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And that gets to the 3-D gun movement’s fundamental error - their belief that information can’t be controlled, and that its mere existence will somehow force gun control advocates to rethink their approach. That simply isn’t true.
Though the Internet has made all kinds of information more widely accessible, governments have proven adept at curbing all kinds of data they want to keep under wraps. A file containing instructions for a 3-D gun won’t help you much in North Korea, Syria or Iran; there, where the governments have the ability to completely cut off the Internet and limit sophisticated machines like 3-D printers, you’ll be much better off getting a real gun.
Even non-repressive regimes can impose harsh penalties to limit the spread of certain information. The United States couldn’t stop WikiLeaks from distributing secret diplomatic cables, but it did manage to strike a terrible blow to the group when it cut off its funding sources. In the same way, by imposing strict penalties for the distribution and possession of child pornography, Western governments have severely limited its spread online.
The rise of file-sharing seems to support the 3-D gun movement’s claims - people share movies and songs illegally online, and no government has been able to stop them. But note that doing so isn’t completely safe; if the authorities set their mind to it, they can bankrupt you for sharing songs online. Countries where guns are already strictly curbed could impose similarly harsh measures against the distribution of plans for 3-D guns - and if they enforce them strictly, they might well limit their availability.
It’s not out of the question that such measures could be imposed in the United States, too. If 3-D printers were accessible enough that it became easy for felons, the mentally ill and kids to make their own guns - especially if those weapons were undetectable by metal detectors - 3-D guns would quickly be considered a dangerous public menace.
If the gun lobby didn’t support these weapons, either, it’s conceivable that lawmakers would impose severe restrictions on the 3-D printer industry, which, of course, isn’t protected by the Second Amendment. Lawmakers could require 3-D printer manufacturers to prevent their machines from printing certain files - in the same way your DVD player can’t play movies from a different region - and impose harsh penalties for circumventing those rules. They could even make you register your printer the way you’ve got to register your car.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that the governments should fight 3-D-printed guns the way they’ve gone after child porn or even pirated movies. I’m just pointing out the folly of the 3-D gun movement’s rhetoric - the idea that, because 3-D guns might be available, their spread is unstoppable. That’s plainly untrue.
Finally, I wonder why Cody Wilson needs a 3-D gun to prove that we live in a world where information is tantamount to weaponry. We all know that we already live in such a world. Last week, before you could download plans for a workable 3-D-printed gun, you could find plans for all kinds of other weapons online - bombs, poisons, bioweapons, and many other horrors. We’ve just seen a terrible demonstration of this fact: Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are alleged to have created the pressure-cooker bombs they used to attack the Boston Marathon by using off-the-shelf parts and plans published by Inspire, an al-Qaida-affiliated online magazine.
Note what happened to Samir Khan, the American behind Inspire: The U.S. government killed him in a drone strike. What’s more, no one sees the Boston bombing as a sign that we should forget about controlling traditional explosives - the fact that al-Qaida published bomb plans online doesn’t mean we should stop worrying about bombs that can be produced without online guidance. To suggest so would be ridiculous.
That same logic applies to printable guns. Sure, they may be a threat someday, when they are as cheap and easy to produce as any other printout. But today, and for some time to come, the digital plan for the 3-D-printed gun is a lot like Inspire’s recipe for a pressure-cooker bomb. Even after you get the plan, you need special equipment, know-how, and determination to implement it, and most people aren’t going to have all the ingredients necessary to make these weapons viable.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate’s technology reporter and the author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.”
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.