Printing guns, again

Cody Wilson / Wired YouTube  

Back in May of 2013, I blogged in this space about Cody Wilson, then a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, who had gotten in hot water with the US State Department for posting plans online for using 3-D printers to make guns.

At that time, the Obama administration’s State Department took a dim view of anybody encouraging the production of non-registered plastic guns with no serial numbers. The uses of such things for terrorism and other purposes was obvious, and while at least 100,000 people downloaded the plans before Wilson was forced to take them down, he said at the time he wasn’t abandoning plans for his company Defense Distributed to make such plans more widely available.

A lot of things have changed since 2013. Donald Trump is in the White House, 3-D printers have been getting cheaper, better, and more available, but Cody Wilson hasn’t given up his efforts. And last month they paid off, at least to the extent that the State Department notified him it was going to let him go online with his plans again after July 31.

Other than issuing a brief victory cry on Twitter, Wilson and his company have kept silent about the ruling, but a coalition of gun-control organizations filed suit in Federal court to block the ruling and keep Wilson from going public with his plans again. On Friday July 27, a Federal judge in Austin denied the coalition’s request, saying they were attempting to “litigate a political dispute in court.”

Lisa Marie Pane, a crime and justice reporter for the Associated Press, quoted gun-control advocate Nick Suplina, who said, "There is a market for these guns and it's not just among enthusiasts and hobbyists. . . There's a real desire and profit mode in the criminal underworld as well.”

But a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation discounted the notion that the availability of such plans will lead to a significant increase in gun-related crime, pointing out that 3-D printers are expensive, the plastic guns work poorly (if at all) and usually come apart after a round or two, and a criminal is more likely just to steal a weapon than to go to the trouble of 3-D printing.

My own take on this matter is that 3-D-printed guns are both inevitable and unlikely to change the situation in the US regarding gun safety. The inevitability comes from the rapid pace of advances in both performance and price of 3-D printers. In 2013, most people had not seen a 3-D printer in the flesh, so to speak, and they were still specialty items found mostly in universities and industrial research labs. But today, you can buy them online for less than US$200 (although the cheapest ones will make only toy guns, not real ones), and the technical skills needed to run such printers are being mastered by elementary-school children.   

That being said, if Cody Wilson and others like him make 3-D-printed gun plans easily available, will that lead to a flood of firearms that can pass through security checks and show up in the hands of terrorists and other criminals?

Somehow I don’t think so.

The availability of guns is only one term in the equation that equals gun violence. As gun-control advocates never cease to remind us, it is very easy to obtain a gun in the US, both legally and illegally. And criminals, being criminals, are not fastidious about using only legitimate means to get their weapons. The many channels through which the huge inventory of existing weaponry moves in this country means that most efforts to lower gun violence by cutting off the supply of guns are doomed to failure.

That doesn’t mean we should hand out derringers as door prizes. Reasonable restrictions on the purchase and use of guns to prevent spur-of-the-moment bad choices by people who are likely to misuse a gun are justifiable. But the other term in the gun-violence equation is the person holding the gun. And that is where the problem gets complicated.

Ever since Cain did in Abel, murder has been a part of human existence. Some cultures tend to be more violent than others, and one measure of the degree of civilization a culture possesses is how violent it is. For complicated reasons having to do with the way the nation was settled and the kinds of people who settled it, the United States is both a place where gun ownership is a lot more common than in many other countries, and also a place where guns are used fairly frequently in violent crimes.

I know people who both own guns and pose virtually no threat whatsoever to any law-abiding citizen with respect to gun violence. They have guns solely for means of self-protection or sports such as hunting, and if every gun owner were like these people, the rate of violent gun-related crime in the US would be zero.

But even one of these people could end up shooting somebody if the gun owner felt threatened. And aside from the rare psychopath who literally shoots people for fun, most gun-related deaths that are not accidental have some justification in the mind of the shooter. The best way to reduce gun violence is to create a culture in which no one, or almost no one, feels threatened enough to shoot their way out of the situation.

That’s a hard, long, complicated task—the work of generations, really. And it requires a kind of unity of purpose that is presently largely lacking in this country. It’s much easier to spot changes that threaten to increase the availability of guns and try to stop them, as gun-control advocates are doing to Cody Wilson. But I think we should spend at least as much energy on studying the cultural and spiritual conditions that lead to gun violence, and at a grass-roots level try to do something about them as well. 

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, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store. 


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