For the past couple of weeks, the media has been obsessed with a 3D printed gun known as “The Liberator.” This glorified zip gun, designed by an Austin non-profit known as Defense Distributed, was made using open-source plans and a 3D printer that’s readily available to anyone with the capital and know-how.
The frenzy of attention is no surprise, considering America is currently embroiled in one of the most polarized debates over gun control in national history. Almost daily we hear news of a tragic shooting, many involving children, while in Washington special interests try to convince us that it’s all a ploy to take away our freedom.
The reality that a vast majority of the world can now create a lethal weapon at the touch of a button has many people very worried, but for now, I’m not one of them. Here’s why.
3D Printers Are Still Fringe Technology
Let’s start with the obvious reason first: almost no one owns a 3D printer. While 3D designs make the headlines all the time, the price and sophistication of the hardware necessary to produce them is still out of reach for the average consumer. There aren’t any hard numbers, but this MAKE reporter estimates that there are only 100 thousand 3D printers in civilian hands. But the printer that produced the liberator wasn’t just your every day 3D printer, it was a Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer, which costs $8,000. For most of America, that’s a lot of rent and groceries.
Why waste all that money when you could just walk into a gun store and buy a real gun for way less? And the pistol you get at the gun store wouldn’t have the potential to blow up in your hand if you tried to fire it twice. It’s also worth mentioning that people could make far more functional guns using tools sitting in every workshop in America, like a lathe and a mill.
The Gun Industry Hates It
Since the Aurora movie theater and Newtown school shootings, Americans have been crying out for responsible reform of existing firearm legislation. The pushback from the gun industry and sympathetic special interests has been both swift and terrible to behold.
They say it’s because ANY attempt to limit access to guns or huge magazines of bullets is a violation of Second Amendment. But the real motive is money, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the Liberator and its offspring will do more to expose this than perhaps anything else. After all, guns that can be designed, printed, and carried by anyone (potentially undetected) are a direct threat to the NRA industrial complex.
“Gun manufacturers will eventually figure out the competition and provide direction to the NRA,” writes Anna Daniels for the San Diego Free Press. “The NRA will no doubt grease the appropriate palms, bluster where necessary and pull the legislative strings necessary to assure that situation does not get out of hand.” Current laws show that the gun industry knows how to get what it wants, so why should this new development be any exception?
It Exposes Our Obsession and Crappy Gun Laws
Once things are on the internet, poof! They’re quickly out of any government’s control. 100,000 people downloaded the Liberator’s plans before the State Department pulled them. But they still exist, on 100,000 hard-drives, and in virtual pirate coves that non-hackers like you and me can only dream of.
A ban on 3D printed guns, as well as bullets and magazines, has already been proposed in Congress, but there are big questions about how well it could be enforced. (The government banned marijuana too, remember?) Anything that goes beyond a “you can’t do that” law would require major infringements on the 3D printing community as a whole, something regular hobbyists don’t want and, again, would be hard to enforce.
Perhaps, as Paul Hsieh writes for Forbes, “by making it harder (if not nearly impossible) for the government to regulate gun possession and transfers, [3D gun] development could move the government to instead (properly) focus its efforts on punishing gun misuse.”
The Liberator forces us to live outside the moment and look at this issue from a bird’s eye view. It shows how laws alone are insufficient to stop the criminal use of firearms. What good does legislation do when we have a national culture of hatred, judgement, division and inequality, perpetrated by the highest offices on down to the street level criminal?
Until we’re willing to address our national obsession with firearms, violence and the glorification of war; until we’re ready and able to address the true motivators of violent crime, like poverty, mental illness, discrimination and incarceration for profit, death will always be just a gun away.