What will the world be like when you can download and print a gun?
So asked the New York Times a few weeks ago. Apparently, the paper of record has discovered 3D-printing, the ability to “print” objects by spraying layers of specially designed compounds. The technology isn’t all that different from spraying ink on paper. It’s just a heck of a lot cooler.
3D-printing wasn’t around when I was in school, but then again neither was the Internet. Today my son teaches college sophomores how to print things in the school’s engineering laboratory. Design it on the computer, hit return, and then like magic (to me, anyway) watch the object get built up layer-by-layer before your very eyes.
Capitalism, when allowed to do so, makes everything get better and cheaper. That includes 3D-printers. The first models costs tens of thousands of dollars. Today you can get basic ones for a few hundred bucks. Eventually they’ll be like their 2D-cousins. If you have a computer, you’ll have a 3D-printer next to it.
What exactly can you make with one of these? In theory, anything with blueprints. Parts that nestle inside each other, moving parts, gears, springs, it doesn’t seem to matter. That will include, eventually, guns.
No one has yet made a fireable weapon using only a 3D-printer. The machining tolerances for parts made from the compounds in current devices are impressive, but not yet small enough to construct a firearm from scratch. Nor can they, at least right now, withstand temperatures high enough to contain combustion without melting. But parts of a gun that don’t require high heat or machine tolerance can be downloaded and printed today. The blueprints are, of course, available online.
In light of recent events, downloadable guns are a sobering thought. But given the technological trends it’s only a matter of time. There’s nothing about printable weapons that violate the laws of physics. It’s just a matter of finding the right materials with the right properties. Human genius, I predict, is going to do just that.
Human genius won’t be devoted to this effort just for the sake of making downloadable guns. That’s a tiny, tiny slice of a multi-billion dollar market. Being able to print customized, precise, durable objects from sprayable metal in the privacy of your own home is a game-changer, a paradigm shift in how things get made. It’s going to upset a lot of people, who are going to demand that “something be done”.
The left, for example, will demand regulation of downloadable firearms. On the right, corporations threatened by in-home manufacturing will demand regulation to protect their economic interests. Both may get their way. Neither, ultimately, will work.
We have parallels in the early attempts to regulate the Internet 20 years ago. Regulations that tried to distinguish “good” bits from “bad” ones failed because the technology just doesn’t care. The bits that tell a computer to make a firearm will be no different from those that make a baby’s rattle. That is the reality where we are headed.
Frightening? Perhaps. But any new technology is scary at first. The printing press, the telephone, in-vitro fertilization, the Internet, all these were once met with weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. But once we get over the shock factor, we adjust, evolve, and move on.
First a chicken in every pot, then a car in every garage. Can we live with a factory in every home, even one that can make a pistol? I think the answer is yes. I’m not worried about violence in the streets. The best evidence we have says we’re getting less violent as a species, not more.
But in any case, I don’t think we’re going to have much choice. The ability for individual consumers to manufacture just about anything they want is in our future. Here’s hoping we make the best of it.
Did I mention that 3D-printers could someday print themselves?
Barry Fagin is a Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute in Denver, a national ACLU Civil Liberties Award winner, and a successful Supreme Court plaintiff in the Internet censorship case of Reno v. ACLU et al. His views are his alone. Readers can write Dr. Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.