Civil Liberties

Wishful Thinking Is Control Freaks' Last Defense Against 3D-Printed Guns


Farhad Manjoo

After Defense Distributed published video of a successul test of a 3D-printed handgun, the responses came fast and furious: politicians, including Rep. Steve Israel and Sen. Chuck Schumer proposed legislation that would ban the sort of plastic gun made by Defense Distributed, but would be utterly impotent to prevent people from ignoring the law and carrying on as home armorers. Now comes Slate's Farhad Manjoo to play the role of Kevin Bacon in Animal House, bellowing, "remain calm, all is well!" Gun control still is relevant, he insists, because new laws and technological fixes can head off a rush of DIY weapons.

For starters, Manjoo assures us that the "Liberator" pistol created by Defense Distributed's Cody Wilson is no big deal:

Don't fall into Wilson's trap. Though it's a clever stunt, the printable gun does nothing to weaken the case for gun control—and, in the long run, it might well strengthen it. That's because, for the foreseeable future, the printed gun can't compete with manufactured weapons. It's more expensive, less durable, and a worse shot than any gun you can buy from a store.

Well … That's true. The very first proof of concept gun created on a 3D printer can't compete with commercial products. But technology and technique alike are evolving fast, and it's obvious that home manufacturing of anything and everything is on the verge of an enormous revolution. Nobody thought we'd be at this point so quickly. What will be possible with the designs and machines of a year or five years from now?

Manjoo next appeals to the Hollywood war against file-sharing as a model for controlling the online distribution of information:

When music went digital, sales of physical media plummeted and piracy became rampant, draining the profits of the major record companies. With his 3-D gun plans—which he's making available online for free—Wilson could bring about the same forces in the gun industry. If you can make your gun at home for just the price of plastic, why would you ever buy a real weapon? And if the 3-D gun starts to look like a real alternative, why would the weapons industry support this disruptive new enterprise? Wouldn't gun manufacturers instead fight the rise of printable guns—perhaps by advocating the same tough laws that Hollywood has successfully pushed against file-sharers?

Never mind that the war against file-sharing has gone so well that file-sharing continues to boom, and has bred new technologies to accommodate the practice. The war against file-sharing is rooted in alleged intellectual property violations. Defense Distributed's plans for the Liberator are their unique creation and their intellectual property — they're free to distribute those plans as they wish.

Manjoo then appeals to the "3-D gun movement's fundamental error—their belief that information can't be controlled." That's right, he sees salvation through the power of censorship:

[I]f the authorities set their mind to it, they can bankrupt you for sharing songs online. Countries where guns are already strictly curbed could impose similarly harsh measures against the distribution of plans for 3-D guns—and if they enforce them strictly, they might well limit their availability.

Frankly, I have a hard time believing that U.S. courts that found the sharing of source code for once strictly regulated encryption software to be protected  by the First Amendment won't see similar free speech concerns in the sharing of firearms designs on the Internet. And the Internet is a world-wide network; you need only one jurisdiction friendly to free speech to defeat censorship efforts elsewhere. Internet censorhip has never been successful, and it seems a faint hope for controlling the distribution of 3D printer designs.

Manjoo then suggests curbs on 3D printers:

[I]t's conceivable that lawmakers would impose severe restrictions on the 3-D printer industry, which, of course, isn't protected by the Second Amendment. Lawmakers could require 3-D printer manufacturers to prevent their machines from printing certain files—in the same way your DVD player can't play movies from a different region—and impose harsh penalties for circumventing those rules. They could even make you register your printer the way you've got to register your car.

Is there anybody left who doesn't know how easy it is to bypass those region restrictions on a DVD player or computer? Even if some variant of "region restriction" software were built into 3D printers — say, the sort comparable to the type that's supposed to prevent photocopiers and printers from knocking off currency — it would have an even tougher job of recognizing ever-morphing 3D designs than printers do of recognizing relatively static images of $20 bills. And that restrictive software has been so (un)successful that 60 percent of counterfeit bills recovered in recent years were created on ink-jet printers.

And how do you regulate the use of a registered 3D printer once it's installed in a home workshop? And even if registration somehow mattered, what do you do about RepRap-style printers made by other printers?

Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist, by the way. Slate might want to tighten their hiring practices.

A better take on the 3D printer story and the limits of legislative responses comes from Mother Jones, where Tim Murphy writes:

But there's a problem with Schumer's pitch: The legislation in question would not stop the guns from being made. Israel's bill is mostly a reauthorization of the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which was originally written to combat the anticipated onslaught of fully-plastic Glocks. (It was an onslaught, Bloomberg Businessweek's Paul Barrett explained, that never really materialized.) It's not especially controversial, and part of the reason is that it doesn't take many significant steps to stop 3D-printed weapons from being printed.

Both Manjoo and Murphy note that so many guns are already in circulation that 3D printed guns aren't necessary. But Murphy seems to get that something new is in the works, here — a development that really is very likely beyond government control, even if it's not a practical concern in the short run.

And on that note, don't miss my column on how technology is empowering individuals to defy and ignore the ever-grasping control freaks who seek to rule over us.