Sunday, July 15, 2018

Printing Death in 3D

I generally don't write about politics here; after all, this blog is supposed to be a discussion about technology and writing. But sometimes technology and politics overlap, as in this case.

In Ch. 8 of Leveling the Playing Field (which I'm sure you've all read!), I talked about the advent of 3D printing and how it has changed manufacturing, mostly for the better. But not always for the better. One significant worry I had (and have) about 3D printing is that it can enable the proliferation of homemade weaponry, including very accurate reproductions of weapons such as the venerable 1911 semiautomatic pistol and the AR-15-type rifles that have been used in so many mass shootings over the past few years.

Now, I own weapons. I like to think of myself as one of those "responsible gun owners" we hear about. I own guns for sport, for protection, and for hunting. But I don’t believe that just anyone should be able to own just any gun, nor do I think there is anything wrong with having to pass background checks in order to purchase a weapon or being required to register many types of firearms. I'm not anti-gun; I'm anti-idiot.

Lesley is not a big gun person, but she has gone shooting with
me a couple of times. Naturally, it turns out that she's an
excellent shot.
Of course, what I think doesn't matter much, and just how little it matters was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when the Department of Justice surrendered to a "First Amendment" argument that a 3D data file representing a weapon was in fact protected free speech and could be hosted on (and downloaded from) a public-facing website. (The suit was filed by Cody Wilson, the inventor of the Liberator 3D-printed pistol about which I wrote in the book.) After a long, drawn-out court case, it appears that the DOJ has quietly settled with Wilson, whose stated goal has been to moot the gun control debate by showing that it can't be controlled. In the words of a recent Wired Magazine article, the DOJ promised to:

…change the export control rules surrounding any firearm below .50 caliber—with a few exceptions like fully automatic weapons and rare gun designs that use caseless ammunition—and move their regulation to the Commerce Department, which won't try to police technical data about the guns posted on the public internet.

Basically, this means that Wilson and his supporters have won the war. They've successfully blurred the line between the First and Second Amendments, guaranteeing that anyone can design and/or download-3D printer-compatible plans to just about any firearm. And, as any hacked corporation or repressive government can tell you, it's very, very difficult to police digital data. Even if you wanted to hide it (which Wilson and his allies do not), the data would get out; after all, it's just information. And these days, information (and misinformation) is pretty much everywhere.

It doesn't look like much, but this is a mockup of The Liberator,
possibly the first functional 3D printed handgun. Posting the
data file for this gun online is what got Cody Wilson embroiled
in a years-long lawsuit. The DOJ finally capitulated just weeks
ago. Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution-
Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
I don't really worry much about Wilson himself. He's an intelligent and seemingly stable young man, just one with whom I disagree politically. I'm not worried that he's about to snap and become a mass murderer. But I wonder how many mass murderers he's about to enable. Even one would be too many, I would think.

Some have drawn an analogy to an automobile--another tool that kills many thousands every year, pointing out that it is possible to build a motorized vehicle. But there are differences. The purpose of an automobile is not to kill people, of course. Like a hammer or other tool, it can be used to hurt people, but that's a misapplication of the tool, not its purpose. And it's certainly true that I could collect or (even build) parts and create a car. (Well, in my case, I'd have to make a few phone calls to my friend George Kelley, if I wanted the car to actually run.) But look what happens when I'm finished building this car, this tool capable of killing thousands every year: I'd have to license and register it. And I would myself have to be tested and licensed if I wanted to use the car.

This is Jeff Sessions. As US Attorney General, he is the
man in charge of the Department of Justice, the
cabinet department that just settled a lawsuit with Cody
Wilson that will result in the widespread proliferation
of 3D-printed weaponry. Image in the public domain.
I'm fine with having to register my car and license its driver. I'm also fine with having to register certain firearms and with having to license their users. But this technology—and the DOJ's capitulation to Wilson and the other plaintiffs—will make it very difficult to police the proliferation of this weaponry. Even if the authorities were to confiscate my weapon on some grounds (perhaps I'm a felon, perhaps I violated a restraining order, perhaps I've shown myself to have anger issues and have committed assaults), I could simply go home and (assuming I own the proper equipment), press a button, and go have dinner. By the time I'm finished with my after-dinner port (not that I would drink port—who the hell drinks port?!), I'd have a nice shiny new .45 pistol or an AR-15 receiver sitting in my printer.

And if I could do that, what could an angry ex-husband or wife do? What could a gang or a cartel do?