Gun-related violence ranks among the most significant threats to personal safety in the United States. There have been over 50,000 incidents of gun-related violence in 2015 resulting in around 13,000 deaths and 26,000 injuries. We saw more than 300 mass shootings this year, including high-profile “active shooter” incidents like the ones that left nine dead at Umpqua Community College in Oregon and another nine dead at an historic black church in South Carolina. After the recent Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs, President Obama suggested, “[W]e have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them. Period. Enough is enough.” Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump commented on mass shootings shortly after the same incident and reasoned that if the victims had been armed with guns, “[Y]ou would have had a totally different story, would have been a different world, and I can say that about a lot of these crazy attacks.” While most can agree that gun deaths are a problem, solutions remain a contentious policy issue.
The gun “debate” and access to firearms
A wide range of actors have lined up on two opposing sides in the U.S. gun “debate.” One side asserts that easy access to specific types of firearms is unnecessary and contributes to crime, accidental shootings, and incidents of mass killing. The other side holds to a literal interpretation of the second amendment and views any infringement on the right to bear arms as a threat to liberty and safety. One side stresses the role of access to firearms, while the other emphasizes personal agency. Although the motivations differ drastically across cases of gun-related violence, access to firearms remains a key point of contention in efforts to prevent it. Organizations like the Brady Campaign seek to limit accessibility to firearms by expanding background checks and wait periods, promoting gun safety in the home, and changing gun industry sales practices. Alternatively, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which describes itself as “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization,” opposes all efforts to limit access to firearms and advocates for the protection of Second Amendment rights. As the debate continues, another type of non-state actor threatens to completely upend the firearms access debate.
Changing the access equation and thwarting legislative efforts
Defense Distributed (DD)—a nonprofit corporation based out of Austin, Texas—produces, publishes, and distributes information related to the digital manufacturing of firearms. Cody Wilson, DD’s founder, has created a space where libertarian politics and technology collide. Several years back he began with controversial efforts to disseminate plans for 3D printed weapons. Wilson continues to advocate for unrestricted access to firearms through technological innovation and free access to information. For example, his “Ghost Gunner” is a computer-guided milling machine that that can, “Legally manufacture unserialized AR-15s in the comfort and privacy of your home.” It completes an 80% lower receiver and allows users to manufacture untraceable AR-15 rifles. Writer Andy Greenberg used the Ghost Gunner to demonstrate the ease of personal gun manufacturing in a short video and article for Wired.com in May 2015. Although the legal purchase of AR-15 rifles remains relatively simple, the capacity to manufacture one’s own unserialized semi-automatic weapon would circumvent all three components in the Brady Campaign’s effort to limit access to firearms.
Wilson seeks to influence politics by challenging any legislative action that would restrict firearm access. He explained to me, “We actually change the ground rules. We shift the political coordinates and what’s possible. In five or six years they’ll say, ‘Well, we can’t really pass a law about guns. If there are 10,000 self-made AR-15s, there’s no way that we can envelop that into universal background checks, for example.’” Any new attempt to legislate gun access inspires a counter-action. In fact, DD came up with the idea for the Ghost Gunner in response to legislative efforts in California to outlaw AR-15s in the wake of the 2013 Santa Monica spree shooting, which Wilson describes as an outlier event.
Transport troubles: Ethical firms or…?
Defense Distributed has faced many challenges. In addition to opposition from several government agencies, numerous companies initially took positions against the organization. In a February 2015 article about FedEx and UPS’ refusal to ship the digital milling machines, FedEx spokesperson Scott Fiedler cited legal reasons for the decision:
This device is capable of manufacturing firearms, and potentially by private individuals. We are uncertain at this time whether this device is a regulated commodity by local, state or federal governments. As such, to ensure we comply with the applicable law and regulations, FedEx declined to ship this device until we know more about how it will be regulated.
However, in the article, Wilson countered that the FedEx decision was instead an “expression of a political preference.” UPS also decided not to ship the Ghost Gunner, stating that, “UPS reserves the right to refuse to provide transportation service for, among other reasons, any shipments that create legal, safety or operational concerns.” Spokesperson Dan Mackin explained, “UPS is continuing to evaluate such concerns with regard to the transportation of milling machines used to produce operable firearms but, at this point in time, will not accept such devices for transportation.” When I contacted the two firms for details or changes in policy they declined to comment and pointed me to statements in the article.
Distributing the DD Ghost Gunner does raise some ethical and legal questions. FedEx and UPS both cited uncertainty with regard to legal issues. The two firms exercised their right to refuse service and they provided position statements that raised concerns about public safety. Other companies like the 3D-printing firm Stratasys stopped renting DD one of its larger printers after learning the machine was used to manufacture gun parts. Firms could play an important role in facilitating or limiting access to firearms based on their decisions about business practices. The DD website blog described a series of production delays due to manufacturing setbacks, payment processor issues, and “contemptuous shipping companies.” DD apologized to backers who did not receive their machines in time for a 2014 holiday order fulfillment.
Despite the initial controversy, DD eventually did resolve the shipping issues and sent out the first round of machines this past April. DD has shipped 800 Ghost Gunners to date. I spoke with Wilson about the shipping challenges. He suspects that regional FedEx and UPS managers “got spooked.” He explained, “I guess they were risk averse and didn’t want to be guilty of approving the machine. They didn’t really understand what was behind it. They closed ranks with a pro-forma, socially conscious position. But, FedEx doesn’t actually have that position. They ship ammunition, explosives, and guns.” Since the initial media interest began to quiet down, FedEx, UPS, and the United States Postal Service have all shipped the Ghost Gunner. Wilson usually ships with UPS. Media reports of a socially conscious firm placing an ethical position above the bottom line appear to be accurate, but short-lived.
The continuing gun “debate”
Gun-related violence should become a U.S. policy priority in 2016. A Washington Post—ABC News poll conducted in October 2015 found that 82% of respondents viewed gun violence as a serious issue, though the public is split on whether to prioritize new laws to try and reduce gun violence or to focus on protecting the right to own guns (46% and 47% respectively). A clear majority of Americans believe mass shootings are more a result of mental illness than inadequate gun control laws (63% metal health, 23% gun laws, 10% both). Lazar, a gun and bullet manufacturer from the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun, succinctly sums up the majority U.S. public opinion, “Mr. Bond, bullets do not kill. It is the finger that pulls the trigger.” However, many Americans still believe that restricting access to triggers might also help limit particular types of gun-related violence. As politicians and the American public consider potential policy solutions, they must recognize that organizations and firms like Defense Distributed, FedEx, and UPS present new considerations for parties involved in the gun control debate. I base my comments and insight into DD on a phone interview with Cody Wilson on December 17, 2015. Additional comments from Wilson on the Ghost Gunner, 3D printable guns, and his political views can be found here and here.  The finished lower receiver is the only part of the weapon recognized as a firearm by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Other parts of the weapon are easily purchased.
Steven T. Zech is a post-doctoral fellow at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver.