Why 3D-Printed Untraceable Guns Could Be Good For AmericaPosted: May 9, 2013
In the past few days, Forbes writer Andy Greenberg broke a pair of dramatic stories on Cody Wilson’s quest to build an untraceable plastic gun using commercially available 3D-printing technology. First, Greenberg publishedexclusive photos of the completed firearm, then he reported on a successful test firing of a live .380 cartridge.
Although the technology is still in its infancy, Wilson’s innovation has already sparked heated debate. Some gun rights advocates (including Wilson) argue this means current gun laws will soon be obsolete. They welcome the fact that home hobbyists may soon be able to build functioning firearms without any background check or government record. Others are alarmed, concerned that this would enable criminals to more easily obtain firearms. Congressman Steve Israel has already stated his intent to modify current laws to ban such guns.
However, Congressman Israel may be too late. Once thousands of motivated hobbyists start downloading open source gun designs and posting their refinements, we’ll likely see rapid technical advances. But Cody Wilson’s real impact on America may not be technological but political — and in a good way.
Government will likely be unable to suppress this application of 3D-printing technology. True, they could attempt to outlaw the possession of such untraceable guns, but that would be as ineffective as current laws banning the possession of marijuana. Similarly, the government could attempt to require 3D-printers be installed with special software that only allows them to build objects from data files certified as “approved” by the authorities. But given how quickly hackers routinely “jailbreak” software restrictions on smartphones, the same would likely happen to software restrictions on 3D-printers. In other words, the genie is probably already out of the bottle.
Nonetheless, how likely is an attempted government crackdown on 3D-printed guns? One clue comes from ATF agent Charles Houser, head of their National Tracing Center Division. In a recent CNBC interview, Houser stated that there was no “legitimate purpose” to making an untraceable gun and that seeking to build one indicated “criminal intent.”
However, current law already allows home hobbyists to build their own firearms provided they are for personal use only (and not for sale). Such guns are already “untraceable.” 3D-printing doesn’t change that basic fact — it merely allows a wider range of hobbyists without specialized machine shop skills to do what’s already legal.
The unease expressed over 3D-printed guns mirrors similar unease following the adoption of widespread cryptography for secure communications. Some opponents were concerned that ordinary Americans could use this technology to engage in criminal activities undetected by the government. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration pushed for the adoption of hardware backdoors to allow government to read otherwise secure e-mail as it saw fit. Even now, the FBI continues to seek wider powers to monitor citizens’ electronic communications on the grounds it’s necessary to stop terrorism.
Yes, the government has a legitimate role in stopping the misuse of cryptography for evil purposes, such as terrorist plots or the dissemination of digital contraband such as child pornography or pirated software. But that should not be a pretext for giving the government excessive power over innocuous private communications.
Similarly, government has a legitimate role in stopping gun crime. But this should not be a pretext for restricting 3D-printing technology.
Furthermore, University of Chicago professor (and co-author of the bestsellerFreakonomics) Steve Levitt has noted that most proposed gun controls have minimal impact on gun crime. One of the few ideas that does work is enhanced prison sentences for crimes committed with a gun. According to Levitt, the gun laws that work are ones “where you’re not tying it to the gun itself, you’re tying it to the use of guns that you don’t want.” This makes perfect sense. The government should not punish gun ownership by responsible adults, nor legitimate sporting or self-defense uses. Instead, the government should punish the misuse of a gun by criminals.
Citizens do not have a general obligation to communicate with others in a way that the government can readily understand. An honest person can have many legitimate personal or business reasons for private communications. Most Americans recognize this is not a sign of “criminal intent.” If the government has a specific need to monitor someone’s private electronic communications, the burden of proof should be on them to demonstrate their need for a warrant for appropriate wiretapping. Otherwise, anyone using cryptography should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Similarly, honest citizens should not have a general obligation to disclose to the government what firearms they’ve built or bought, provided they are for honest purposes. An honest person may wish to keep this information private to avoid becoming the target of thieves or unwanted political attacks. A desire for private firearms ownership is not proof of “criminal intent.” And if the government has a specific concern that someone is planning a crime with a gun (or any other tool), the burden of proof should be on the government prior to any search or other invasion of his privacy. Otherwise, anyone owning an “untraceable” 3D-printed gun should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Wilson’s innovation could thus spark a much-needed re-examination of American gun laws, including the current paradigm of imposing ever-increasing restrictions on millions of honest gun owners in an attempt to stop relatively fewer bad guys from committing gun crimes. By making it harder (if not nearly impossible) for the government to regulate gun possession and transfers, his development could move the government to instead (properly) focus its efforts on punishing gun misuse.
That is why I’m encouraged by the development of 3D-printed guns. Not because I want bad guys committing more gun crimes. But because I hope it sparks some vigorous discussions on deeper themes such as “innocent until proven guilty” and the proper scope of government. If enough people start debating these questions, Cody Wilson will have done America a real service.