On a firing test range in Texas, Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed recently demonstrated the first successful test firing of a 3D-printed gun.
In doing so, Wilson and his team also fired the shot heard ‘round the maker world.
Not only did they demonstrate that it’s possible to fire multiple rounds from a weapon constructed almost entirely of ABS plastic, they also uploaded the computer-aided design, or CAD, files (think, “blueprints”) for the gun, called the “Liberator”, to the Internet, so that anyone with the hardware and technological know-how can create their version. In one day, 50,000 copies of the gun blueprints had been downloaded around the world Wilson told The New York Daily News.
The debate over gun control has spilled even further into the technology sector, raising warning flags for makers and technologists everywhere. The 3D printed gun will force not just politicians, but also makers, to re-think and reappraise where they stand when it comes to technology, privacy and the benefits—or drawbacks—of the cloud and crowdsourcing.
After all, is the Liberator a “firearm”—or is it just an amalgamation of 15 pieces of plastic and a metal nail (the firing pin) you can buy at a hardware store—all snapped together the way you’d build a LEGO set? How do you ban people from carrying around pieces of plastic and a nail? Does wedging a 6-ounce piece of (easily detectable) metal into the plastic gun successfully circumvent the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act?
In short, what makes the 3D-printed gun so dangerous is that it muddies the waters of the gun control debate in a way that makes it harder for proponents of gun control and technologists to agree on exactly what they mean.
We’re now able to imagine, create and manufacture things that were outside the realm of possibility for some of the most creative pioneers of 3D printing. Since the designs for the Liberator are available to download for free, should we even be regulating it as a gun—or as a piece of intellectual property? Should the CAD files being downloaded worldwide fall under Internet censorship guidelines? Even Wilson admits that, when it comes to this new world of possibilities, “it’s kind of scary”.
As a result, lawyers, lobbyists and politicians are struggling to keep pace. For now, politicians such as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) appear to be going after the the 3D-printed gun via the Undetectable Firearms Act, claiming that the plastic parts could be easily transported and re-assembled anywhere, and potentially by terrorists. And, in cities such as New York, that’s a particularly scary prospect—so much so that Monday’s New York Post featured “Print and Shoot: Gun from 3-D Copier Sparks Terror Fears” on its cover.
That the political focus seems to be on “shutting down 3D printing technology for guns” rather than “shutting down guns,” is something that should give makers pause. Tech companies were not intended to be policemen, and that’s increasingly what they are being called on to be, supervising their users. New York-based 3D printing company Shapeways, for example, quickly issued a statement saying that it would not support 3D printed guns:
“We have checks and balances in place throughout the printing process to ensure that these items are not printed. Additionally, any files containing such content will be promptly removed and those respective users will be notified immediately. Shapeways does not hold a firearms license, nor intend to.”
Placing the burden of proof on tech companies to police their users could have a chilling effect on innovation. The current legal framework feels clunky and inefficient, woefully unprepared for responding to rapid technological change. And, in the end, that system may end up hurting 3D printing companies, rather than hurting the actual bad guys. When the “killer app” for a technology is actually a “killer app,” it raises a host of difficult moral, philosophical and ethical questions that could complicate an already difficult political and constitutional issue currently dividing the nation.
To learn more about 3D-printed guns and the current state of the gun debate in America read The Washington Post series “Guns in America.”