Prohibitions Don't Work, And New Technology Makes That More Obvious


Partially 3D-printed gun

As I've mentioned before, the Ottoman Empire once punished tobacco use by death. That worked out so well, the law was rescinded a generation later amidst a cloud of fragrant smoke. Americans being slower learners, the war on drugs is a decades-old cliche in the United States, yet 42 percent of us have smoked grass and 16 percent of us have tried cocaine — the highest percentages recorded internationally by the World Health Organization. Likewise, gun controls have, as I've documented, met massive resistance for simple registration and laughable levels of compliance for confiscation schemes. Prohibitions have a wonderfully long track record of abject failure when it comes to eliminating, or even reducing the availability of, the things and behaviors at which they are targeted. And that's before we even get to the individually empowering world of new technology.

The popular prohibition movement of the moment has firearms in its … err … sights. Led by (really?) Vice President Joe Biden, a White House task force is apparently considering new gun laws that would restrict those scary-looking rifles known as "assault weapons," ban high-capacity magazines, track sales (maybe through registration?) and require whatever else the politicians in the group think will win them votes.

High capacity AR magazine

Meanwhile, a merry band of gun-rights activists known as Defense Distributed have been using 3D printing technology to develop the means of producing guns and related paraphernalia at home. Brian Doherty has already written about this development at length, and I've covered it myself. But as it happens, matters have moved forward, and Defense Distributed is now producing high-capacity magazines with 3D printers. The group's CEO, Cody Wilson, told Metro World News, "I have five people now making AK-47 magazines – they're incredibly easy to reproduce."

That's in addition to the group's recent successes with producing actual gun receivers that work — even if the very first one broke after only six shots. Such success with a new technology is a clear sign of more to come as the technology, and expertise in using it, progresses. As Metro World News continued:

So how could the weapons be controlled? A spokesman for 3D print company Automaker said it is powerless; "we do not promote guns, but we cannot control the use of the product." Neither can government intervene effectively, says Michael Weinberg, attorney specializing in emerging technologies for the U.S. Public Knowledge think tank. "When you apply anger over gun control to a general purpose technology there's a lot of collateral damage", he said. "It's like if you regulate steel – a lot of productive areas would be lost. We don't know enough about 3D printing to legislate the future."

Basically, the cat is out of the bag. 3D printing means that prohibitions on mechanical devices — never successful in the past — are now more easily bypassed than ever.

Drugs, too, if a related technology known as chemical printing is any indicator. That technology is earlier in its development, but it holds promise for solving the orphan drug problem, and for making end-runs around drug prohibition. From the Huffington Post:

Recently, Professor Lee Cronin from the University of Glasgow has taken the idea of 3D printing a step further. He's using a $2,000 3D printer to print lab equipment–blocks containing chambers that connect to mixing chambers–and then injecting the desired ingredients into the chambers to produce organic and/or inorganic reactions that can yield chemicals, and in some cases new compounds. 

Just as early 3D printers were used for rapid prototyping, his new chemical printer can initially be used to rapidly discover new compounds.  And if you look at the development of 3D printers, it is not hard to see that in the near future you could print highly specialized chemicals and even pharmaceuticals. The team is currently working on printing ibuprofen, the main ingredient in popular painkillers. This, of course, raises a regulatory red flag, and it will be difficult to regulate what individuals in all parts of the world will do with access to the Internet and a 3D chemical printer.

Chemical printer

Of course, anybody who has ever grown their own dope or made black powder for the hell of it (and then blown up a windowsill — sorry, Mom!) knows that you don't need high-tech to render prohibitions irrelevant. The Ottoman Empire's ban on tobacco failed because people ignored it, technology aside. Bans fail because enough people to whom the prohibitions apply refuse to obey them. Advancing technology just makes it easier to ignore laws with minimal effort and risk.

My own belief is that laws are relevant only for defining the penalties for engaging in acts that virtually everybody agrees are wrong. When prohibitionists sputter, "so … so … should we just legalize rape because some people still do it?" they're missing the point. Rape is rightfully and effectively illegal because almost everybody in our society agrees it's wrong and should be punished. It also has a victim who generally takes great exception to being abused and is inclined to seek punishment for the criminals. Take a victimless activity and add a constituency that thinks it's a good thing and that the law is what's wrong, and you have the perfect makings for legal impotence.

It's tempting to say that the age of prohibition is over, but in terms of practical enforcement, it really never happened at all. Politicians will sputter this year about guns and next year about something else that sticks in their craw. But those of us who don't want to be restricted won't be. And technology is making our quest for continued freedom ever easier.