Like It Or Not, 3D Printing Will Probably Be Legislated

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As the race – and it’s basically a race – to release as many 3D-printed gun parts as possible heats up, it’s never been harder for me to come down on the side of the “Freedom To Tinker” crowd. Last weekend Defense Distributed, a group dedicated to releasing plans for a 3D printed gun, posted a video and description of their 3D-printed AR-15 thirty-round magazine. The video, which is, unnecessarily, full of snarky vitriol, shows that, on some level, the 3D printed gun isn’t very far off. It also shows that the call for 3D printer legislation could soon overpower the call for freedom.

The problem with childish displays of firepower coupled with “How’s that national conversation going?” is that it proves that the folks who are doing this tinkering are less than responsible. They feel that this is a freedom of speech issue rather than a gun control issue. It’s abundantly clear that the lads at Defense Distributed are enjoying their newfound notoriety and, like a boy band on their first tour, they’re ready to trash some hotel rooms. The resulting shenanigans have convinced Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) to call for the banning of undectable 3-D printed high-capacity magazines. He updated his website yesterday, writing:

Rep. Israel said, “Background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print high-capacity magazines at home. 3-D printing is a new technology that shows great promise, but also requires new guidelines. Law enforcement officials should have the power to stop keep homemade high-capacity magazines from proliferating with a Google search.”

The law would “make it illegal to manufacture, own, transport, buy, or sell any firearm or magazine that is homemade and not detectable by metal detector and/or does not present an accurate image when put through an x-ray machine.” It is a noble if quixotic goal.

Politics, as we’ve learned, is woefully unprepared to handle major technological advancement. While Israel means well, his ability to keep an 3D model off of Google is laughable at best and dangerous at worst. As a gun control proponent, I know that now, more than ever, we need sane and effective controls on weapons in our country. As a believer in the unfettered growth of technology, on the other hand, I will defend Defense Distributed to the death while hating their crass methodology. Israel’s efforts only serve to give the DD kids a frisson of the martyr while avoiding the real problem of non-3D printed guns that are far more prolific and far easier to obtain.

The danger in legislating 3D printers is that it is on one hand impossible and on the other hand potentially damaging to a nascent industry. We have no idea what these printers will be able to do in the future and the best a home 3D printer can do, really, is punch out something like this handsome Nokia case. That will soon change. Again and again I equate this technology to the way dot matrix printers eventually begat the desktop publishing features available to even the rankest of amateurs today. However, a printed page can never be used to kill someone.

To use a 3D printer is to understand the current limitations of the platform and the potential inherent in the technology. It is a wonderful feeling to watch a Makerbot churn out a little plastic figurine and I want my kids to understand this fascinating technology from the very start. The potential damage that could be wrought by 3D-printing legislation could, potentially, destroy the industry but I doubt it. In fact, I’d say it would do the opposite. Technological advances usually route around damage and, in this case, legislation is damage.

But DD is going to keep at their project and benighted congress members will keep thinking they can, quite literally, nip this problem in the bud and they will be wrong. Whatever comes next for 3D printing, I doubt it will be very pleasing to those who are more worried about defending free inquiry