Fight for your right to… print firearms?

Buried in the depths of Conor Friesdorf’s very good list of very good non-fiction writing from 2012 is this cracker of a piece by Cory Doctorow on the challenges facing general purpose computers in the future. I vaguely remember reading this when it was first published, but this is the internet in 2013, and that was more than two twitter-day-cycles ago so bits of it were a little fuzzy.

What did chime with me was Doctorow’s somewhat casual mention of open source plans that enable 3-D printers to turn AR-15’s into fully automatic rifles. Well, I suppose that beats asking Yahoo’s hive mind how to do it. It rang a bell because a friend of mine makes things on 3-D printers for a living in the world of architecture, and we had a conversation about the concept last week. The New York Times ran a piece on this today as well (h/t to Tom Ridt).

Thankfully, as the NYT points out:

there are also major technical obstacles to creating an entire gun on a 3-D printer, not the least of which is that a plastic gun would probably melt or explode upon firing a single bullet, making it about as likely to kill the gunman as the target.

Which allows us to all cool off until we google “3D Print Metal” and find out that they’ve totally developed 3-D metal printers already.

Re-winding to Doctorow’s piece, his basic point is that one can’t “beat” the general purpose computer. Or rather, there are going to be an awful lot of lobby groups lining up to nerf, constrain and destroy the technology of the general purpose computer in future. In part, it’s due to the nature of the general purpose computer itself:

We don’t know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of running any program except for some program that we don’t like, is prohibited by law, or which loses us money.

In other words, once something becomes information (say, music, movies, books) and that information is freely shareable (say, via a program on a computer with an internet connection) then simply going after the program isn’t going to cut it (as the MPAA etc have discovered). Doctorow’s argument is that once the “copyright wars” are done and dusted, the next generation of special interest groups finding their livelihoods threatened will kick off:

It doesn’t take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it’s really important to make sure that computers can’t execute programs which cause specialized peripherals to output custom organisms which literally eat their lunch.

Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or hysterical fears, they are, nevertheless, the political currency of lobbies and interest groups far more influential than Hollywood and big content. Every one of them will arrive at the same place: “Can’t you just make us a general-purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

To that list, I’d like to add the UN Security Council. At least hypothetically. Here’s the point: the moment something like an AK-74 becomes printable, even if it is inferior to an actual AK-74, even if it has a 500 round life expectancy and so on, then a general purpose computer with a 3-D printing attachment becomes a weapons factory. As the NYT article points out, this is already the goal of gun-rights advocates in the United States, but I think the problem is a bit bigger. One of the key tools used by the international community to freeze conflicts, or attempt to stop them sprawling are arms embargoes. Not saying they’re that effective, but as international interventions go, it’s at the “cheap” end of the scale of policy options. With 3-D printers, that means that all one would have to do to circumvent such embargoes would be to purchase a 3-D printer (or if the futurologists are right everyone will have one) and start printing rifles.

What I think flows logically from this is the premise that maybe, unwittingly, the people fighting the MPAA for their right to watch films for free party have interests in common with would-be separatist movements, militias and anyone else that, unlike Ice Cube, need to use an AK on a daily basis.

Solutions? I don’t have one. Accurate predictions? Natch. But maybe, since I don’t think anyone can print gunpowder yet, Chris Rock was right all along.


5 thoughts on “Fight for your right to… print firearms?

  1. I had a look at a couple of defence implications for 3D printing but yours is an interesting take on the subject

    I think the man issue with 3D printing in the defence world will come from 3D printing small UAV’s because it puts the massive technological advantage of the West under threat

    • Personally I think “dumb” weapons are more likely to be reproduced over UAVs due to the complexity of design involved in even small military UAVs. It is, however, an interesting concept. Theoretically, all a small group would need is a print tech, a couple of machinists/armourers and an electrical engineer.

  2. kwasi says:

    Honestly, in the long term the people I really expect to get up in arms about this are the weapons manufacturing industry. Once 3-D printers are reasonably widespread and meet, who is going to pay for a Glock or a P90 when they can make one in their garage? (assuming we sort out the engineering issues around making metal parts and making propellant/explosives as well.)

    I’ve had some amusing scenarios in mind for a while where the WTO starts getting petitioned by the combined military-industrial complex of the developed world for a version of the DMCA that stops american hobbyists from churning out small arsenals of their trademarked\patented designs without paying them a penny

  3. mikemg says:

    May I be allowed to suggest that this will never be a problem of the feared magnitude?
    Manufacture of semi automatic pistols and semi or fully automatic rifles is a relatively low technology requiring only a few basic machine tools and preferably a source of high quality steel. In the absence of good hig quality steel, lower quality stuff can be used at the expense of durability and user safety.
    Peshawar in Pakistan, hardly a center of high technology, is renowned for the ability of its gunsmith to produce excellent quality reproduction weapons.
    Also, in the city of Danao in Cebu, Philippines there are a large number of gunsmiths who make fully functioning copies of Colt 1911 45’s and M-16 rifles. Mostly, they use cheap steel to keep the price down so they’re not going to last too long. But for from $100, quite a few consider them reasonable value.

    Manufacturing technology to make firearms is a cat that was let out of the bag a very long time ago, it’s a waste of time to worry about it now.

    In practice, a far bigger constraint, especially for a would be warlord with say 100 barely trained thugs, would be a reliable source of ammunition in the quantities necessary to support trigger happy morons with zero fire control discipline.

    • Fair point, I suppose the situations I am thinking of are where the machine tools are not present at the onset of a conflict, or a party doesn’t have people with the necessary skills to make the guns.

      As for the ammunition point, see the Chris Rock skit at the end!

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