My Gun . . . and I Made It (3D Printing, Part 2)
The cascade of current events – from post-9/11 threats to the Newtown tragedy – and the widespread availability of current conventional gun technology . . . these are hard facts, a part of the world we live in.
The right to keep and bear arms, a right protected by 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, has never been questioned. What’s always been a focus of concern is the amendment’s interpretation – an interpretation which is constantly being stretched and pulled by intense arguments and fierce emotion.
So what happens to the amendment’s interpretation if an individual – someone with some money, time, and average computer skills – is able to press a button at home . . . and make his own gun, right now, entirely out of plastic?
The new, growing technology of 3D printing – hailed for its promise in the fields of medicine, space exploration, and general manufacturing – seems to offer just such a soon-to-be reality. In truth, the technology is years and years away from that realization – even though it’s an idea already being played up by Hollywood, television, and thriller novelists.
Nonetheless, the potential – the ability to create a non-detectable firearm – is what scares some people and has made government agencies, here and abroad, uneasy. It is viewed by the U.S. government as a very real threat to national security – a non-detectable, “scan-proof” weapon which could be used at airports and on aircraft, at other ports of U.S. entry and on other conveyances, at public buildings, etc.
Yes, certain attempts have been made already, to “print” a functional firearm using 3D technology. Case in point: Earlier this year the Department of Defense and the State Department forced a private company, Defense Distributed, to censor making 3D handgun plans available on the Internet – a single-shot pistol known as “The Liberator” (a namesake reference to the original once used by the French resistance during WWII). The plans had been downloaded as many as 100,000 times before this shutdown – with many downloads occurring overseas.
The irony is, the present-day plastic Liberator is no better than its notoriously-unreliable WWII predecessor (it could be equally fatal to the user as to the intended target). A gun-and-tech guru quipped about the new “plastic toy”: “I’d rather be in front of a Liberator than behind it.”
And very recently in England, tactical police – acting on a tip – stormed a house in Manchester. Hoping to seize a trove of high-tech plastic firearms threatening British homeland security, instead they ended up confiscating a 3D printer and one non-working gun (a spokesperson remarked that the “gun” looked like an inept, badly-made, non-functioning Pez dispenser).
So, can today’s 3D plastic guns legitimately be seen as modern firearms?
No. 3D printing is nowhere near the technical level where it can make guns comparable with modern firearms. The very nature of this new technology – it relies on fusing thermoplastic particles – means that it is fundamentally incompatible with the characteristic nature of conventional firearms. A conventional firearm, when discharged, generates tremendous pressure and heat which it is designed to absorb. On the other hand, pressure and heat . . . and plastic simply don’t mix.
But putting technical reality aside, the interpretation of 2nd Amendment law has already become contentious . . . again. On one side, 2nd Amendment lobbyists are hailing the technology as a breakthrough for personal security; on the other side, gun control advocates see it as a means to provide weapons, indiscriminately, without any safeguards. Both sides have painted vivid scenarios for 3D printing’s possible (possible = future) use.
But maybe all of this attention is over-pushing the “future button” . . . to the point where anxiety is outstripping reality. As said earlier, these “future” scenarios, for now, are more the stuff of speculation and fiction than of technical fact.
The reality is, no serious legislation has been argued regarding 3D printing, and the only tangible action taken so far has been by concerned agencies waving the national security tag (some say over-zealously).
If technology does push the envelope (and it eventually will), and fiction does become fact, does that mean conventional firearms safety precautions – such as background checks – need no longer apply? (Sounds a bit similar to a current situation, where some states are trying to shoehorn existing legislation regulating conventional gambling to “fit” – regulate – online gaming. So far, these attempts have had as much success as mixing oil and water.)
Or maybe the phrase “the right to keep and bear arms” should now have a new footnote: “The right to copy arms”? Would gun checks now have to include home 3D printer checks? And is this yet another 2nd Amendment interpretation to come?
Singularly, what may be of concern is not all the “what if” scenarios that are being painted. Amid all these magnified worries, it is very possible the real, present-day concern should be individual rights, rights which potentially could be violated by alarmism, extremism or control, if these are pushed too far.
Maybe in a decade or more, we should worry – while being calmly watchful in the present – but for now there is no imminent firearm danger from home 3D printing. It is great fun for artists and hobbyists. On a larger stage, it promises great advances in medicine, space exploration, and commercial manufacturing.
The Blanch Law Firm is being watchful in the present.
– Stephen Heath-Jones