Or the Inability to “Uninvent” Simple Objects
by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger
Disclosure: I consider myself both a liberal and pro-2nd Amendment and my position on gun control is that while reasonable solutions can be found to prevent tragedies such as Newtown that going so far as to repeal the 2nd Amendment is both an ultimately futile solution (for the reasons discussed below) and most unwise Constitutionally speaking (for reasons discussed elsewhere on this blog). This article is not about my position on the 2nd Amendment.
In the wake of the horror of Newtown, a national debate has arisen between those who – at the extremes – would either outlaw guns or have them totally unrestricted. Most of the debate is somewhere in-between those two polar extremes. Most everyone agrees that keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally unstable and known criminals is not a bad idea. This column is not about that debate proper over gun control. It is about the nature of technology and law as it is framed by that debate. In specific, it is about 3-D printing and use of that technology to make firearms. Is the problem the technology or the user?
I’m about 120% geek, so stories about technology catch my eye and especially when they present a pressing nexus with the law. One story I’ve been following for the last year or so is the advent of consumer grade 3-D printing. It’s a fascinating technology and like all technologies or tools it can be used to either creative or destructive ends. Sometimes both at the same time. Recently there has been some more mainstream coverage of just this sort of thing involving the advent of the printed gun. Some people are upset by this technological development. “It’s too easy!” “People will misuse the technology!” “It’s the end of the world!” All are the cries of the concerned. I think this concern is largely unfounded. In fact, this technology will transform manufacturing and distribution of goods in almost unimaginable and mostly beneficial ways. However, this technology isn’t at the root of “the gun problem”.
The reason lies in the very nature of simple technologies. By “simple technologies” I mean any process or machine that can be built with a minimum of knowledge and with minimal skills. Guns are such a technology. Anyone with basic metal machining skills like those taught in high schools and vocational schools across this country can build a gun. By contrast, a complex technology is one that require a high degree of skill to utilize and often requires exotic materials or expensive, hard to replicate machine tools to manufacture. A nuclear weapon is an example of this kind of complex technology. To further illustrate the division between simple and complex technologies, consider a radiological weapon also known as a “dirty bomb”. Although technically a nuclear weapon because it utilizes exotic radioactive components, a dirty bomb is not a complex technology. It’s a simple explosive that is used to distribute radioactive material to cause contamination. It is not a fission or fusion device both of which require an advanced skills set and very specialized and expensive manufacturing technology to build. A dirty bomb is what we can consider to be a “middle technology” device. It requires a difficult to obtain materials, but the device itself can be built by someone with minimal skills.
With these definitions in place, let’s consider the impact of 3-D printing as it relates to manufacturing both legally and societally and why trying to ban simple technologies is ultimately futile.
What is 3-D printing? Also known as additive manufacturing, 3-D printing is exactly what the name implies – a way to print objects. Although the technology has been around for almost 30 years, the public’s access to these devices is a fairly new thing. In the past, these machines have been too big, too costly, too slow, or too inefficient and hard to use for mass production. They were usually confined to use in industrial prototyping. Like almost all technology, it has improved over time and economies of scale kick in so that the price of these printers has finally come down to an acceptable mass market consumer level. The basic idea is that a liquid or a powder is deposited layer by layer to create objects designed in a computer aided design (CAD) program. Because of the nature of the process is accreted materials, some very intricate objects can be made that cannot be made by any other process. The range of materials that can be printed is astounding, ranging from simple plastics and resins to metal to artificial stone to food stuffs to human tissues, and although using some of these materials (like human tissues) is still a work in progress, someday you’ll be able to print anything from a lamp to a human kidney either to your desktop or to a centralized manufacturing facility. For many objects, that day is today.
Below is a presentation at TED by Lisa Harouni, the co-founder and CEO of Digital Forming, a company that works on the software side of 3D printing – the design tools needed to run the new generation of 3D printing processes. It is an excellent primer on what this technology is capable of and it answers a fundamental question: Why doesn’t everyone have a 3-D printer on their desk today? The answer is that most people don’t have the ability to generate the CAD data that drives these devices. That is where her company (and others) come into the picture. I strongly recommend watching the video to get a feel of both how the technology works and the vast potential it represents.
The bottom line is that making both simple and complex objects has become much easier. It has entered fully into the information age, replacing basic machining skills with simply the need of the right design data and access to a 3-D printer than can print using the desired materials.
Let’s consider this technology in the light of weapons manufacturing and the law. A company out of Austin, Texas – Defense Distributed – has made this subject a hot button political issue by manufacturing the lower receiver portion of AR-15’s using plastics. For the purposes of the law, the lower receiver is “the gun” part of the AR-15 that the ATF regulates. It is the part of the weapon that contains the trigger assembly, the clip, the ammunition feed and ejection mechanisms and the firing pin mechanism. The upper receiver is the barrel and the stock of the weapon and is not regulated. Anyone can buy these gun parts freely and over the Internet. Interestingly enough, ATF regulations only apply to the manufacture for sale of the lower receiver. You can build one for personal use or as a prototype without any restriction at all. This is how Defense Distributed got their start building plastic guns. Now some of you with machining skills and manufacturing experience are probably questioning how sturdy is a plastic automatic weapon? They are subject to a lot of stress in normal operation. Won’t they melt and or crack under the pressure of firing? This is a materials science and design issue. The initial designs from Defense Distributed could only fire about 100 rounds before failing. Their more recent designs can fire over 600 rounds before failing. I expect that soon they will be comparable to traditionally machined metal parts in reliability. Recently, Defense Distributed applied for and was granted an ATF manufactures license meaning that they can sell plastic AR-15 lower receiver assemblies to the public. But they aren’t choosing to do this. They want to make their gun designs available for free. When I said that Defense Distributed created a political hot button issue, it is important to realize that this was not by accident. Indeed, the video below – in addition to showing its products in action – shows that this is a company with a distinct political agenda. Just so, the founder of Defense Distributed, Cody R. Wilson, is the driver of that political agenda. Although the documentary below is most certainly made with a pro-gun regulation bias, the words of Wilson himself speak clearly to his own agenda(s).
On April Fool’s Day, Defense Distributed further illustrated that their agenda is as much political as it is entrepreneurial by changing their web page to look as if their domain had be seized.
Of particular note is the use of the false conspiracy charge to “Violate the Undetectable Firearms Act (18 U.S.C. § 922(p)”. This goes right to the most common fear that the idea of a plastic gun appeals to – an undetectable firearm. Not many people are aware of the Undetectable Firearms Act or that the act is “sunsetting”. It is currently up for renewal and will play a big part in the ongoing gun control debate. When it was originally enacted in 1988, a plastic gun was more science fiction than science fact, but it has a legitimate aim to make guns undetectable by traditional means such as metal detectors prime facie illegal. Which is interesting in the case of the Defense Distributed’s designs. They are calling them “plastic guns” but in fact they are semi-plastic. The upper receiver assembly is still largely metal components. In fact, barring a breakthrough in materials science, any long weapon such as a rifle or shotgun is going to require traditionally manufactured barrels due to heat and stress issues. It will probably happen some day, but any such material is most likely going to be a metal alloy and thus still detectable by traditional means. So is the fear of plastic guns as they relate to the AR-15 rational?
Not really. The rifle still needs both the lower and upper receivers to work, it’s compound nature means it is detectable and it’s a big gun. You can’t really hide one on your person without looking suspect in the first place. Also consider that statistically, long guns of any sort including assault rifles are used in a very small percentage of violent crimes. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (admittedly a bit out of date since the latest published data is from 2001), out of all violent crimes, 34% involve handguns and only 4% involve “other guns” which includes all rifles and shotguns. A fully plastic gun is on the way though. However, I think most in this portion of the debate miss the true threat of plastic guns. It’s not assault rifles. It’s derringers, assassination weapons and other small handgun designs that are not only undetectable but easy to conceal. This has already been a key plot point in film. “In the Line of Fire” featured John Malkovich as an assassin bent on killing the President using a plastic two-shot derringer – an item perfectly suitable for additive manufacture. In this regard, the concern over plastic weapons is not only rational, but prudent. A guy toting an AR-15, plastic or not, is easy to spot. A guy with a derringer? Not so much until the damage is done.
Consider that guns, as a simple technology, are easy to build. Consider too that 3-D printing is just another tool in manufacturing albeit one with amazing potential. Both guns and this emergent technology are just tools. A tool has no intent. The intent rests with the user. Can you ban simple tools? Not really. Once a technology is made, the easier it is to make, the harder it is to control. A ban on guns is unlikely to work for this reason and a ban on 3-D printing would have a negative impact that far outweighs the potential benefit from such manufacturing processes being available for both prototyping and mass production. Conversely, this is does not apply to complex technologies such as nuclear weapons. Both material supplies and specialized machine tools required are from a very narrow band of suppliers and not easily replaceable or subject to substitution if at all.
So in the case of simple technologies, what is the better legal solution? Prohibiting an object? Or prohibiting and ameliorating human action in using said objects?
The genie is out of the bottle on guns. We cannot “uninvent” them. This suggests that the best solution is to control and mitigate the human factor as well as we can under law without undue interference on those citizens who use the tools and technology for legitimate beneficial ends. By the same token, we owe a duty of protection to society as a whole from those who would misuse tools to nefarious ends. I can build a fire – the most basic of tools. I can cook with it, keep warm with it and it presents no problem to others when I use it responsibly. I’ll go to prison though if through negligence or intentionally I build a fire that kills people. We control that technology not by banning it, but by punishing those who misuse it.
Is it more effective to seek to control the user instead of the tool? In the context of the gun debate, that is precisely what universal background checks seek to do. Or should the focus be on limiting simple technology itself? Banning tools that are quite easily made by someone with a modicum of skills?
Consider too that limiting technology not only stifles innovation in general but in most cases would simply drive the technology underground. Technology is always a two-edged sword. We will never be successful in containing simple technologies as a practical matter. They say idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, but hands belong to people who make decisions and can form intent, not inanimate objects which can do neither.
Users? Or technology? What’s the most fruitful path to pursue in regulation when our simple technologies outstrips our collective ethics? Is there a comprehensive solution or are we bound to floundering along, feeling our way through the lights and shadows of both our technology and our social mores on a case by case basis?
What do you think?
~Submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger