By Tim O'Shea
Technology has always placed framework for debate. The mass – production of guns led to the gun control debate, the ability to burn CDs brought up new questions about intellectual property, and now the onset of 3D printers has created a stage for a new kind of discourse.
3D printers have only recently become mass – produced, some selling for as little as eight thousand dollars. But it is not the printers themselves so much as the designs put in to them that have sparked debate. Defense Distributed, an organization dedicated to making weapons easily available via 3D printers, has been making breakthroughs in distribution of their designs. They’ve posted designs of assault rifle magazines, Ar – 15 lower receivers, a partial silencer, and a coupler that allows multiple magazines to be attached to each other for quick use. But easily, the greatest of their achievements has been the Liberator, a 16 – part handgun entirely buildable from a 3D printer, except for a small nail that serves as a firing pin. After a video of the fully – functional pistol surfaced, new questions were asked about the possible implications of allowing such intricate devices to be made in the living room of anyone in America.
There are many reasons to fear the proliferation of these weapons. Little regulation stands in the way of 3D printers for the time being, meaning that anyone with a printer and a design can create a potentially lethal weapon. This includes under – age citizens, felons, and the mentally ill. And while plastic guns are banned because of their advantage over metal detectors, no one seems to trust the ban to be effective against this new breed of weapons production. Even the intentions of Defense Distributed itself are questionable, being that it is run by a self – described anarchist.
But unfortunately, those who wish to defend 3D printers and the material that come out of them may have a possible defense in the 1st Amendment. If one can defend the argument that these online designs represent the speech of the creator, then any attempt to stop their distribution is rebuffed. But this doesn’t seem to be the current interpretation. The website Defense Distributed has had all of the designs taken down, and the badge of the State Department graces the sections where file downloads once appeared. At least temporarily, the congregation of debate has agreed to stop the flow of the designs while they consider the possible legal implications of doing so.
But perhaps the biggest question isn’t whether the government will restrict these designs; it’s about whether it can. Even if they manage to restrict the online traffic of weapons designs, anyone with a USB can still transfer them between printers. And the ban on plastic weapons only held any effectiveness in the past because the government had to enforce only gun – makers instead of the entire population. When the production sites spread among the entire population, it becomes infinitely more difficult to contain the issue. It would be like trying to contain the illegal drug problem if marijuana and coca plants were legal to own. People could harvest it in their own home and easily evade detection until they choose to use their newly created product. So ultimately, whatever direction the government goes, it will be the direction of the American people that decides the future of both the 3D printing industry and its potentially lethal wares.