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If you’ve followed the news, a collective of hackers recently rented a 3D printer to build a real, working gun. The group, Defense Distributed, began the project but once the renter, Stratasys, discovered what they were building, they took the printer back.

Writes the Danger Room:

Cody Wilson planned in the coming weeks to make and test a 3-D printed pistol. Now those plans have been put on hold as desktop-manufacturing company Stratasys pulled the lease on a printer rented out for Wiki Weapon, the internet project lead by Wilson and dedicated to sharing open-source blueprints for 3-D printed guns. Stratasys even sent a team to seize the printer from Wilson’s home.

Stratasys responded to questions by saying: “Stratasys reserves the right to reject an order. Members of Defense Distributed, like any U.S. citizens, are able to follow the well-established federal and state regulations to manufacture, distribute or procure a firearm in this country.”

This whole kerfuffle – and that’s really what it is – clouds a very interesting debate that we’re all about to have as 3D printing goes more and more mainstream. While we currently look at home 3D printing as the domain of the hopelessly nerdy, fact is that the 3D printer is past its infancy and is now in the gangly, awkward adolescent stage that all paradigm-shifting technologies face.

3D printing 2012 is where home printing was in 1982. Those old enough to remember tractor-fed paper and even the abysmal thermal printers of yore can relate to this situation. 3D printers, though technologically impressive, just aren’t that exciting to the average consumer. By 1984, however, Broderbund launched Print Shop and made the run-of-the-mill dot matrix printer far more compelling. The resolution was still spotty and people didn’t see printers as a “threat” per se until we were able to essentially print out a letter-quality page a decade or so later. In short, printers snuck up on us, just as 3D printers will.

In terms of a direct analogue to this issue, however, we can point to home taping and CD burning. The expectation – and it’s a valid one – is that home 3D printing will get so good that the items it produces will rival simple items we now buy. Right now a Makerbot takes a few hours to print out the most rudimentary of products, but what happens when those hours dwindle to minutes? What happens when we can print an Ikea silverware set in our kitchens? Again, perhaps we’re a far piece from being able to do those things, but the programmers at Broderbund had no idea that their software would soon be replaced by real home desktop publishing and printing tools that created a polished and very handsome product in a few seconds.

So what of this gun? There are multiple arguments against manufacturing this item and none of them hold water. First, there is legality. A gun “is a weapon that launches one or more projectile(s) at high velocity through confined burning of a propellant.” We could create a Saturday Night Special with a metal tube and a nail or we could make a gun in our basement provided it wasn’t for sale or trade. That these folks were planning on using a leased printer to build it and later release the plans is a perfectly legal action. Sharing the process for building a gun, as the Anarchist’s Cookbook shows us, is protected speech. To think otherwise is to invite chilling effects to the free distribution of information (we can argue the counter-point that if these folks were building an atomic bomb we would have every right to silence them, but atomic bombs are ostensibly illegal). But, ultimately, what they were doing wasn’t illegal.

Then there’s the financial issue. If anyone with time, a little metal, and the will can print a gun, won’t Smith & Wesson go out of business? I find that to be very specious argument on the surface, but it bears further analysis. People are calling 3D printers “piracy machines.” This is arguably heavy handed, but if I can print a perfect replica of, say, a Mickey Mouse bobblehead and share the plans for that bobblehead, then Disney is out a bobblehead sale. However, as we learned from home taping, the interface between the digital and the physical is a difficult barrier to breach. Music and film piracy is rampant because it’s frictionless. The printing of an object, on the other hand, requires a signifiant investment. Unless you’re planning on making a gross of bobbleheads, it’s probably not worth the time and materials to really stick it to Disney. After all, home taping didn’t kill the music industry. Napster did.

Finally there’s the moral issue, which we partially addressed above. There are those who believe guns are our birthright and others who believe they should be outlawed. But what of guns that you don’t have to buy? What about guns that can’t be traced and are potentially dangerous to the shooter and, obviously, the target? Don’t we have a moral responsibility to protect, I suppose, “The Children”?

We do, but this isn’t the way it’s done. I am, to be clear, against guns in my home but I will not begrudge any individual or group the right to experiment with 3D-printed firearms. Innovation in hardware comes from experimentation. Without it, we slog up to dead end after dead end and nothing is learned. While I disagree that a 3D printed gun is an important part of my household, I do agree that it is an important part of our right to tinker. Humans invented weapons before they invented ploughs, that much is sure. But without those weapons, we would not have expanded so far afield and into the era of agriculture.

Stratasys failed here. Their claims of illegality arise from fear of litigation. Had the group said nothing and just printed their parts, the Stratasys would have been none the wiser. Whether it’s a legal, financial, or moral issue, ever hacker has the right to hack and, in turn they are responsible for that they create. As Hall wrote of Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Replace “say” with “build” and we have an answer to this seemingly unsolvable conundrum.