Inevitably one of the first conversations I get in with people about 3d printers involves printing guns. In some sense this is understandable, typical of the trajectory of any technology where part of the hype cycle is imagining the worst possible use to which a technology can be put and then generating fear, almost always irrational, based on said scenario. Accordingly much of what is written in this regard is sensationalist and really not the type of nuanced careful thinking that is required here, to be sure there are exceptions but the, “ban 3d printers cause everyone will soon be making their own guns” is not really the useful place from which to begin the conversation.
To start with, we are not exactly at the point where the average desktop printer can actually just print off a working gun. Within the US context at least, there are much easier ways to acquire a firearm (although in Japan where gun laws are different this is not the case). And while not a problem at this particular moment, it is something worth legally, and philosophically thinking about, as a broader question: What happens when controlling manufacturing and distribution channels is no longer a sufficient strategy for controlling an objects distribution within the culture? When manufacturing is distributed control becomes much harder. For a good sense of some of the issues here, and a brief background on 3d printed guns in the US context its worth watching this Vice Video on Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed who is at the center of the 3d printing guns movement.
But more narrowly there is another legal question here, is it currently illegal to print a gun? and more importantly, again within the US context is it even constitutional to ban the printing of 3d guns. Last year Philadelphia became the first city to ban the printing of guns. Leave aside whether or not this is just political attention/headline grabbing, or even enforceable, there is another question: Would this law stand up to a constitutional challenge?
Now I am sure there are arguments on both sides, reasons legal scholars would argue that for and against the laws constitutionality. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a case in the not to distant future. So in my research on this question I ended up reading an article by Peter Jensen-Haxel, 3d printers, Obsolete Firearm Supply Controls, and the Right to Build Self-Defense Weapons Under Heller. Now I am not sure I am completely persuaded by this argument but Jensen-Haxel does make a strong case that the Supreme Court ruling in the Heller case would lend itself to a ruling that citizens have the right to print 3d guns that are otherwise not illegal to own.
The reasoning is that the 2nd Amendment is about a citizens right to acquire firearms, that we interpret that right to mean purchase from another manufacturer is just a particular historical anomaly. Indeed as the article points out “it appears American history supports a general right to make one’s own arms for personal use, without exception” (479). And what is more as the article points out, if you believe people have a right to arm themselves for self defense than it logically follows that people ought to have the right to manufacture their own weapons for this purpose, especially manufacture their own custom weapons to suit their own personal physical needs. Part of the ruling in Heller says that outlawing handguns is unfair because people who are incapable of holding a larger firearm (like a rifle) are disadvantaged. Colt made all men equal, not the rifle. So if you are someone who has the use of only one hand then a handgun is pretty much your only option for a firearm. By extension people ought to have the right, according to this train of thinking, to manufacture guns to meet their own particular physical requirements. A blanket outlaw of all firearm home manufacturing would affect citizens unequally.
Now lets leave aside for a moment whether this reasoning is sound, whether you agree with it or not, or whether or not you agree that the 2nd amendment even protects the right of ubiquitous firearm ownership. What is interesting here to me is the way that technology, in this case 3d printing creates a question of the law (or more accurately our social values) that was previously not available. Lessig calls these “latent ambiguities,” matters that were ambiguous in the law that didn’t have to be settled because the technology didn’t demand it. In his book Code 2.0 he raises a host of these. (For example would an automated system scanning emails that doesn’t involve human intervention and which did not interrupt or intrude on citizens conversations be unlawful search and seizure? It really depends on what you believe the law was designed to protect?). Now in Lessig’s work he almost exclusively focuses on the way that software/the internet raises a host of legal questions and latent ambiguities that we have to resolve. But with 3d printing I think we get a whole host of additional questions that have to be answered, and 3d printed guns become just one place where we see this clearly.
As the Jensen-Haxel article points out, there was a relatively common right to self manufacture weapons. Common law recognizes this right and one can see it prior to the rise of industrial manufacturing of weapons. With industrialization and mass manufacturing we tend to think of manufacturing and ownership of items as two distinct acts, often regulating the former far more than the later. Lots of things are illegal to sell or make with certain permits and/or licenses but not to own. This makes historical sense, if we want to prevent toys from ending up in the hands of kids who might choke on them, we make a law that says toys have to have a label that says choking hazard.
So in many ways 3d printing (or home manufacturing more broadly speaking) hearkens back to an older time, before industrial/mass manufacturing, where things are individually produced for use or consumption by the people who will be using them, but in another sense represents a new moment where this individual manufacturing is also massively automated and distributed. Our current paradigm of thinking, and the law is just one section of this, isn’t really equipped to deal with the range of questions and issues this shift will bring about. Look beyond guns, what about all the things we restrict in manufacturing and selling that people will now just be able to individually produce, again back to the toys that are choking hazards. In some ways the current licensing and legal system will work, you will probably still need an inspection for your 3d printed house, or your printed car will still need a license and inspection to be on the road, but in many ways we will have to rethink our organizational regimes which rely on the difference between information and objects. (And even in the housing case there will still be problems as parts and pieces are often labeled as having passed a certain manufacturing standard and thus rated for use in a particular instance.)
Going back to the guns to see how this is a bigger problem, what constitutes selling a gun? If someone sells you the blueprints to make a gun is that selling you a gun? Right now no, the information itself isn’t regulated. We just regulate the selling. The right to keep and bear arms is interpreted as the right to purchase a manufactured weapon from a licensed seller, but that’s about the object not the information, which in the very near future is going to be far more important. (Similarly making Moonshine is illegal, but I can find all the information online on how to do it, even buy all the parts, just the manufacturing is illegal. Which really doesn’t prevent anyone from making their own Moonshine at home.) So when people talk about the revolutionary potential of 3d printing or the Maker movement I think what we are really talking about is the rise of the importance of information and the decreasing importance of materiality. Legislating, licensing, restricting material isn’t going to be do effective, information, the plans, the details, the how tos are where the real purchase is at. And that is a much harder thing with which to deal.
Or, to make the point with one interesting example: What will the NRA do? You might think that they would be all for 3d printing guns, more guns for the people. But really since the NRA is an organization that represents and protects the gun manufacturing industry, at home printing, which would be fewer gun sales might not be so attractive. Sure they could sell ammunition, or plans, or kits or something, but I am guessing if the practice became common they wouldn’t be too happy about decreased revenue. The NRA’s interest isn’t in gun information becoming common, but rather gun objects, only if they sell them though, becoming common.
Image: Flickr: 3d printed gun parts alexpb