How 3D Printing Can Kill You (or Save Your Life)

Three-dimensional printing is getting more flexible and powerful every day.  You might have seen the 3D printed guitar, or the 3D printed race car (yes, they actually work).  But how about a 3D printed gun?  If pro-gun advocacy group Defense Distribution has anything to say about it, you’ll one day be able to create guns on demand.

They’ve used a 3D printer to replicate the lower receiver (bottom half) of an assault rifle.  Although made of plastic, the part survived long enough to fire 6 shots, as you can see in the video above.  To be clear, no one’s going to be printing an entire gun tomorrow – the top half of the gun includes springs and other parts that need to be made of metal, while most 3D printers currently work with plastic only.  Nevertheless, it’s only a matter of time before people will be building complete firearms in their living rooms.

Guns For All

So what does this mean for the future?  Let’s take a look at the implications.

First up, Extreme Tech notes that the lower receiver is the part of the gun that’s regulated by law, and which carries the serial number.  So even without printing a whole gun, anyone with access to a 3D printer could circumvent any and all US firearm regulations.

And one day, someone will overcome the obstacles and a complete firearm will be made from scratch in a printer.  Meanwhile, access to 3D printers is growing.  Eventually, if these trends continue, pretty much anyone will be able to make any kind of gun they want.

Handgun closeup

courtesy Alvi Mann

Freedom and Consequences

I’d like to point out that creating this type of world is more or less the mission statement of Defense Distribution.  In their “manifesto” they approvingly cite HL Mencken saying “it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe.”

While appealing on its surface, this philosophy contains a variety of different problems, both moral and logical.  But let’s stick to the topic of guns.  One problem I see is that the danger resulting from widespread gun ownership isn’t equally distributed.  If everyone in the country had access to firearms, certainly gun deaths would increase overall.  But the rate would go up disproportionately in urban areas, and among low-income people, youth, and minorities.  Now, putting yourself at risk in order to uphold principles of freedom is actually kind of noble.  But putting other people’s families into danger just to validate your interpretation of freedom is something much, much darker.  It’s jarring that Defense Distribution dismisses such violence so lightly.

Of a somewhat different perspective is this writer at TechCrunch, who opines that 3D printing won’t make a huge difference in the availability of guns in the US, since they’re already so easy to get.  I admit he has a point, although I think he’s underestimating the future popularity of 3D printers.

But let’s keep pushing the implications further – consider what will happen outside of the US.  If it ever becomes easy to produce AK-47s without  a factory, then any petty warlord or insurgent could slaughter civilians, invade a neighbor or get bogged down in an endless war.  Any criminal organization or terrorist cell, no matter their size, budget or location, could outfit their own private army, and no international treaty or ship inspection could stop them from doing so.  I suppose the counter-argument is that said civilians/neighbors/opponents would also be armed… but that sounds like a recipe for disaster, not freedom.

silhouette of Afghan fighter with gun

courtesy ISAF media

The Inevitable Shift

Regardless of how you feel about these scenarios, there’s no question we must be prepared for them.  Once a physical object is transmuted into pure information, it becomes essentially impossible to track or control it, even if we wanted to.  Just look at the music industry’s increasingly futile attempts to rein in digital piracy.  Some genies, once freed, cannot be re-bottled.

In short, I think open source, distributed weapon manufacture is an awful prospect, and likely inevitable.  You are welcome to disagree with me on either point.

A Better World?

As for solutions, I’m not sure.  It’s clear that laws and regulations will be essentially irrelevant.  Some researchers suggest that reducing income inequality or solving other social problems will reduce gun violence.  This is probably true but is an enormous undertaking on its own.

Let me close on a more optimistic note.  The staggering thing about 3D printing is that it has the potential to bring weightlessness, transmissibility and fungibility not just to guns but to essentially any object at all.  Anything that can be built in layers can be digitized and transmitted around the world (or designed from scratch and created).  I mentioned above the printed car and guitar, but did you know that one day you might get blood vessels from a 3D printer?

This research, by an MIT / Penn State group, is the first step to creating new vascular tissue for patients, and could one day lead to personalized, 3D-printed replacement organs.

That’s the sort of thing that might save your life one day, should you happen to get shot by a 3D-printed gun.

What do you think? Continue the conversation in the comments, and use the sharing buttons to ask your friends.

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