Once something is published on the Internet, it’s too late to take it back. Ask Anthony Weiner.
Pictured to the left is a 3D printer. As predicted here more than half a year ago, it is now a demonstrated reality that with downloadable plans and instructions, anyone can now print from plastic functionally all of the parts of a functional handgun, utterly free from regulation or supervision. Now that those plans have been published on the internet, if you want them, you can get them. And probably for free no matter what attempts to suppress the information are made by governmental authorities.
So what are we going to do about this?
The day after a dramatic demonstration of the printed single-shot .38 handgun hit the internet, Senator Chuck Schumer called it “stomach-churning” and called for legal controls and limits on the information and technology, a bill introduced by his colleague, Steve Israel, called the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act. Which is fine political theater, but in reality the bill would extend only a few provisions to an already-existing law.
And it would do functionally nothing to prevent someone from using information now available for free to anyone motivated enough to get from using it. This presumably includes the sort of person we can all agree ought not to have access to a firearm — someone mentally deranged, someone already convicted of murdering human beings with weapons. But remember: it’s already illegal for a convicted felon, mental patient, or about nine other kinds of dangerous people to have weapons that don’t show up in metal detectors.
For better or worse, we don’t really have much of a choice. Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed made that choice for us.* If he hadn’t, someone else would have. So now, we are going to have to live with what has happened. Senator Schumer cannot regulate the genie back in the bottle. Congressman Israel cannot legislate the ring back into the bell.
So far, here’s what we have to live with. The plans you can download today are for a single-shot weapon; it shoots once and it’s done. I’m no gunsmith, but it seems like it would be easy to modify the plans for a printed plastic gun to have multiple shots.
The bullet and the firing pin must still have at least some metal parts that cannot be created with the 3-D printer. Something has to spark the gunpowder. But in theory, these parts could be machined by a device also controlled by a home computer from small amounts of steel, which is easy to obtain and might not even need to be of particularly good quality.
And the bullet requires gunpowder. The recipe for many varieties of gunpowder are well-known already and it can be made at home from principal ingredients that can be readily obtained or extracted from a wide variety of common household products and from a set of tools to which anyone has access. The resulting weapon may not be the best gun. But if the machinery, printing, and chemistry is done right, it’ll be good enough to get the job done.
We already have lots and lots of guns, professionally-designed and professionally-smithed weapons. The United States is awash in them already without any of them being printed out of plastic, activated with home-machined firing pins, and armed with home-brewed gunpowder. Most people who own guns don’t kill other people with them. Even when they get really mad. If I can print a gun at home, chances are very good that I’ll still never use it to kill someone.
And I already own lots of things that I can kill people with even if there isn’t a gun in my house. Cars. Knives. Woodworking tools. Gasoline. Metal poles uses for gardening.† Bottles of wine and booze. If I really wanted to I could use any of these home weapons to kill. Not the best weapons imaginable, but they’d get the job done.
Yes, there is a difference between a gun and a knife; it’s easier to kill with a gun. And yes, household objects that might be used as weapons have other benign utilities. But a person who wants to kill is going to at least try to do it, with whatever weapon might be around. That’s the case even if we stipulate that the person in question is the sort of person we’d really rather didn’t have a weapon in the first place.
So what are we, as a society, going to do about the print-a-gun technology that now exists and is uncontrollably out in the world like a virus escaped from a lab in a science fiction movie? What shall we, as citizens, demand that our government do about this new technology? What can we do, as individuals, to protect ourselves from this insidious and undetectable threat? Given the paralysis about weapons that has gripped our body politic, the demonstrable inability of governmental regulation to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people, and the abilities and extant limitations of law enforcement to respond to people behaving violently, we may look at the advent of this new incremental advance in the proliferation of firearms and ask as Senator Schumer does, whatever will we do?
We will do nothing. Angrily and frustratingly for some, gleefully for others, and with a shrug of the rest of our shoulders, we will do nothing at all.
* Did he break the law when he did it? Doesn’t look like it. As I understand it, the plans released by Defense Distributed do not violate existing law because they include a sufficient amount of metal in an obviously extraneous non-functional metal part within the plans, such that if included, the printed weapon would show up in a standard metal detector or x-ray machine. It would be child’s play for anyone printing the gun to simply omit the non-functional hunk of metal that the plans superficially call for, and produce something with only a single bullet and a firing pin which may well be not enough metal to be detected and which would escape detection in all but the most sensitive sensing devices.
† In law school, my crimes professor brought in a murder weapon from a case she had tried as a prosecutor. The defendant, who had already been convicted of one murder, was awaiting trial on suspicion of a second murder of a fellow prison inmate. The State of California, in its infinite wisdom, decided to rehabilitate this fellow by teaching him metal shop skills while having him make road signs. Everybody wins, right? The shaft of the four-foot-long pole-axe this guy created to kill his third victim (also a fellow inmate) was instantly recognizable as the long steel post with holes drilled through it that street signs are displayed upon, and the business end had been filed down to a sharp point on one side and a rounded sharp blade welded to the other, so it could be used to both stab and slice. How he could have made it without being detected by some sort of supervisor is totally beyond me, but I held the thing with my own hands.