This post is not legal advice; it’s only my opinion. And unless you’ve retained me by a signed contract after an in-person consultation, I’m not your lawyer. If you’re considering printing this project, hire a lawyer who knows the area of law — both federal law and your particular state/county/city/whatever’s law) and consult him. Or better yet: buy a lower. It’s cheaper than hiring a lawyer and probably more fun!
Now onto the interesting stuff.
Recently, a Thingiverse user posted a file that can be printed on a 3d printer to create a (theoretically) functional AR-15 lower receiver. This upset some members of the Thingiverse community, as you can see from the lively discussion on the project page. Tech Crunch covered the controversy and asked a few important questions. Is printing a gun the same as buying a gun? Is the printed lower receiver a weapon? Is it a part? Is it Illegal?
In short, no, printing a gun isn’t the same as buying one because the user is a manufacturer instead of a consumer. The lower receiver is still a firearm under federal law (and probably state law) as opposed to being just a part. And, finally, printing a lower is not prohibited under federal law for those allowed to own firearms, but your state’s law may vary.
For those of you who don’t regularly build your own firearms, the lower receiver of an AR-15 is a part typically made out of anodized aluminum that contains most of the gun’s moving parts. The AR-15′s lower receiver houses its trigger and fire-control components (the “safety” on a semi-automatic AR-15) and is the attachment hub for the weapon’s other pieces — e.g., magazine, buttstock, grip, and upper receiver (which contains the barrel and chamber). In the image above, the bottommost object is a lower receiver with grip and trigger pack installed. The other two objects are completed AR-15s in different configurations.
The lower receiver is the only part of an AR-15 that must be serial-numbered. Why? Because, as far as the BATFE is concerned, the lower receiver — even if it’s separated from the barrel, stock, and all its other parts — is a firearm. Under the Gun Control Act of 1968 (18 U.S.C. § 921, et seq.), the definition of “firearm” includes the frame or receiver of any “weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive.” 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3).
Since the lower receiver is a firearm, it’s subject to all the same laws and restrictions as a complete gun, e.g., background checks, retail sale through a licensed dealer, state law requirements, etc. The other parts you would buy to turn a lower receiver into a rifle are all available without any (federal) restrictions. For example, you can buy a lower receiver from your local gun shop, have the rest of the parts shipped directly to your house from internet sites, and assemble it on the kitchen table.
And while it is unlawful for an unlicensed person to engage in the business of manufacturing firearms under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A), it is not illegal for a person to manufacture firearms for his own use. From the ATF’s handy Federal Firearms Regulations Reference Guide:
With certain exceptions a firearm may be made by a nonlicensee provided it is not for sale and the maker is not prohibited from possessing firearms. However, a person is prohibited from assembling a nonsporting semi-automatic rifle or nonsporting shotgun from imported parts. In addition, the making of an NFA firearm requires a tax payment and approval by ATF. An application to make a machinegun will not be approved unless documentation is submitted showing that the firearm is being made for a Federal or State agency.
So, for most people in most places, it’s legal to print off a lower receiver and go about building an AR-15 on it. Certain states prohibit the private ownership of AR-15s with certain features (e.g., telescoping buttstocks and flash suppresors), so anyone trying this should consult someone familiar with his local laws. Some states also have permitting and licensing requirements that may apply to printing this project. Fortunately, Louisiana is a pretty free state when it comes to firearms laws, so printing off a lower wouldn’t pose any legal problem as long the proud owner is not prohibited from possessing firearms generally (because he’s a felon or prone to domestic abuse, for example).
Once the new owner starts attaching other parts to his shiny new lower, there are some things to watch out for. The bits in the ATF blurb about “assembling a nonsporting semi-automatic rifle or nonsporting shotgun from imported parts” don’t apply here, as the United States manufactures plenty of domestic AR-15 parts. Those regulations sometimes present a problem when someone wants to build a foreign-made rifle (like an FN-FAL, for example) from a kit made out of a decommissioned (read: cutting-torched into pieces) rifle that’s been imported as parts. That’s a different set of problems.
But the last two sentences can’t be disregarded quite so cavalierly. An “NFA firearm” is a firearm regulated by the National Firearms Act 26 U.S.C. § 5801, et seq. The NFA is a tax statute designed to impose restrictions and taxes on the production and transfer of certain weapons, primarily short-barreled shotguns and rifles, machineguns, silencers, and destructive devices. For this post, we can safely ignore the regulations concerning concerning short-barreled shotguns, silencers, and destructive devices. We can also ignore the machinegun provisions of the NFA because semi-automatic AR-15 receivers have a handful of crucial differences in their design that prevent them from being converted into automatic weapons (without some substantial gunsmithing or illegal accessories).
But what about the short-barreled rifle regulations? It’s conceivable that someone could inadvertently make a short-barreled rifle. Under the NFA, a rifle is “a weapon designed . . . and intended to be fired from the shoulder and designed . . . use the energy of the explosive in a fixed cartridge to fire only a single projectile through a rifled bore for each single pull of the trigger.” 26 U.S.C. § 5845(c). So the NFA regulates rifles with barrels less than sixteen inches long. 26 U.S.C. § 5845(a)(1). Such a rifle is commonly called a short-barreled rifle (or SBR).
It is not illegal to manufacture an SBR (in this case, for example, by attaching an upper receiver with a 15″ barrel to your freshly made lower receiver) under federal law, as long as you’ve followed the correct application procedure and paid the applicable taxes. See 26 U.S.C. § 5822. Some states impose restrictions on the manufacture and possession of NFA firearms, including SBRs. For example, New Jersey prohibits the possession short-barreled rifles and shotguns outright. NJSA 2C:39-3(b) (the definition of “sawed-off shotgun,” for whatever reason, also includes rifles). Louisiana, on the other hand, does not prohibit ownership of any NFA weapons. Anyone who decides to try this project should acquaint himself with the laws beyond just whether he can legally print a lower receiver.
AR-15s were always like Lego. You bought a lower receiver and then a bunch of pieces to put on it. You could pick and choose whatever you wanted, take it off if you didn’t like it, or change it up between range days. Now that AR-15 lowers can be easily printed by 3d printers, the Lego simile is even more apt. And as long as you’re careful, you won’t even break the law!