3-D printing is truly one of the most amazing technologies to emerge in recent years. It has already found a niche as a powerful tool for product designers. The future of 3-D printing will likely encompass items including customized clothing, house remodelings and food printouts (flat foods like pizza and chocolate are leading candidates).
But, then, just when everyone was busy embracing this wonderful and practical technology, the inevitable happened: The hands of death and destruction got hold of it.
For if you can save a person’s hand with bone implants printed to precisely match the patient’s, maybe you can also print out a gun for that hand to hold.
In fact, you can. And some people are already doing it.
Furthermore, anyone in possession of, or with access to, a 3-D printer (not so many, but that will quickly change), can use the technology to evade many of the existing legal restrictions on the possession of firearms.
Background checks to prevent gun sales to criminals, potential terrorists, and mental health patients, could easily be avoided. Why should a customer show himself in a gun store and submit to a federal I.D. check when he can anonymously obtain the digital materials for a do-it-yourself gun online? And since these weapons are printed from plastic rather than metal, getting past metal detectors at airports and other public places won’t be an issue at all.
In other words, if 3-D printing of firearms takes hold, gun control would be a lost cause. It would be rendered obsolete, consigned to the realm of legislative oblivion along with Prohibition, segregated water fountains and maximum highway speed limits of 55 miles per hour.
Until now, this diabolical invention has been illegal. However, as of August 1, the legal barrier to enabling any maniac to acquire, say, an AR-15 rifle with just a few clicks of the computer will be gone.
We mention the AR-15 because it has so often been the weapon of choice among mass shooters, as in Las Vegas, Orlando, Newtown and Parkland. And not for nothing. As the National Rifle Association has said, the civilian version of the U.S. Army’s M-16 semi-automatic “has so much to offer,” it practically sells itself: it’s “customizable, adaptable, reliable and accurate; its versatility makes it ideal for “sport shooting, hunting and self-defense situations,” according to the NRA.
The only feature the NRA left out was its effectiveness in the massacre of innocent people.
The legal breakthrough, or collapse, came last week, when Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, won his case against the U.S. State Department, which, under the Obama administration, had forced him in 2015 to shut down his website. But for reasons as yet unclear, the State Department decided to reach an agreement with Wilson allowing him to continue publishing his blueprints online. (He had been previously charged with violating export regulations on military hardware and technology, but these charges were dropped.)
Wilson has defended his right to purvey such killer weapons as part of the right to free speech, since he was merely sharing computer code, not distributing guns. But he also happens to be a self-proclaimed anarchist who thinks everybody should have a right to guns.
Wilson also contends that, practically speaking, the sharing of such information online cannot be stopped by a legislative ban. He has a point. The computer files to make simple guns at home have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times already, thanks in large part to him.
But giving 3-D printed guns legality will only make the problem worse.
“The current laws are already difficult to enforce — they’re historically not especially powerful, and they’re riddled with loopholes — and this will just make those laws easier to evade,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It not only allows this tech to flourish out of the underground but gives it legal sanction.”
Wilson agreed: “I can see how it would attract more people and maybe lessen the tactic of having to hide your identity. It’s not a huge space right now, but I do know that it’s only going to accelerate things.”
Of course, given his worldview, that’s something to look forward to.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been advocating a ban on the do-it-yourself gun technology, issued a call with Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida for an extension that would keep Defense Distributed from going back online in August.
At the same time, gun control groups including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, have mobilized on this crucial matter as well.
If ever there was a product that should be banned, this is it. It deserves automatic entry onto the varied list of public perils that were identified and put away over the years, like publishing bombmaking instructions, lawn darts and using asbestos as a building material.
Sometimes it takes years for governments to realize the dangers of an innovation. It may take a number of fatalities and injuries before the danger becomes evident.
By contrast, this is a case where the danger was easily identified, and was promptly acted on.
At a Senate hearing last week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was questioned by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) as to why the government should make it easier to get these weapons, he promised to “take a look at it.”
He should. Before August 1.