3D Printed Guns: Debating Inevitability

3d printed guns

3D printing and other forms of computer-controlled manufacturing have allowed nations, companies and even individuals the ability to go from consumers to producers. As this technology improves and costs drop, access to this technology and the ability of the technology itself will increase, making it possible for virtually anyone, anywhere to make virtually anything.

In May 2018, prominent US-based corporate-funded policy think tank, RAND Corporation, had published an article titled, “Four Ways 3D Printing May Threaten Security.” In it, an argument was made about the dangers of 3D printing becoming more accessible, first by citing 3D printed guns as well as drones and other forms of technology it claimed criminals and terrorists could leverage. But then RAND would reveal a threat, particularly to its corporate sponsors, that highlighted the true fears 3D printing invokes among the captains of established industries — decentralization.

The fear of 3D printing “taking jobs” for example, can more accurately be described as taking both jobs and revenue from large corporations and shifting them both to small companies or individual entrepreneurs. Along with this shift, goes the concentration of wealth and influence these large corporations have enjoyed, some since as early as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

RAND also feared nations targeted by US sanctions being able to easily circumvent them by acquiring the parts and systems required by simply manufacturing them themselves through the use of technology like 3D printing. In reality, RAND and other representatives of established industries seem more concerned about losing their wealth and influence than of any “threat” such technologies might or might not actually pose.

3D Printed Guns 

The notion of 3D printed guns has been around for a while. Cody Wilson of US-based Defense Distributed has promoted a vision of home-based gun manufacturing, leveraging 3D printing and a peer-to-peer (p2p) network of online files shared much the way other online 3D model libraries are organized.

Wilson had been fighting a legal battle to protect his and others’ rights to manufacture and share the designs of their guns. In an article by Engadget titled, “You can legally download 3D-printed gun designs next month,” the results of that legal battle were reported:

3D gun printing advocate Defense Distributed has emerged triumphant in a legal battle to freely publish online blueprints that could allow users to manufacture firearms.

The victory spells the end of an ongoing lawsuit against the US Department of State — which in 2013, forced Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson to pull down files from the DEFCAD website because they violated International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) protections. The State Department argued that blueprints of Wilson’s ‘Liberator’ pistol, which had already been downloaded more than 100,000 times, were classified as ‘exports’ and could therefore not be distributed according to law.

The article was shared by Grindhouse, a DIY biohacking group that specializes in human augmentation through the use of biotechnology, another field in which advances in technology are manifesting themselves, quite literally in the hands of ordinary people. Under Grindhouse’s Facebook post, a refreshingly complex discussion developed, far beyond the pro-anti gun debate typical in American politics.

The notion of greater personal responsibility was mentioned, but also the possibility of gun manufacturers having their monopolies and revenue threatened by distributed firearms manufacturing by individuals and small businesses. While the technology for individuals to do this today is still prohibitively expensive, it will not be in the near future as better 3D printers and printers capable of printing in metal find their way into homes around the globe.

Just as RAND and other representatives of corporate monopolies have tried to raise alarm over 3D printing in an effort to protect their respective industries, efforts to register, restrict and constrain the use of 3D printing by citing the possible widespread proliferation of homemade weapons seems very likely to follow Defense Distributed’s legal victory.

Push Back? 

Manufacturing your own firearms is dangerous. Poorly constructed firearms, or even well-made firearms that are poorly cared for, can cause harm, even death to the operator and bystanders. It is possible that after Defense Distributed’s legal victory, interests seeking to restrict 3D printing may use accidents involving 3D printed firearms as a pretext to finally implement stricter controls over 3D printing technology altogether.

Stopping individuals with 3D printers from printing anything is virtually impossible.

Attempts to impose software and intellectual property controls on printers has been proposed and tried, but has proven impractical. Thus, interests seeking to impede the proliferation of 3D printing technology, because it threatens their non-firearms related business, may use fears of 3D printed firearms as a pretext to restrict the sale and ownership of 3D printers once and for all.

And while such legislation may be passed in nations like the United States or across Europe, it is unlikely such restrictions will pass everywhere, granting nations with more permissive laws to surpass the US and Europe in this key technological field. While industries may in short run protect their monopolies, in the long run they will find themselves far behind competitors elsewhere.

For many established industries, it is an inevitability that advanced manufacturing technology will redistribute their wealth and influence to individual entrepreneurs, meaning that attempts to slow down or stop 3D printing today is an exercise in futility tomorrow.

These industries should invest instead in reorganizing their business models and making an orderly transition toward a more distributed economy in the intermediate future.

3D printing, biotechnology, artificial intelligence and other forms of advanced and rapidly improving technology will all find their way into more hands and chip away at established industries and institutions. The advancement of technology is exponential, not linear and traditional planning and economic modelling to envision how this technology will shape civilization tomorrow will produce a distorted view and equally distorted decision making.

Instead of pushing back against 3D printing and other forms of technology making into the population’s hands, policymakers and established industries should be preparing for this inevitability, or face having no say when it finally does come to be.

For those fearful of guns being 3D printed and then used by criminals, they should begin understanding and then addressing what actually drives certain individuals to violence.

Understanding that socioeconomic factors, not merely access to firearms drives violence, will open up the possibility to more practical solutions to diminish gun violence. Gun control efforts are already proven ineffective, and with 3D printing, soon to be rendered impossible. 3D printing will bring with it greater individual wealth and influence, but with it, society will have to learn to live with the greater individual responsibility that comes with it.

Ulson Gunnar, a New York-based geopolitical analyst and writer especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”, where this article first appeared.