By now, there seems to be little doubt that Philly is a tech city. We’re overflowing with geeks, GIS firms map out our future crime patterns, and we play Pong on the Cira Centre. We’re even a hotbed for the current holy grail of all things geeky: 3-D printing—thanks to the members of our ever-growing maker community like Hive76, NextFab Studios and the Department of Making and Doing.
So who in Philly will make a 3-D printed gun first? If they haven’t already, that is.
On May 1st, Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson released digital plans for a fully functional, fully printable (less the firing pin, which is a roofing nail) one-shot handgun that he hopes will help “individuals to create their own sovereign space.” All you need is a 3-D printer, some plastic, and a couple .22 caliber shells, and you’ve got yourself a pistol. [UPDATE 9:30 a.m. 5/10/13: Defense Distributed has taken the blueprints off the Internet to comply with a U.S. State Department order.]
It’s also completely legal, skirting the Undetectable Firearms Act. Defense Distributed even recently attained a Federal Firearms License, making their current manufacture of AR-15 lower receivers and extended-round magazines a totally legitimate business model. All that has added up to the firm leading the arms market for the 3-D printer world.
So, naturally, it should come as no surprise that we’ve got politicians attacking Wilson and his Liberator, calling for its ban, and subsequently transferring that ire over to 3-D printers as devices. State Senator Leland Yee announced plans to introduce legislation to California that would ban the use of 3-D printers to make guns. Senator Chuck Schumer is currently echoing that statement.
If my job could be subjugated by technology like a politician’s, I’d call for a ban, too. Technology, after all, evolves at the speed of light compared to our bureaucracy or the men who inhabit it. No amount of legislation can be drafted and passed fast enough to keep up, and that goes doubly for gun control-related issues like this one, particularly because its a highly charged political issue with strong forces on either side. Technology, meanwhile, will just keep on objectively advancing regardless of how much offense we take at the items it produces.
Yee and Schumer are overreacting. People have been manufacturing their own guns for hundreds of years, and we’re not exactly at the point where a 3-D printed gun can replace a standard zip gun as a down-and-dirty, DIY instrument of crime. Think of it like this: Your average 3-D printer costs anywhere from $1,500 to $8,000 and up, plus the cost of printing materials. Your average handgun could go for as little as $300 or less, even on the black market. A zip gun is either free or nearly so, and anyone with any mechanical ability can make one. Bombs, like the ones used recently in Boston, are frequently entirely homemade and constructed of legal materials. So, really, a 3-D printed piece isn’t exactly a better option to do wrong right now.
But give it a few years. Staples will offer $1,000 3-D printers in the near future, and new, stronger printing materials are being created every day. So, in that sense, the time when completely viable, unregulated firearms come en masse from 3-D printers could very easily arrive. Just think of the Wright Brothers: that first 120-foot flight in 1903 doesn’t seem like shit until you realize it opened the world up to the possibility of air travel. Defense Distributed is doing the same, only with guns.
And to a city with more than 330 murders last year, many of them handgun or firearm related, that ought to be particularly interesting. We seem to be standing at a perfect crossroads to intensify our gun problem somewhere down the line thanks to our tech-y ways.