Last week, the prospect of 3D printed guns captured the imagination of the nation. Most of that reaction is probably best described as panic. What new sort of evil could criminals perpetrate on a country already reeling from a now regular recurrence of active shooters in public places?
For those who haven’t kept up, the controversy involves a set of “blueprint” files made public on the Web by Defense Distributed, the company of Cody Wilson, a Texas gun rights enthusiast who believes all Americans should have the right to use the files to manufacture their own guns on a 3D printer. A 3D printer is essentially a plastic manufacturing device that uses files to create molded plastic parts or other items. Most schools in the region probably have at least one in their science lab.
Gun control advocates were quick to react, suing to block the distribution of those files and raised fears that untraceable, home-manufactured guns could lead to even more gun homicide in a country where gun death rates are far greater than any other developed nation.
But I have to wonder if the efforts to stop 3D guns are really time well spent.
First, Wilson may have some remarkably ridiculous opinions, including that high gun homicide rates are simply the price we pay for having a free society (he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace as much on Sunday), but he’s right in that the files that contain plans to print 3D guns are protected speech under the first amendment. Furthermore, there is nothing illegal in milling one’s own firearm. If I had the know-how to build a rifle in my basement, no law would prevent me from doing so.
Secondly, trying to stop the dissemination of anything online is a fool’s errand. Just ask the music industry. While Wilson’s company had taken down the files from its own database, those files were copied and mirrored and available to anyone why searched for them hard enough.
Thirdly, and most significantly, this country doesn’t need 3D printed guns to become a dangerous place. Very little prevents any would-be criminal or mass murderer from getting weapons the old-fashioned way: at the gun shop, which is a lot quicker and a lot less costly than trying to 3D print a plastic one at home.
Anyone who follows local news would not have to wait long for a new shooting in Philadelphia. According to statistics kept by The Philadelphia Inquirer, 750 people were shot in this city in the 214-day period between January 1 and Aug. 2. That’s 3.5 people shot per day, 25.5 people shot every week. Of those shot, 128 died, which means someone is shot dead in this city every 40 hours.
I haven’t fact checked every shooting in the city, but I’d still bet that none of the bullets fired came from a 3D printed gun. While 3D printing poses a new threat for which the consequences might be hard to imagine right now, it takes absolutely no imagination to see the dangers posed by the guns we already have.