We all know 3D-printing and how extremely promising and revolutionary this piece of technology is. While it’s turning whole industries up-side down and is giving us greater autonomy on producing material goods on our own instead of being dependent on commercial producers, there are also some dark sides looming. Like downloading and printing parts necessary for a working gun.
To be clear, first off, you don’t download the whole gun, but what you can download is a crucial part which makes it work, the so called “receiver”.
This part is the central mechanism of a gun; it houses the main operating parts, like the trigger and the magazine port. The US-law refers to this as the actual gun itself and the ATF regulates it through the use of serial numbers and licenses. All the other parts, like the barrel, are not regulated. You can produce, sell or buy them without the need for any licenses. Until now, you couldn’t assemble a gun without having a registered part in it, the receiver. But this part is what you can download and print on your own now without having to respect any license. And its quality got good enough already to last for firing more than 500 rounds.
Cody Wilson and defcad.org
Probably the most controversial figure in this development is Cody Wilson, a 25-year old law student from Texas. He is the head behind the open-source platform “defense distributed” and is pushing the 3D-printing revolution deep into the ethical realm. With defcad.org he established a platform for sharing open-source CAD models related to firearms. There you can find, download and upload all kind of receivers for plenty of assault rifles, such as the AR15 or AK47, and high-capacity magazines. Defcad.org states that it hosts files with a size of 7 Terabytes in total, which has been downloaded more than 400.000 times and counts an average of 3.000 visitors per hour. On youtube you can find plenty of videos, proving the function of these parts.
Wilson’s stance on this issue is heavily ideological as he puts it into an act of freedom and reinforcement of the second amendment. He is totally aware of the controversy he is stirring but sees himself as a revolutionary (which he doubtlessly is, but in what kind?). Vice magazine made a good documentary, called “click, print, gun” about him and his attitude towards this issue, which you can watch here:
Needless to say he is going far beyond any legal or moral framework. This is essentially giving guns away for free to anyone and taking away the possibility to regulate them. So far, all it takes you to print these models, is a high-end 3D-printer with a price of around 2.000 Dollars.
They are a bit expensive of course but the price will continue to fall as it did with any other piece of technology. And not only will they get cheaper but also better, resulting in more durable products and more possibilities.
Scary? Yes. Stoppable? No.
How will this develop further? As we saw it happening with music and the entertainment industry, where content is shared over the web without any respect to law or boarders, the same will happen here. With 3D-printers on the rise, goods, material goods, are now shared over the web as well. One of the biggest platforms for sharing 3D-models, thingiverse.com,
3.3 (a): “You agree not to use the Site or Services to collect, upload, transmit, display, or distribute any User Content […] (ii) that […] contributes to the creation of weapons”
That, unquestionable, was the right move but is it to any avail in overall? One quick query at the piratebay under the category “physibles” (their category for 3D-models) with “DEFCAD” and you find packages of such models with a size of 600 MB.
What to do? Even if you would shut down defcad.org, there will be other sites and mirrors emerging. Once something has spread on the internet, it is impossible by any means to remove it or control it.
Besides the obvious danger of spreading guns for free, it may also develop as a major threat to net neutrality. We already experienced tries on restricting internet access through acts like CISPA or SOPA. These were only about copyright-infringement though. Just imagine how easy it will be to argue in favor of such methods because you need to stop guns from being “shared”. In the worst case it may even reinforce the idea of forcing DRM into 3D-printing devices , which is already thought of. (DRM is a desperate try to implement an anti-piracy mechanism deep on the hardware basis of computers, resulting in that you won’t be able to use your device in whatever way you want, even though you own it)
Keep cool and print on
Let’s face it, we can’t control it. To some small degree maybe, but we won’t be able to make the internet a “clean place”. Never, never, never! No matter what anyone will promise you. The most important thing to take out of this, is that any technology regardless of its original intent, has and always will have good and bad sides, both often unforeseen.
While 3D-printed guns are a threat, they are a comparable small one, statistically spoken. It won’t happen, that now with this possibility, all the kids run home after school and print out their assault rifles. What’s more important though is the danger of having these developments used as arguments to undermine net neutrality. The internet may be a crazy and often scary place, but it always was and it always will be (probably even crazier in the future). But these are still small negative side-effects compared to the overall benefit of it and of emerging technologies like 3D-printing.
In the meantime, all we can hope for, would be a little bit more sanity around here.
Update: Yesterday news came in that Cody Wilson and his collegues now even have successfully printed out a whole handgun with plastic only. More info here on Forbes.