Should you freak out about 3D printed guns?


The street finds its own uses for things.

William Gibson said that, in the short story “Burning Chrome”. If you’ve ever lived on the wrong side of the law, reading that made your hair stand on end.

If in 1981 you had drug-dealer boyfriends with pagers, when the only other people who had them were doctors, and you were making your long-distance calls with calling-card numbers hacked by the Yippies, you understood that technology belongs to the people who take it. And the cops never catch up with the robbers.

Everything that’s happened since I read “Burning Chrome” supports the idea that black and grey market forces will drive technology development.

First 3D printed gun fired- photo by Michael Thad Carter for Forbes

First 3D printed gun fired- photo by Michael Thad Carter for Forbes

This Sunday the first 3D printed gun was fired, and now the internet is in a panic.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that the spokesperson for the gun printing company, Defense Distributed, is a total doucheboat captain. And that he test-fired the gun in Texas. The company’s mission statement is all up in Second Amendment space, and the gun is called the Liberator. These guys are swinging for the fences, internet-frenzy wise.

Wilson, who’s a law student, claims the gun is a thought experiment about the impossibility of re-bottling tech genies.

Like most people with a trolling agenda, he either doesn’t think or doesn’t care about possible consequences. The gun was printed on a Stratasys machine- the same kind of machine that’s being used for development of 4D printed, self-assembling objects.

Meanwhile, Autodesk is partnering with bioprinter Organovo to develop life-saving 3D bio-printing tech.

Both of these research directions could change the future in big, big ways- much bigger than the convenience of home-printing your own part for a broken food processor. But panic and the rush to ban around 3D gun printing could affect the insane market growth of 3D printing companies like Stratasys, 3D Systems and ExOne Co.

When Stratasys became aware of Wilson’s intentions, they voided Wilson’s lease on one of their machines and repossessed the machine pronto.

It’s not yet clear* how he got ahold of the second-hand machine he ultimately used to print the gun. The company did acquire a Federal license to manufacture firearms, making the use of the printer legal. In August, Defense Distributing’s IndieGoGo campaign to raise the funds for the project was shut down before it reached its goal. BitCoin made Wilson’s funding happen, despite this.

*edit: we’ve learned that the machine used to print the gun was bought on eBay for $8,000.00.

In December, MakerBot‘s 3D-sharing platform Thingiverse purged all gun part printables.

This CNET article covers the policies various 3D printing companies had in place regarding printing firearms or their components, as of September 2012.

Also in December, Wired named Wilson as one of the 15 Most Dangerous People in the World.

 

Let’s note that the panic on the internet is mostly ignoring something crucial: that’s it’s not just legal to make a 3D printed gun, it’s legal to make a gun, period.

Did you know that before today? I sure didn’t. This quite level-headed article on TechCrunch addresses the realities of the situation. And of course, although the notorious Armory has been closed, you can probably still buy a gun on Silk Road or some other Darknet site if you want one.

This hilarious Wonkette article grounds the discussion in statistics.

So really, what’s important here is this:

  • America is a free country where wackadoodle Libertarians can BitCoin up the dollahs to manufacture anything.
  • American politicians will jump on any hot-button cause, because votes, and gun control is très chic.
  • 3D printing companies have some ‘splainin to do, but their PR teams will dodge this particular, um, bullet.

The Guardian looks at the bigger picture and notes that what we’re talking about here is what it means to have the digital extend into the physical. Bringing all the issues of censorship, legality, copyright and clearance the digital has already raised along with it.

this post originally appeared on the T324 Blog.

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