3D printing, which allows the creation of plastic objects using special printers, is a much hyped technology. While it does have the possibility of revolutionizing manufacturing, it has also raised some concerns. One of these concerns is that such printers could be used to create guns. It turns out that this is a legitimate concern: recently Defense Distributed successfully created a working pistol using a $8,000 3D printer. This raises the specter of people using such printers to create guns for nefarious purpose and thus is a matter of some worry to folks in law enforcement and those who worry about guns in general.
While the idea of criminals, terrorists and others printing their own guns is alarming, it is important to consider the actual nature of the alleged threat. One point well worth considering is the fact that the printer used to make the gun cost $8,000. While there are cheaper 3D printers available, those that could be used to make a working gun are all far more expensive that “real” guns. For $8,000 a person could outfit herself with a few assault rifles and handguns, plus ammunition and accessories. A second point worth considering is that the printed gun is not much of a gun: it is a single shot, low caliber weapon. While it could hurt or even kill, it is not much of a weapon. As such, it seems unlikely that there will be a new wave of crime or massacres involving printed pistols.
It could be replied that the worry is that people who cannot otherwise acquire guns legally will be able to buy a printer and print up a gun. The obvious reply to this is that someone who wants to illegally acquire a gun can do so much cheaper than buying an expensive 3D printer. However, even if it is supposed that the person cannot acquire a “real” gun illegally, the 3D printer would be a rather expensive option when a person can just make a gun using perfectly legal hardware that can be acquired at a hardware or home supply store. This sort of improvised gun (the most common of which is called a “zip gun”) has been around a long time and can be easily made. Directions for these weapons are readily available on the internet and the parts are relatively cheap. For those who cannot acquire bullets, there are even plans to make pneumatic weapons. The printed gun just automates the process of making a homemade gun at a relatively high cost. As such, the worry about the printed gun is not a new worry-it is just a variant of the worry that people will make their own guns at home. While this does happen, people have (obviously) preferred to acquire professionally made guns when engaging in crimes. Thus, being worried about the threat posed by 3D printers is rather like being worried about the threat posed by hardware/home supply stores. While people can use them to make weapons, people are vastly more likely to use them for legitimate purposes and get their weapons some other way.
If a person cannot acquire a “real” gun and they want to do harm, then I suspect that they will forgo making homemade guns and will instead go with homemade bombs. After all, a homemade bomb can do considerable damage and is far more effective than a homemade gun for such purposes. As such, there seems to be little reason to be worried about people printing up guns in order to commit crimes or engage in terror attacks.
In addition to the concern that people will print guns to bypass laws, there is also the concern that people will make plastic guns in order to bypass metal detectors. While the current printed gun uses a metal firing pin, it would be easy enough to get such a pin through security. The rounds would, of course, pose a bit of challenge-although plastic casings and bullets could be made.
While this is a point of concern, there are two points worth noting. First, as mentioned above, the printed gun is a single-shot low caliber weapon, which rather limits the damage a person can do with it. Second, while the gun is plastic, it is not invisible-it could be found by inspection. As such, the threat posed by such guns is extremely low.
While the current technology can produce a very limited gun, there is still the concern that advances in 3D printing will allow the production of much more effective firearms. For example, a 3D printer that could produce parts made out of metal or material as strong as metal could make a “real” gun. This would allow people without the skill needed to operate metalworking tools to make “real” guns and this would be more worrisome than the plastic gun. However, such 3D metal printers would presumably be very expensive to own and operate. As such, people would no doubt still go with “real” guns. As such, this is not a worry. Yet.
Mr. Wilson, the person behind the 3D printed gun, plans to make the gun design available and claims to be motivated by his view of liberty. In a remark that will no doubt frighten and anger some, Wilson said , “There is a demand of guns – there just is. There are states all over the world that say you can’t own firearms – and that’s not true anymore. I’m seeing a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want. It’s not up to the political players any more.”
What is most striking about Wilson’s remark is not what he says about guns, but about what he sees as the potential impact of 3D printing. That is, with the right sort of 3D printer a person could make almost any object s/he wanted. This is what probably frightens some people the most about 3D printing: it could radically change the way manufacturing and hence ownership works.
Getting back to the matter of guns, Wilson was asked whether he would be responsible for what people might do with his design. His reply was “I recognize the tool might be used to harm other people – that’s what the tool is – it’s a gun. But I don’t think that’s a reason to not do it – or a reason not to put it out there.” This is, of course, nothing new-the same question could be asked of the person who designs any weapon or any tool. In the case of Wilson, while he is putting out a design for printing a gun, he obviously did not invent the gun and this would mitigate his responsibility (if he has any). Also, he is no more accountable for misdeeds done with his gun than the designer of a a “real” gun is responsible for what people do with the guns built from his design.
Overall, the printed gun does provide something for some folks to worry about and a target for politicians and pundits who are eager to pontificate and pass panic prohibitions. However, it is not (as of yet) a real danger. My main worry is not that I will be shot with a printed gun, but that politicians will use this as an excuse to interfere with the development of promising technology.