3D Printing Is The Future, But What Kind Of Future?

The crescendo of media reports about the advent of a DIY printable firearm has caused an understandable uproar. In the wake of so many high-profile, mass-casualty incidents involving firearms — and a lot of impotent rage by our elected officials — it seems counterintuitive that, as we circle the wagons around the idea of passing rational gun legislation at the federal level, we can also literally create a gun.

When I was in high school, some classmates brought a crinkled copy of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” that they printed off the Internet. I, being an inquisitive teenager, flipped through the pages with a certain morbid curiosity. I didn’t know you could make a tennis ball bomb, or even develop thermite plasma that could melt through steel, in your basement or garage. Of course, the rational part of me knew I would never experiment with such ingredients, but I couldn’t help but be a little concerned about the people who would.

Now, the Internet is no longer the provenance of a select, geeky few, but rather is a mainstream information source that often eclipses television and leaves radio and print media in the dust. What was once accessible only by people in the know is now highly publicized.

The Liberator is the first widely distributed 3D-printed pistol to hit the Internet. It can be manufactured using a commercially available 3D printer. The instructions, created and given away by cyber-vigilantes/anarchists Defense Distributed, even contain a step to include a piece of steel to avoid running afoul of the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, though how they plan on ensuring that less-than-scrupulous DIY gunsmiths don’t simply ignore that step remains unclear (however, the point could be moot, as the law is set to sunset in December of this year if it is not renewed). Numerous tests have confirmed that when properly assembled, the weapon can fire at least one .380-caliber round without harming the user.

There is no question that the ability to use a 3D printer to create, on-demand, just about anything you can draw up in a CAD program is the future. The disruptive potential across nearly every industry for this technology is incalculable. From the medical field to manufacturing, empowering consumers to produce will surely up-end the natural order in mostly good ways.

However, removing all friction from the process of obtaining a lethal firearm could put a functional handgun in the hands of someone acting impulsively. How many times have you been brought to a boiling rage? The kind of fury where everything that connects you to the human race fades into the background and you feel like you could almost kill. If you were peeved enough to go through with it, you likely couldn’t obtain the requisite gun before your anger subsided to a manageable level where the thought of killing repulses you — as it should.

So much of the conversation about tightening gun legislation in the U.S. is focused on keeping guns out of the hands of the criminally mentally ill. But what about when an otherwise rational person is driven to a near-murderous rage? Aren’t the hurdles to obtaining an impulse-buy handgun a buffer between the fleeting notion (and temporary desire) to harm another human being and an actual violent crime? If pushing a button and snapping a few puzzle pieces into place was all it took to convert that inert, lethal rage into something real, would it lead to more crimes of passion? The U.S. State Department seems to think so, and has demanded that links to plans for the Liberator be removed from the web (good luck with that).

This technology is already being used for the betterment of mankind. 3D printers are already being used to create an articulable replacement hand for a child in South Africa. Even NASA recognizes its potential and has plans to create a zero-gravity 3D printer, which is slated to be taken aboard the International Space Station sometime next year.

This technology is in its infancy, and, to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, learning what we can do with it will hopefully not outpace learning what we should. Free information advocates and gun advocates alike defend the distribution of the Liberator’s plans as the latest battle on the frontier of Internet freedom, saying that all information should, without vetting, be easily accessible by anyone and everyone. But the stakes are higher than ever. We’re not talking about shutting down sites hosting illegal copyrighted material for download. We’re talking about life and death now. Guns exist for one purpose — to shoot stuff.

Some people point to the high price of a 3D printer as an obstacle to a world with an unknown number of amateur gun distributors, but if there is a profit to be made, a few thousand dollars becomes not much of an impediment. The high cost of the materials and equipment has certainly not stopped large-scale illegal drug laboratories from being operated by the rankest amateurs.

Should we support an avenue for people with more intellect than sense to manufacture deadly weapons simply because of the perceived freedom it entails? I’m not sure. But I, for one, had hoped we’d perfect a 3D-printed replacement heart valve or water purification device for developing countries before yet another way to kill people.