Friday, December 27, 2013

Printed Guns: Probably Not the Next Big Thing

I was vaguely aware that there were such things as 3D printers. I had skimmed a few tech blogs about the coming revolution in manufacturing etc., but I didn’t really care. I still felt burned from 20 years ago, when Virtual Reality headsets came out and the British science fiction author JG Ballard suggested that now anything was possible and one day we would all be able to shoot JFK in the head.

In fact, VR meant stumbling about in a badly rendered digital landscape with a bucket on your head.
It turns out that 3-D printing is different, that maybe it is something useful – even dangerous. This weekend, for instance, somebody downloaded and printed out a handgun, which he then successfully fired on a shooting range not far from where I live in Texas. On Monday, the blueprints for the gun – named The Liberator – were posted online for free and downloaded 50,000 times.
Naturally, I went to the Defense Distributed website to download it myself,
but when I found out that the site owners wanted me to add all sorts of junky programs to my computer, I changed my mind. I wasn’t actually going to make the gun, I just wanted a memento.
Looking at pictures of The Liberator, however, I have to say that even if I had wanted to print one, I wouldn’t have bothered. It looks like a bad toy, below Chinese sweatshop quality even. Indeed, as a Texas resident who has seen many guns and handled a few, I found myself wondering who on earth would want to own that blob of white and blue plastic?
Well, apparently that’s not really the point. I read an interview with Cody Wilson, the University of Texas law student who is the front man for Defense Distributed. He is no frothing gun nut, but rather a highly articulate philosophical anarchist, who waxed lyrical about ending the state’s “monopoly on violence.” Indeed, he came across as a Second Amendment evangelist, who dreamed of a world in which anyone anywhere could download and print out their very own plastic firearm – so long as a $10,000 3-D printer was in the vicinity, of course.
Guns aside, Wilson had other plans, and spoke of creating a 3-D printing version of Pirate Bay, where the blueprints for expensive prosthetic limbs and other useful items could be put up for free download. As is usual with such utopian schemes, the economics of who will fund research into more advanced prosthetics when anyone can download for free models that cost a lot of money to develop was left unanswered.
But that is in the future. Downloadable guns are already here. The response has been fairly predictable: horror, outrage, etc. The New York senator Chuck Schumer wants to ban them. Indeed, they would already be illegal, as undetectable firearms are quite sensibly forbidden in the US; but Cody Wilson was shrewd enough to make the plans incomplete, requiring the downloader to go out and buy a nail to complete this gun. That little piece of metal makes The Liberator detectable to scanners, and thus legit.
I understand Schumer’s concern. Even so, I am not sure if The Liberator is quite as big a deal as its proponents and opponents are making out. For a start, it’s totally impractical. Why would anybody spend $10,000 on a 3-D printer to print a single shot plastic piece of junk that doesn’t shoot very straight, when you can walk into any gun store in the country and buy something infinitely better for a couple of hundred bucks?
But what about those people who can’t buy legal guns – terrorists and gangsters, for instance? I still don’t see that The Liberator would appeal to them – they seem to be rather adept at getting their hands on much better weapons already. Meanwhile, if you really want to make a homemade gun, you can already download instructions on the web and put something together from parts found in a hardware store. The same goes for bombs.
Thus, while the birth of The Liberator is unnerving, I think the true meaning of the event is unknown to us at present. So the knee-jerk outrage from the usual quarters is, I think, unwise – as knee jerk outrage always is.
Consider the case of The Hitman’s Handbook, for instance. This guide to professional killing was for years available through mail order. Then one day it was found in the possession of a murderer. The family of the victim sued the publisher, who rather than fight a long and expensive court battle, settled out of court, meanwhile agreeing to pulp all remaining copies of the book and to give up the copyright. It sounds fair and reasonable, only the book immediately entered the public domain and today anybody with an Internet connection can download it for free.
Unintended consequences can make fools of the best of us, never mind grandstanding politicians like Schumer. Better to wait and think before taking any drastic action over The Liberator, no matter how reasonable that action might at first sound.
And while we’re waiting: Anyone fancy downloading a plastic grenade?