3D printers are pretty cool. They boil down to being a box in your home that you can make real ‘things’ with; 3-dimensional objects as designed by a computer can be made material in minutes by these should-be-from-the-future devices. You know how your headphones turn data into sound? Your monitor turns data into light? 3D printers turn data into real stuff.
But sometimes real stuff can be bad stuff.
This week, 25-year-old Cody Wilson is set to release the digital plans–a file anyone can download–for the first entirely 3D-printable handgun (‘entirely’ is a bit misleading: it needs a nail [just like, a regular ol’ nail] and a chunk of metal [a legal requirement, all guns have to have a chunk of metal in them so they can’t slip through metal detectors] to function) on his organization, Defense Distributed,’s website.
Does this mean people can just make guns in their homes?
Yes. That is exactly what it means, if you have a 3D printer. Forbes reports, “Once the file is online, anyone will be able to download and print the gun in the privacy of their garage, legally or not, with no serial number, background check, or other regulatory hurdles. ‘You can print a lethal device,’ Wilson told me last summer. ‘It’s kind of scary, but that’s what we’re aiming to show.'”
Wilson said that by giving the people the means of production, this is the kind of stuff you’re opening up to, “Everyone talks about the 3D printing revolution. Well, what did you think would happen when everyone has the means of production?” Discussion of the proliferation of the means of production among the people is reminiscent of the writings of Karl Marx, who coined the term.
As with any dispute about guns in America, the issue boils down to the freedom to own whatever device you want vs. the freedom to send your children to school without worry that they’ll be shot.
The 3D printed gun movement already has opponents in the government, New York congressman Steve Israel introduced an addendum to the Undetectable Firearms Act (the act making the law, mentioned above, regarding all guns having some metal in them,) banning “components that have been demonstrated in recent months to work reliably when printed on common 3D printers.”
3D printer companies themselves are against the gun plans: one company seized the printer they’d rented to Wilson, and another, Makerbot, removed all gun plans from it’s online database of printable programs. When it comes down to removing the plans that are used to make guns, ostensibly just data, does this become censorship, and an issue of the First Amendment as well as the Second?
Fewer guns floating around would definitely be a good thing, but if there exists a device that can create anything, will attempts to keep guns off the streets be futile?
How else could 3D printers be used to break the law? Will there come a day when you’ll be able to print stuff instead of buying it, bringing the online piracy debate into the 3D printing world? Is something like 3D printing a bust of Yoda an affront to Lucasfilm?
Of course stopping murder weapons from being created is more important than stopping copyright infringement, but like any moral issue these things come up.
3D printers of course can also be used for good: printing electronic components, pacemakers, bionic ears, and eventually artificial limbs. 3D printers are not the enemy. A device that can be used for bad as well as good? That’s unheard of! Other than like… computers, guns, the human body, and pretty much everything else. The distinction between commercial and personal 3D printers is also important to make.
What would you use a 3D printer for? Should we be throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Sound off in the comments. For more great information about 3D printed guns, check out what Vice has to say on the subject.
Note: the first fully 3D-printed gun was successfully fired while I was writing this article…