  it is the ongoing battle over the printing of 3-D guns. In 2013, gun rights activist and founder of Defense Distributed, Cody Wilson, “debuted the world’s first 3-D printed handgun, the Liberator.” He then published and began distributing a design for 3-D gun making online. However, the US Department of State (DOS) ordered Wilson’s company to cease online distribution or face prosecution  citing a violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

In response to the DOS order, Wilson filed a lawsuit. According to Wilson, who has also written a book on the business of DIY guns and was published by Simon & Schuster, the distribution of his online blueprint is merely an exchange of free ideas and information which is protected under the First Amendment.  In an effort to resolve the legal dispute, DOS entered into a settlement agreement with Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation.

The settlement allows “Defense Distributed to publish plans, files and 3-D drawings in any form and exempts them from the export restrictions.” This appeared to be a unanimous victory for gun activists across the country. Yet, it only foreshadowed the uphill battle that Wilson would soon face.  After the settlement, 19 states filed a lawsuit seeking to block the free distribution of those files due to public safety concerns. The major concern here is that plastic guns are untraceable.

Libraries and 3-D Gun Printing

3-D PrinterAlthough opposing sides are still warring, libraries are being forced to weigh in on the matter – and rightly so. Libraries provide public access to 3-D printers. Given the juxtaposition between our professional obligations and social responsibility, libraries should make their policies very clear with regard to printing 3-D guns and any other items that may be of issue. Those policies should be carefully drafted to accommodate both public safety and legal requirements, which are highlighted in ALA’s Policies and Best Practices.

In drafting policy, libraries should also take note that the settlement between DOS and Defense Distributed “is not binding on libraries and does not create a right to use those plans to create guns on library 3-D printers in violation of library policy or in violation of the applicable law regulating the manufacture or distribution of guns in the United States, such as the law that makes it illegal to create or assist in the creation of a gun that is undetectable by X-ray machines or metal detectors.”  American Libraries Magazine

According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom Deputy Director, the goal for libraries is not to adopt “policies that restrict 3D printing access based on a user’s status or constitutionally protected creative” but to ensure a balance between equitable access, safety, and legal liability. The major goal here is that libraries define that balance, put it in writing, and make sure that those policies apply to all patrons.


Andrea JamisonAndrea Q. Jamison is a professional librarian, writer, and current Ph.D. student whose research involves examining the pervasive lack of diversity in literature. She has over 17 years of experience working in schools and libraries, and she is the author of two books: Against the Waterfalls and Super SonjaIn addition to her full-time duties in librarianship, she is a mom, Board Member for ALA’s Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable, Chair for the EMIERT Multicultural Awards, reviewer for the School Library Journal, reviewer for Indieview, freelance writer, avid blogger, and social justice advocate. She also works with the Illinois School Library Media Association as a member of their advocacy and conference planning committees. Andrea thoroughly enjoys working with children and speaks nationally on issues related to creating diverse and inclusive learning spaces for youth. Find her on Twitter @achitownj.


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