The scariest piece in the news this week isn’t about the election or the economy or the threat of terrorism—though it touches on all three. It’s about the latest development in humanity’s ceaseless urge to invent things—subcategory, the ceaseless urge to invent things that let people do things more cheaply than before.
Specifically, it’s Nick Bilton’s “Disruptions” column in the business section of Monday’s New York Times. Bilton writes about 3-D printing—nothing new about that—and how it will soon enable people to build their own plastic, but very functional, handguns in the comfort of their homes. That’s news—and the more you think about it, the scarier it becomes.
According to Bilton, it will soon be possible to download a printing schematic from the internet (for free), hit “print” on your 3-D printer, “walk away, and a few hours later, you have a firearm.”
Three-D printers, for the uninitiated, are printers that use plastic, ceramics or metal to make 3-D objects through a process of spraying on the substance layer by layer, just as a slow regular printer spits out a written document line-by-line. Manufacturers have used such printers for years to make prototypes of products, or specialized plastic parts. As the cost of 3-D printers has fallen in recent years, manufacturers have begun marketing them to individuals. In the household market so far, the 3-D printer has chiefly been a novelty product that makes novelty products, or, more precisely, tchachtkes—small pottery, little animal figurines and the like.
Printers go for as low as $1,000 today, but the price has been falling. Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas, has been moonlighting by developing the schematics for a printed handgun. The plastic that comes out of printers today isn’t strong enough for some of the parts you’d need in a handgun, but such plastics may be on the way. Gunsmith Michael Guslick, Bilton reports, recently printed out some components of an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle (the same kind of weapon used in the Aurora movie theater killings). The printed components, Guslick said, were the only portions of the rifle that it’s not legal to purchase.
On his web site, Wilson calls the printed handgun “a 3-D printable personal defense system.” But will these homemade weapons be used for defense or offense? It’s not like it’s hard to buy a handgun in the United States, much less Texas; Americans do it all the time and can make their purchases, if they choose, for less money than it may take to print a handgun even if the printer price falls by 90 percent. So who would take the trouble to print a handgun at home?
The biggest market for such mishegas is probably the legion of gun nuts who fear that the government will ban all gun sales and come knocking on their door to seize their weapons. If they own a 3-D printer, however, they’ll be able to thwart those meddlesome bureaucrats.
Troubling as such paranoia may be, it is as nothing next to the mindset that would characterize a second market for homemade firearms: those who wish to use handguns to do harm and don’t want to be impeded by law or detection. That could include convicted felons who can’t legally buy guns. That could include people who might want to carry plastic handguns onto airplanes or into government buildings, since security machinery detects metal but not plastic. And, as Bilton points out, after a handgun is used in the commission of a crime, what’s to stop the crime-committers from melting down their plastic handguns, reinserting the plastic into the printer, and reconfiguring it as a bobble-head doll?
As I noted, this bit of scary news isn’t about the election, though if Mitt Romney wins, it’s hard to imagine any intensification of gun control laws, even if the technology continues to advance to the point that homemade guns start popping up everywhere. It isn’t about the economy, though the impetus behind homemade printers is the age-old appeal of a new product that can turn out goods more cheaply. And it isn’t about the threat of terrorism – today. But it sure could be sometime soon.