The newest bugaboo of the gun control crowd is the bloodcurdling “3-D printer gun.” Or, as Alyssa Milano, a self-styled expert on these matters, might call it: “downloadable death.” Reporters at CNN ask, “3-D guns: Untraceable, undetectable and unstoppable?” Even President Donald Trump tweeted that “he’s looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!”
It makes plenty of sense.
First of all, “3-D Plastic Guns” aren’t being sold to the public. Nor are “downloadable firearms” or “ghost guns.” These things don’t exist. Data, code, and information is being sold to the public. There is no magical contraption that creates a new gun on demand. Sorry.
Even if such a machine existed, however, the Trump administration hasn’t suddenly begun “allowing” Americans to fabricate guns in the comfort of their homes, as so many stories have intimated. It’s never been illegal to make your own (non-NFA) weapons in the first place.
The pretext for this freakout is news that the State Department reached a settlement with Cody Wilson and his company, Defense Distributed, which offered digital designs for 3-D printed guns, not guns. The Obama administration had maintained that the company’s printer code violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which had little to do with a law-abiding hobbyist milling a lower receiver for a commercially popular civilian firearm in his suburban Pennsylvania garage.
(As of this writing, a federal judge in Seattle has issued a temporary restraining order stopping release of downloadable blueprints for 3-D-printed guns. This prior restraint on speech won’t last long if the First Amendment still means anything.)
Milano may not be aware that Americans have been building their own three-dimensional guns since before the revolution. The Kentucky rifle was created by German and Swiss blacksmiths living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and not one of them owned a computer.
Today, life has become far more convenient, and schematics that offer hobbyists plans for assembly or creation of firearms can be found across the Internet. Although a person might need a high degree of proficiency to pull off making one, they certainly don’t need a 3-D printer. Here, for instance, is a video of an industrious fellow turning hundreds of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon into an AR15. All of it, already permissible.
Still, Milano contends that the administration’s decision now means that “felons, domestic abusers, terrorists, those adjudicated too mentally ill to own guns and any other person unable to legally purchase firearms will be able to print one at home.”
Guess what? If you’re unable to legally purchase firearms, you are already prohibited from making a gun in your home, just as you are prohibited from buying a gun through a straw purchase or stealing one from your neighbor or smuggling one into the country. That’s settled law. Good work.
Censoring code on the Internet simply because you find guns objectionable, though, is another story. As Wilson notes in Washington Post, code “is the essence of expression. It meets all the requirements of speech — it’s artistic and political, you can manipulate it, and it needs human involvement to become other things.” How can the state ban the transfer of knowledge used to help someone engage in an activity that is completely legal? Scratch that — to engage in an activity that is constitutionally protected?
As a practical matter, the perception created by Ed Markey and the anti-Second Amendment organizations pushing this 3-D-printer code scare—that Joe Criminal can now merely push a button and “print one at home” with his 3-D applications and PC-connected milling machine—is purposely misleading.
You might wonder why criminals would bother spending thousands of dollars to create a one-shot plastic gun (that probably won’t work) when they can walk into a store and buy a reliable shotgun for a few hundred dollars, or procure a weapon illegally for far less?
Well, I’m assured by Milano these 3-D-printed plastic guns are undetectable and easy to make. Neither of these things are true. It’s already illegal for Americans to possess weapons that are undetectable to metal detectors (even if metal detectors aren’t used at airports anymore). So don’t make one. But the Defense Distributed plans for a complete AR-15 include 72 parts, some of which are comprised of metal to prevent catastrophic malfunctions. Is a mastermind criminal going to 3-D-print or mill all those parts himself, a task that requires not only considerable knowledge, skill, and experience, but also a costly printer and custom machine shop? This technology has been available for years. Has there been a crime wave of undetectable AR15s?
What Markey wants to do is pass legislation that curtails the rights of law-abiding citizens by fearmongering over a settlement that had nothing to do with the legality of homemade guns in the first place. As always, he—and other gun restrictionists in states contemplating increased oversight of a nonexistent problem—are interested in adopting incremental steps towards more obstructive gun laws. In this case, they are aiming to limit hobbyist manufacturing, in general.
The entire case against 3-D guns is propelled by the notion, normalized over many years, that access to firearms is problematic, even though the presence of guns doesn’t equate to increased violence. And who knows, perhaps one day, as machines evolve and become more reliable and powerful, it won’t be prohibitively expensive or inaccessible for the average law-abiding person to make his own AR15 or 1911. Whether that’s a positive or negative development is debatable. But gun-control activists are trying to dictate what that future looks like now.