Well, if Joe Public hadn’t heard of 3D printing before, he’s certainly heard of it now. Last week, Defense Distributed, AKA law student Cody Wilson and friends, released printable STL files of the “world’s first” “fully” 3D printed gun, the Liberator, along with a video of it being fired. Once. Since the announcement hit, the media has had a field day, speculating on the implications of such terrifying undetectable weaponry in the hands of anyone who can afford a 3D printer. Well there are many things about this media circus that really bother me. I was at a party with a number of local technologists and entrepreneurs last weekend and was asked about the 3D printed gun at least five times. I felt bad for the last guy that brought it up. He really got an earful.
Frankly, I personally have no problem with individuals printing and even sharing the files to print guns. What I do have a problem with is the media storm that has blown up around the issue. Current 3D printer technology ensures that printed firearms, in the short term, will be a niche collectible, more dangerous to the wielder than the target; not the new weapon of choice for terrorists as some media outlets are spouting. The very same week the Liberator was announced, these files were released on thingiverse.com for a printable, articulated, anatomically actuated prosthetic hand: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:44150 Certainly accessible and affordable 3D printed prosthetics should get more attention than a plastic gun unlikely to survive more than one (if even one) shot. The unfortunate reality is that the media would rather generate fear and controversy than hope and inspiration. Politicians would rather bloviate about regulating 3D printers than make meaningful policy changes. There are numerous reasons why 3D printed guns are not a big deal.
First, home manufacturing of guns is not new. Zip guns, single shot improvised firearms often utilizing metal pipes for barrels with rubber band-powered nails as firing pins were common among criminals in the 1950’s until increasing availability of real guns made their manufacture and use relatively impractical. Further, milling machines, whether manually or computer controlled, can still make much stronger components than 3D printers since they start with a solid block of cast material, and they’ve been available to hobbyists for decades.
Secondly, the cheapest 3D printer capable of printing a possibly-functional Liberator is still much more expensive than a cheap mass produced handgun. Why buy a $500 (at absolute minimum) machine with a substantial learning curve to make a weapon that is far inferior to one you could buy for about $100? The math doesn’t work. Well, you say, because this 3D printed gun is undetectable by metal detectors.
So what? There have been numerous incidences of real guns being purposefully or accidentally brought aboard trains and aircraft simply because they were not noticed by security. Further, who is to say that a large plastic gun and the ammo required to make it deadly won’t be noticed in someone’s x-rayed carry-on or lodged in their sock during a pat down. People with bad intentions will always find ways to do bad things, as the pressure cooker bombings at the Boston Marathon exemplified.
So why all the hype? Why is 3D printing being introduced to the uninitiated as harbinger of an age of invisible killing machines in the hands of maniacs? Ratings, obviously. Take this CNN report, with the tagline Will 3D Printers Make It Easier For Terrorists To Operate Gun Factories In Their Homes? Three huge search terms (3D printers, terrorists, and gun) all balled into one sensationalist piece of garbage news report! Following suit, politicians are buying into the bullshit and plotting regulations to keep us all safe. Perhaps the 3D printing lobby is easier to push over than the gun manufacturer’s lobby? Perhaps the gun manufacturers are worried about a loss of sales if they can’t, however indirectly, sell guns to terrorists? Or are the politicians worried that they’ll no longer be able to control which foreign faction is armed and which isn’t?
But I digress, all conspiracy theories aside, keep in mind that despite the fact that 3D printing has been around since the 1980s, this is just the beginning. As 3D printing technology improves we will see more and better materials printed at higher levels of precision. The result will inevitably be 3D printed guns that are functionally indistinguishable from their mass produced cousins. We will also see 3D printed medical implants, including 3D printed organs become commonplace. We will see 3D printed consumer goods begin to decentralize manufacturing, increasing options for consumers while lowering carbon emissions from shipping, and boosting our economy. We will see less landfill waste as we all gain the ability to fix broken blenders, toasters, furniture, etc rather than throw them away. We will see things we haven’t thought of yet and marvel at what will come next. 3D printing has an amazing potential to make a positive impact on the future of this country, and the world. It would be a shame if political grandstanding in response to overblown fear of Defense Distributed’s work did anything to slow it down. To that end, Acuity Design will work to shine a light on everything else that 3D printing offers.