The right to bear 3D-printed arms

The US authorities are armed to the teeth, and we're panicking about citizens printing out rubbish guns?

James Woudhuysen

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Do you have $8,000, a knack for design, some finely ground nylon powder, some acetone to harden it up with, and a few days of free time?

Then, as the whole world knows now, you can buy a Dimension SST 3D printer from Stratasys and, with the appropriate software, rather slowly squirt yourself the dozen-or-so components to assemble a .38 calibre ‘Liberator’ gun. Parts for that gun are broadly undetectable by airport scanners, even if there is controversy over whether or not it needs a metal firing pin to be effective. Still: after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and the extensive use of guns by the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, surely it’s time, many argue, if not to ban 3D printers, then certainly to establish strict controls over their purchase and use?

It might appear that way. Okay, it was Defense Distributed, a group of right-wing libertarian students in the US, that pioneered the new, Wild West application of 3D printing, which is more often employed, at present, to make miniature plastic toy figures. Okay, so the gun on offer now won’t shoot very straight much beyond 10 metres, and, after a few rounds, is quite likely to explode – to the detriment of the person squeezing the trigger. Yet given the remarkable pace of advance in 3D, the cost of and time needed to fashion guns this way is set to fall, while the accuracy and durability of lethal 3D-printed weapons should rise.

Yes, to buy a gun from a shop in the US is presently much cheaper and less hassle than to take the route of DIY gun-making through 3D. But if and when President Obama overturns the recent decision by the US Congress to reject state-enforced ‘background checks’ on individuals buying guns, it might seem wise to insist on similar checks for those buying 3D printers.

Well, it might seem wise, and already the US State Department has got Defense Distributed to take down from the web the software for the gun – though not before 100,000 people had downloaded it. However, to enforce further bans would be the wrong response.

At the very outset, we should recall that loyalists in Northern Ireland were able to circumvent the law by building homemade guns back in the 1970s. Also, even if they don’t carry missiles just yet, $765 aeroplane drones and helicopter drones are already being built using 3D printers. On top of this, we need to remember that European know-alls, showing their perennial debt to America’s Democrats, love, for their own narrow reasons, to anathematise the country’s laws on guns, or rather the relative lack of them. As one high-profile British journalist uncomprehendingly put it after Sandy Hook, ‘Only in America would it even be a matter for debate that, in the wake of another horror, gun ownership should be controlled’.

So let’s back up a bit, avoid cheap shots, and take a sober look at 3D printers and gun control in the US.

Euphoria and dystopias around 3D printing

For zealous partisans of 3D capitalism, it is all about ‘democratising manufacturing’: it’s ‘the first real challenge to the traditional top-down economics of mass production for manufactured goods’. This view of 3D printing and of IT reveals more about the author’s crimped conception of democracy than about 3D. Although technology has many merits, it can never, by itself, bring about a more open or freer society – any more than Twitter, electronic voting or e-government, the Great White Hope of Labour’s old deputy prime minister, John Prescott. Techno-euphoria notwithstanding, democracy is always a political question, to do with people; it is never to do with the precise arrangement of zeroes and ones in the sub-atomic realm of the digital.

On the other hand, 3D is only the latest in a long line of technological innovations whose disruptive effects on society have instilled fear in ruling circles. From the spread of kahveh – coffee – to Christendom, through the printing press and on to the motor car, prohibitions and restraints have attended every new breakthrough. Indeed, such is the prevalence of risk consciousness today, one need usually only write about an advance in the future for naysayers to rush in and demand that it be regulated, or stopped outright… before it has even happened.

Imagine, for a moment, that the laser, invented in 1957, was instead invented in 2013. At once, ‘campaigners’, that ubiquitous weasel word, would demand that it be controlled or banned. Bye-bye laser surgery, laser pointers, DVD players, laser cutting in factories, the use of lasers in holography, their deployment as a means of bringing about nuclear fusion, and, indeed, their use in 3D scanning and printing. Would we want that? After all, lasers also guide missiles, and will, in the hands of the US military, soon become heavy-duty weapons in their own right.

A related issue here is whether prohibitions on a new technology can actually work – or whether they will in fact exacerbate the problems they are meant to confront, by driving problematic users of that technology underground. In this matter, America’s prewar experience with an old technology, the production of alcohol, is instructive. Lasting from 1920 to 1933, alcohol-free Prohibition never worked, but instead led to a big rise in criminality and the inglorious reign of Chicago gangster Al Capone.

Of course, nobody today is calling for the eradication of 3D printing on account of its murderous potential. Yet calls to limit and regulate 3D printing will certainly multiply.

Too bad. The genie of 3D-printed guns is already out of the bottle. It will simply not be possible to restrict 3D to purely civilian applications.

The question of guns in America

Apart from the reception that greets technologies in general, there is the specific politics that surrounds the right to bear arms in the US. That right is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution (1791), which states: ‘A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.’

For the sage London Review of Books, the second clause here, as upheld by America’s courts, leads to ‘roughly 12,000 murders a year’. However, to take the right position on gun control in the US, we need to go beyond such a reductive logic. Words on a piece of paper do not cause killings, any more than a 3D-printed plastic gun. It is people and social conditions that create violence. Changing society, not the statute book, is the best hope Americans have for ending acts of random violence.

For more than two centuries, the Second Amendment has been the subject of a great deal of legal and textual wrangling. In all the argument and counterargument, it has been easy to forget the historical context in which the Amendment was framed: revolutionary distaste for Europe’s standing armies, and a resultant animus toward the arbitrary dictatorship of the state (1). It has also been easy to forget that, after the American Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1868, was one of the first groups to favour gun control – to aid its efforts to confiscate the arms that freed blacks had for the first time got hold of during their service in the Union army (2).

Nor do liberal critics of America’s gun laws today care to remember that when, in 1967, California became the first state to pass laws against carrying loaded weapons, it did so at the behest of Don Mulford, a conservative Republican state assemblyman keen to repress the armed radicals of the Black Panther movement. Who signed the Mulford Act into law? The state governor – Ronald Reagan, a man still, ironically, revered by America’s National Rifle Association (3).

So let’s be clear about the Second Amendment and gun control. We are not talking about the right to hunt animals. We are not talking about the fact that deaths on America’s roads far exceed deaths through malevolence. Disregard, too, the fact that, in America’s rural areas, the right to defend oneself against a violent intruder makes sense, given that intervention by even the most benevolent police car in such areas will usually take a long time to arrive.

Nor is it entirely relevant that a city like Washington, DC, which has one of the strictest regimes of gun control in the US, has one of the highest murder rates. Set aside, as well, the fact that US gun ownership is high in rural areas and among whites, but murder rates are highest in urban areas and among blacks. Forget, too, the evidence that US ownership of handguns doubled in the late twentieth century, yet murder rates declined – or that for more than two centuries, Britain’s controls on guns were as lax as America’s, yet murder rates in Britain were lower (4).

None of this quite convinces, anyway. No, the point about guns in America is actually much more simple. As the police-military lockdown of Boston after the recent bombings shows, the US state knows no bounds in its willingness to flout the law and subject entire city populations to armed encirclement, armed surveillance, and armed house-to-house searches. In America, the authorities can put a helicopter gunship outside your bedroom window within minutes, if they so choose. So in this context, to advocate controls on guns, and even on automatic weapons, is to confer yet more power on a state that, under Obama, has already arrogated to itself the right to assassinate US citizens on US soil.

It’s true that the Boston lockdown was temporary and enjoyed popular support. It’s also true that, while the overbearing power of the government in America has yet to acquire all the trappings of a police state, 3D-printed guns will add little to the diminutive arsenal that the US populace has by comparison with that of the state. But why give that state still more licence physically to disarm critics? For the moment, the right to bear arms is just a very modest personal protection against the might of a state that is still, rapidly and palpably, losing many of the vestiges of democracy. Deaths at the hands of individual losers, nutcases and even children, like deaths at the hands of gangs, are always completely regrettable. However, the trauma that such deaths create among victims’ families cannot and should not be used to justify an extension of the already massive clout wielded by the US state.

It is entirely human that, after a mad shooting spree, emotions run high. But it would be a mistake to allow such emotions to govern policy on 3D printers. After all, a kitchen knife, made conventionally, can be used to kill a husband, wife or child. Yet that doesn’t make even US legislators demand strict state controls on domestic cutlery


The turning of 3D printers towards weapons applications marks an important stage in the development of the technology. In many ways, it is a worrying development, if a predictable one. However, the invention of 3D-printed guns cannot be reversed. These are harsh facts, but facts all the same.

What has really happened is clear enough. 3D-printed guns have emerged at just the same moment that there has been a vocal debate over gun laws in the US. As a result, Americans arrive at the issue of 3D-printed guns with longstanding preconceptions, whether they are for or against gun laws. In this context, a crude plastics assembly, and the plans with which to build future assemblies, simply form a cipher for the broader debate on guns in America. 3D printing may give further impetus to gun ownership in the US – but tens of millions of guns already circulate in that country.

Liberal advocates of gun control can fulminate against the ‘gun lobby’ as much as they like. Yet on top of their amnesia on the historical origins of gun control, they add myopia about more recent state violence. Every Tuesday, Obama famously decides who, abroad, should be wiped out through drone attack. Back in the US, the Democratic Party regime of Bill Clinton had no compunction in pursuing measures against a Christian sect in Waco, Texas, that led to the deaths of 76 men, women and children in 1993. Judges, juries, fair trials, habeas corpus? Such trifles have long been going out of style in the US, as in Britain.

3D printing did not cause these assaults on liberty. To try to restrict it in the name of keeping the peace would be a great error. Restraints on 3D printing would impair the potential of the technology to bring new products and more wealth to the world. To repudiate such restraints might seem incendiary and heartless; but to demand them will only embolden the enemies of democracy.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and co-author of Energise: a future for energy innovation.

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