The Dangerous Precedent and Unstoppable Future of 3-D Printed Guns


"The first shots were fired from an ABS-polymer Beretta knockoff made by a 3-D printer. The plastic gun jammed after three shots, but the killer had prepared for this by printing several more copies of the same gun, which were strapped to his body beneath a black trench coat. These did not jam as quickly. When his handguns were exhausted, the killer unslung a partly plastic AR-15, fitted with a high-capacity 3-D printed magazine, and unloaded on terrified bystanders. Within minutes, 35 were dead, and another 11 wounded in the carnage.

Representatives of the manufacturer of the 3-D printer the killer used to create his weapons expressed their sincere condolences to the victims' families, but offered no other comment. Shares of the volatile stock dropped 12% in trading today..."

Nobody who respects human life wants to see this nightmare become a reality. Efforts may already be under way to prevent it in the future -- but regulating 3-D printing's software is not the answer, and regulating the end product is an exercise in reactive futility, as these weapons are untraceable by design. So what is the answer? What is the future of the 3-D printer in a world where guns can be created by anyone with the right design file, and what can be done to avoid the worst of what that world implies?

Wiki weapons for the technically minded terrorist
It won't be long before a fully functional ready-to-fire gun can be created in a 3-D printer. Parts have already been produced and test-fired successfully. Defense Distributed, a nonprofit "Wiki Weapon" collective of technically minded gun enthusiasts, intends to "produce and publish a file for a completely printable gun." Such effort makes little sense in a country awash in easily obtained guns -- 270 million of them, at last count -- but the world doesn't always make sense.

Over the past four years, gun maker Sturm, Ruger has soared to all-time highs on record sales, spurred by paranoid black-helicopter-confiscation conspiracy theories bleated ceaselessly on talk radio, and by a growing sense of mistrust and isolationism often promulgated by talk-radio bobbleheads. Defense Distributed's site asks, "How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet?" How do you stop the ATF thugs in black helicopters from coming to take your guns? The answer used to be: Buy more guns. Now that it's faintly possible that buying guns might become a little more inconvenient, the answer changes to Print more guns instead.

Blocked from crowdsourcing funds on Indiegogo, Defense Distributed took to raising money in Bitcoins, a semi-illicit all-electronic currency used primarily to buy drugs anonymously on the Internet. Stratasys was so alarmed by the group's stated intent that it rescinded its lease on a $16,000 printer last October, going so far as to send representatives to project leader Cody Wilson's home to get it back. Defense Distributed's focus has since narrowed to the lower receiver of an AR-15, the only part with a serial number and the one piece subject to real regulation. Low-cost 3-D printer company MakerBot, described as "reactionaries" in a Defense Distributed update, removed the file for that part from their Thingiverse pattern repository and has adopted a strict no-gun-files policy.

Defense Distributed has also successfully test-fired a high-capacity AR-15 magazine. The file to print that magazine has purportedly been downloaded over 50,000 times. There aren't even 50,000 3-D printers out in the wild yet. Think about that. The desire (or at least the curiosity) to print something that can hold 50 bullets is stronger than the desire to actually buy the printer to do so. The push for printed guns isn't going anywhere. Defense Distributed is today's public face. Tomorrow there might be no face, just a legion of angry men with assault rifles and Guy Fawkes masks, Anonymous with AK-47s.

Print me a revolution
Gun control advocates and liberal politicians are already trying to get out in front of tomorrow's threats. Rep. Steve Israel of New York has proposed a ban on 3-D printed magazines in a renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act, and is sure to expand his scope to cover any 3-D printed gun part as his office gathers more intel on the phenomenon. The existing act outlaws undetectable guns, specifically those made of plastic, but it already contains a giant loophole that Defense Distributed plans to blow open like a pumpkin hit with a point-blank rifle shot. Undetectable guns are perfectly aboveboard if made for prototyping purposes by a licensed manufacturer. Defense Distributed has already applied for a manufacturing license. The sensible and most likely regulatory response here would be to reject that application. However, considering the doggedness of the group's pursuit of this project so far, there's really no reason to expect them to suddenly stop trying if that happens. They might stop talking about it quite so much, though.

There is no reason to create a 3-D printed gun in the United States today. None. Anyone who cannot legally (or, heck, illegally) get their hands on one of the 270 million guns already in civilian hands more easily than they could print one out of plastic should not have a gun in the first place. The process costs more, the materials are weaker, the risk of catastrophic failure too high. The only reason to have 3-D printed guns is to avoid detection.

That won't be true forever. A typical handgun might cost $500 or so today, and it'll hold up a lot better than a plastic piece. A half-decent home-use 3-D printer usually runs you $2,000 or more. At five, 10, or 15 years in the future, the first price will probably be roughly the same while the second price will keep going down and the quality you can buy with it keeps going up. Print yourself four or five guns and you're already coming out ahead. That's what makes the 3-D printed gun such a huge legal and ethical challenge. Today we have crappy plastic parts that can only pull off a few shots at most. Tomorrow we might have printable metallic alloys. Heck, we have those already, just not in a form affordable to the average home user. 3-D printed guns probably will, in time, be easier to make and less expensive than a Ruger is right now. At that point, you'll probably see Sturm, Ruger and Smith & Wesson and all their pals start to support stricter regulations -- on 3-D printers, which will be vilified as tools of criminals and maniacs that just so happen to be crimping the ol' profit margin, too.

Regulated into irrelevance
The direction regulation takes will have a profound impact on the 3-D printing industry, just as copyright legislation has threatened the software industry and the Internet. Prolific sci-fi writer and technology activist blogger Cory Doctorow has already envisioned one future for 3-D printing regulations, as have other writers, and the outcome doesn't look pretty. Here's an excerpt from "Printcrime," first published in 2006:

The coppers smashed my father's printer when I was eight. I remember the hot, cling-film-in-a-microwave smell of it, and Da's look of ferocious concentration as he filled it with fresh goop, and the warm, fresh-baked feel of the objects that came out of it.

The coppers came through the door with truncheons swinging, one of them reciting the terms of the warrant through a bullhorn. One of Da's customers had shopped him. The ipolice paid in high-grade pharmaceuticals -- performance enhancers, memory supplements, metabolic boosters. The kind of things that cost a fortune over the counter; the kind of things you could print at home, if you didn't mind the risk of having your kitchen filled with a sudden crush of big, beefy bodies, hard truncheons whistling through the air, smashing anyone and anything that got in the way.

Other sci-fi writers, such as Charles Stross, have also envisioned a future world in which 3-D printers are tightly regulated and yet are frequently used to print up "contraband," whatever that may be. In such a future, according to Doctorow:

[T]he regulatory response is to build devices that have internal snitches that check to see if their owners are running naughty unlocking programs.... [T]he need to prevent the dissemination of snitchware countermeasures leads to widespread surveillance and censorship of the Internet.... [N]one of this actually works worth a damn at stopping bad guys. Instead, it creates a vicious cycle of more surveillance and more control to overcome the failings of the current round of censorship and surveillance.

Even if, say, 3D Systems were to build a consumer printer that had an always-on Wi-Fi chip that kept the machine connected to a central server to check constantly for contraband files, someone would find a way to strip the chip and make the printer work offline. Even if public design repositories like Shapeways and Thingiverse and Cubify police themselves and scrub the files that would print anything dangerous or otherwise unwelcome, dedicated users will find ways to get those files elsewhere. If Defense Distributed's site is taken down, it won't matter. There are already over 50,000 copies of their files out in the digital wilderness.

The genie is out of the bottle.

3-D printers may never reach critical mass in the home consumer market the way general-purpose computers have -- a point I've made before and see no reason to walk back from -- but contraband only needs the dedicated minority, not popular approval. Tightly regulating what these machines can make by default will ensure that the vicious cycle of Doctorow's vision becomes a reality. Give creative people a choice: Jump through a bunch of hoops to create under restrictions, or take a direct line to create anything you want with a vague risk of prosecution. Many will choose the latter option. This choice will also serve to hold back the popularity of legitimate on-demand 3-D printing manufacturing centers. Who would set up such an operation, at significant financial cost, if they felt that they might be prosecuted in the event that one non-approved creation sneaked through the cracks? Alternately, why go through the risk of regulatory approval when you can just be a 3-D bootlegger?

The 3-D printing industry has no lobbying power and no real supportive voice in the government. It took a coordinated effort by many of the Internet's biggest players just to turn back one threatening law. The entire 3-D printing industry together has nowhere near the financial clout or the public recognition of even one of those Internet leaders, so what hope do they have?

In the end, consumer 3-D printers will bring the possibility to create tools of death and destruction, no matter what anyone says about safety measures. Commercial-scale machines costing many thousands of dollars are more insulated, provided that operators self-police and block the creation of any contraband. It would be a similar arrangement to iTunes and other digital content delivery systems today, which stand as legal sanctuaries in a sea of torrent sites and Megauploads. Corporate power can protect its own backyard, but won't be able to do anything about the rest of the world.

The proper response is not to regulate the industry to within an inch of its life, but to examine the underlying drivers of gun violence and try to address them in a sensible way. Bullets could be regulated -- you can't print a working bullet because you can't print gunpowder. The sensationalism of mass murder could be met head-on. We could just go straight into Minority Report territory and prosecute pre-crime as well as post-crime.

Making 3-D printed guns a crime won't make 3-D printed guns go away. It'll just build a legal framework that restricts the growth of a legitimate technology with a wide range of possible uses. However, there's ample evidence that the government can and will walk right up to the edge of insanity when regulating something it doesn't really understand. If you truly believe in the future of 3-D printing technology, then you have to educate yourself and your elected representatives on what it can and can't be made to do. The last thing the industry needs is an unwinnable battle with an uneducated Congress.

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Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems and Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Sturm, Ruger & Company and has the following options: Short Jan 2014 $55 Calls on 3D Systems and Short Jan 2014 $30 Puts on 3D Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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