As someone who has been following the 3D printing revolution very closely, I’m convinced it will bring about a new industrial revolution. What that means – and where it will put us at the end of the day – is a question that I feel I can’t answer yet. But we can, with some clarity, see what is going on with projects like Wiki Weapons.
Wiki Weapons is an effort to produce a 3D-printable gun. They recently tried the first prototype (and it actually wasn’t a full prototype but an add-on to an existing gun) which cracked after six rounds. This would mean that I, as a 3D printer-owner, would be able to download a set of files and print my gun, assemble it, and fire it without registering with any government body. This is, arguably, quite possible right now and the average tinkerer can, without much fuss, build some sort of firearm with a drill press, milling machine, and some steel. There are plans available for Zip Guns online and, while I would fear for my reproductive capability if I shot this from the hip, there is little to stop explorers or miscreant from building a gun right now.
The 3D printed gun, then, is little more than a by-product of a specific technology coming into its own. The actual act of printing of said gun will be the culmination of the technology. The subtext, however is far more interesting. You could say that the primary benefit a 3D printer offers is permission to fail. You can tinker, build, tinker, build, ad infinitum and as long as your material holds up and your printer does not break you could, in theory, perfect your gun through design, trial, and error.
The 3D printer also allows amalgams. I would be far more afraid of, say, a homebrew, weaponized drone (or a drone built by the lowest bidder for local police designed for surveillance), than a gun. Guns are everywhere. Just because you can print one doesn’t mean it isn’t easier to raid your grandfather’s old foot locker for his rusty Luger and fire that off a few times. Perhaps in countries with stricter gun laws there is some benefit to printing your own, but not in the U.S.
So what, then, is the problem with the 3D-printed gun? I see none at all. The ability to really print a gun is far off and currently requires plenty of specialized gear and experience. To go a bit Homeland on this thought exercise, I would posit a homemade rocket or plane carrying a payload – a device that is easily 3D printed and built now without much fuss – is a far deadlier threat than a precision device that has to survive repeated physical stress. It’s the dangers I don’t see that worry me, not the dangers in front of my face.
Most governments will disagree with my stance but the price of living in the future is the expectation that most proscribed products will become easier and easier to obtain. While I personally don’t want to see more guns floating around, I won’t go as far as to say that a 3D printed gun should be outlawed. I will, instead, say that we as creators should be far more careful with what we build and, while information wants to be free, realize that the choice, whether or not we act on that information, is a moral one.