Let's print some guns

Somebody was going to do it sooner or later. And we have Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, to thank for the fact that, when it was finally done for the first time, the news media learned about it right away. All the same, now that somebody has used a 3-D printer to make a functional gun, we face a whole array of questions that up till now were hypothetical ones. But technology has a way of turning hypotheticals into facts.
What are the facts? For some years now, systems called “rapid prototype fabrication” or “3-D printing” have been available in various forms. People at my own university, Texas State University, have been active in this area for over a decade. When I arrived in 2000, I saw one such machine here in operation.
It worked this way: a roll of sticky paper would feed into an area where a computer-guided laser beam cut out a shape that was a thin cross-section of the object to be made, and position the cutout on top of the previous layer, affixing it with the sticky side down. Then the cycle would repeat with the next layer. In this way, shapes of arbitrary complexity could be gradually built up, although there were practical problems such as how to get rid of the excess paper, the many hours it took to construct even one small object, and the fact that when you were finished all you had was a “dummy” model made out of paper, instead of anything mechanically strong like plastic or metal. Still, the ability to realize a 3-D prototype shape was useful for design purposes, and many miles of paper went through the unit before it was superseded by later models that use more substantial materials. In fact, the field is still a subject of active research both at my school and elsewhere.
As often happens, technology that was initially so expensive that only giant firms like Boeing could afford it has now gotten cheap enough that impecunious law students such as Cody Wilson can rent or buy 3-D printing devices.
Mr Wilson is a member of an increasing cadre of young dedicated libertarians tending toward anarchy. It seems to me that libertarianism is a self-limiting phenomenon, in that while a functioning society can tolerate a certain number of individual libertarians, if everyone in a state followed libertarian principles there would be no state. And we’ve seen how bad life can get in states such as Somalia that effectively have no government.
Whatever the philosophy’s limitations as a principle of government are, individual libertarians are always fighting battles for various freedoms that they perceive have been infringed, and Mr. Wilson’s beef was that the government has unfairly restricted the access of the individual to guns.
There are apparently two goals in Mr. Wilson’s mind: an idealistic long-term goal and a more realistic near-term goal. The long-term goal appears to be the notion that if a person wants a gun (or anything else that is hard to buy legally but can be made with a 3-D printer), he or she can simply look up the plans on the onternet and print one in the privacy of home. Even during Prohibition from 1919 to 1933, when the US Constitution forbade the manufacture of intoxicating liquors, it was practically impossible to prevent homebrewers from making their own beer or wine in their basements, and many people did so. Perhaps Mr. Wilson is envisioning something of this kind with respect to guns.
His near-term goal was more realistic: to draw attention to the fact that 3-D printing technology has now become cheap enough and precise enough to allow even a student (though one who raised US$20,000 for the project online) to design, make, and successfully fire a working firearm with it. Reportedly, during the few days that Defense Distributed, Mr Wilson’s website, displayed the plans, the plans were downloaded over 100,000 times, so the gat is out of the bag, so to speak.
Now that we know it can be done, what should we do about it? Those of a libertarian persuasion would say, “Nothing,” and it’s possible that no new laws or regulations will result from what some would consider a stunt. Someone at the State Department did take it seriously enough to send Mr. Wilson a letter warning him that he had better take the plans off his website, and he did. It seems there are restrictions on transferring technical data to “a foreign person” which of course might include many of those 100,000 who downloaded the gun plans before the information was taken off the website.
Mr Wilson’s libertarianism does not extend to the limit of civil disobedience, but he has been working on this project for over a year and he says he intends to find a lawyer to help him further his cause.
The dismal imagination of an engineer can extend this quandary in other directions.  Suppose we develop cheap and inexpensive ways to synthesize complex chemicals in a table-top unit? How popular would the downloadable instructions for LSD or cocaine turn out to be? Fortunately, I’m not aware that the chemical engineers have anything like this up their sleeve, but stay tuned.
In the meantime, let’s be glad that nobody (to my knowledge) has invented all-plastic bullets yet, so even if someone manages to sneak a plastic pistol from a 3-D printer on an airplane, they’ll have to use metal bullets, and maybe those will be discovered by the eagle-eyed inspectors of the Transportation Safety Administration. And those folks are now using the latest millimeter-wave technology to see just such objects. So if working plastic guns start showing up all over the place, we at least have some technology that may be able to catch them before they do any real harm. Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics.


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