Obviously the last week or so has been one giant headache on conversation about plastic guns. As someone who has been in technology for over a dozen years, I’ve been pretty stunned at the shocking level of ignorance the public, law enforcement, and government have about 3D printing.
There seems to be the typical gut response from the left which is screaming ‘regulate and ban!’ and from law enforcement and government which are saying ‘prevent this from happening’ and a whole bunch of public terror that is running rampant with ravings ranging from fears about terrorists shooting them up on a plane, to mental recreations of In the Line of Fire, and references to some apocalyptic version of the world where things just fall apart – all because people have plastic guns.
If they weren’t so serious and freaking out about it I’d be laughing myself silly.
A relative of mine is a peace officer and she was sharing some of her own concerns about a weapon which, due to its plastic reaction to heat, would self-destroy any ability to compare the gun to the bullets for matching. Not to mention the ease of disposal through melting, and the fact that they may be potentially dangerous to laymen who don’t realize that the plastic will start to break down from heat after a shot or two.
True enough points, but the problem I see is that it is inevitable that any new technology (telephones, video cameras, tape recorders, the internet, etc..) which is created will also create a new variety or possibility for criminal behavior. So from a criminal justice point of view, I assume law enforcement wants to prevent people from making their own guns – or at least these new plastic guns which they feel are significantly different in some way. So we could assume that law enforcement would like barriers put up at either the stage of preventing someone from getting a ‘gun pattern’ or at the stage of getting a machine which can create one.
Starting with the ‘gun pattern’ level. The problem is that, due to how these printers work, there is not one place that they can put checkpoints at for buying a specific blueprint. There is no required vendor process. You could literally scan a hand-drawn schematic into photoshop (or any free alternative), clean it up, and export the drawing into a free 3d modeling program, then send the 3d model to your printer. Someone could give you a 3d model drawing they made, and making concept drawings is an entire career field. You don’t even need a schematic though, you could use a real gun, take pictures, run them through the same process and voila. You could, if you’re creative, just use your mind – coming up with an entirely new concept piece. There is no single place where people would have to go through to buy the ‘pattern’ so to speak. So that eliminates that side of it, and what we’re left with then is regulating the sale of the printers themselves.
So then considering how you would regulate printers. Normally regulation happens either passively (by elitist exclusion which keeps prices too high to reach the average public), through association (where it cliquishly reduces the availability to only those of a certain profession or membership) or actively through creating purchasing checkpoints which regulate who can buy something. These printers are proving themselves to be some of the most likely tools to advance us by leaps and bounds (of a small set of technology with the ability to do that). As such, there has been immense pressure by the public and industry to produce these smaller and cheaper. There are some now at the $1000 mark, and even some new test models being sold in the hundreds. The goal is for them to become a common home tool, which eliminates options for passive or association based regulation. Then there is active regulation of purchasing left to consider. Due to the sense of these being vital to the growth of technology, at least four companies (that I know of) have released open source blueprints for making your own printer, along with instructions, video, etc.. That being said, not everyone would make their own, but the point is that it is possible. So someone who is criminal, could stay completely off of any checkpoint radar by making their own printer from the beginning. Just like someone who wants to make their own metal gun could do if they made their own tools and molds to make their gun. Or bought them person-to-person at garage sales, online craigslist meetups, or just between family or friends. Even if someone didn’t make their own, how would we keep people who pass through the checkpoints from selling to them? Isn’t it basically the same question as how would we regulate straw purchases for 3D printers any better than we are currently struggling to regulate straw purchases for metal guns?
Not to mention that we already have a metal printer (as well as plastic, ceramic, wood, even human tissue) – so plastic guns are only a temporary fixation, people will soon be on to metal and ceramic ones as well (and from what I understand, ceramic doesn’t get picked up in metal detectors either and is used for some weapons). How about when gemstone growing machines go mainstream – should we ban those because some people might use them to pass off fakes for real ones or switch out someones real jewelry for an exact fake duplicate? Are we going to be guided by a fear of what the 5% will always do no matter what, such that we self-regulate ourselves into stifled innovation?
Then there is the question of those checkpoints in the first place. There are some people shouting for legislation which prevents those with criminal records from purchasing the printers. I think the question for those people is how is it significantly different from denying criminals access to the internet, cell phones, libraries, or even normal grocery and hardware stores where they might, if inclined, not only find instructions on how to make something illegal, but purchase the tools to turn it into a reality in the privacy of their own home? Of course, it also raises the question of how much we feel ex-criminals have a right to participate in the progress of our society and innovations taking place in it. If we, as a society, are to actually claim that we believe in both the concepts of time served as well as rehabilitation (concepts upon which rest the entire basis of our legal system), isn’t it unethical and hypocritical to prohibit people from using a technology which will otherwise advance the society through innovation just because we have decided for them that their past predicts their future? Isn’t that the same thing as elitism which says the poor will always come from the poor and create more poor? Doesn’t psychology say that just as it is likely for someone to follow patterns of behavior, it is also likely for people to behave in whatever what they are expected to behave?
I don’t know, but I question the inclination to limit peoples access to tools, knowledge, and innovation potential just because 5% of society will always find a way to use the most new tech to break the current laws. It makes me think of books. We’ve had ‘dangerous’ books in the past, which taught or encouraged beliefs that certain societies or governments felt were ‘dangerous’ to the simple minds of society and book banning, book burning, and general censorship were the results. I assume we can agree that having a new version of book banning is not good progress for a society, but wouldn’t all the equivalents to controlling who gets these printers have the same effect as padlocking a library and only allowing in certain privileged people – just because inside there might be some ‘dangerous’ books they wouldn’t want the general public to see?
It seems like it may not even be actually possible to regulate (since you can not only create your own blueprints, but your own machine too). So that said, I think a good question is how would law enforcement have to evolve as we begin living in a world where every single person could potentially create any item, regardless of circumstances. Is it much of a different mentality than is currently there? Do officers now assume people don’t have guns until they show they do, or do they assume the reverse? How and where would change need to take place? Of course, then there are the general questions, like, is a meltable plastic gun inherently any different from a meltable metal gun? I think that it raises lots of questions, and that is usually a good thing.
Unfortunately, our government is doing what is has been doing very well in recent years – restricting our rights without cause. The State Department told someone who had 3D schematics for the drawings on his website that they had to take them down because they were supposedly a violation of the Arms Export Control Act. Right – because only in the mind of a government official is a drawing on a website equal to exporting weapons out of the country. It is about as ridiculous as if I were to be accused of firing a weapon in a public space because I post a video of someone shooting a gun. It’s about control, period. Forcing someone to remove a drawing from their website which may provide someone with the instructions to create a weapon, is as much censorship as book banning.