First they were plastic, then they were metal. Before too long they will be everywhere.
I refer, of course, to 3-D-printed guns. This week, in Austin, Texas, an engineering firm called Solid Concepts printed the first fully functional metal handgun. “It’s actually a funny story,” the firm’s spokeswoman Alyssa Parkinson tells me. “A couple of months ago, two engineers frustrated with reading that laser sintering wasn’t as accurate or strong as other manufacturing techniques decided to put a gun together.” Slowly the pair developed the blueprints and specced the parts, and eventually had a functional .45 ACP 1911. “They weren’t sure how the company’s VPs would react,” Parkinson laughs.
The gamble paid off. The VPs loved it, and the company has been inundated with press requests ever since. Nevertheless, it has been unable to prevent the usual freak-out. Both Solid Concepts’s blog and its YouTube page are full of wild criticisms, and the press coverage has been typically fearful. “Uh-oh, this 3D-printed metal handgun actually works,” screamed a typical headline.
The development is notable. The “Liberator” gun that Defense Distributed printed out of plastic earlier this year was one thing. That fell apart after four shots. But a metal gun that works well enough to have “fired 50 successful rounds and hit a few bull’s eyes at over 30 yards” — and remained in full working order afterwards? Well, that’s quite another. Earlier in the year, Democratic senator Chuck Schumer breathlessly told CNN’s Erin Burnett that Congress should flatly ban the manufacture of firearms with 3-D printers. What must he think now that the technology has progressed from plastic to stainless steel?
Well, the first thing he might think is, “calm down Chuck.” Currently, as CNET notes, the 3-D printer required to print a metal firearm “costs more than private college tuition” — Alyssa Parkinson tells me the price tag is between $100,000 and $500,000. Not to mention that “they’re difficult to use.” And while this will not always be the case — computers once took up whole rooms and the first home printers cost up to $20,000, remember — it is going to be a long time before the cost comes down enough to enable your average citizen to indulge in them as a hobby. “You can buy a much cheaper gun online illegally,” notes Parkinson. Still, the wider question is an important one. I have a lot of time for Reason’s J. D. Tucille, who has contended that “to the extent that it ever existed, the age of enforceable restrictions on personal weapons, or objects of any sort, is coming to an end.”
“You don’t think guns are a little different?” Bill Maher asked me earlier in the year during a discussion of 3-D printing. My answer, as you might imagine, was “no.” It is both tempting and easy for critics to pretend that defenders of 3-D-printed firearms are “gun nuts” or “freedom extremists,” but in truth my position has very little to do with the Second Amendment. My question is not whether printing guns at home should be allowed but instead, “Can we ban this without considerably changing our way of life?”
A colleague of mine at National Review, Kevin D. Williamson, likes to observe that it wasn’t so much that the prohibition of alcohol “failed” as it was that Americans decided that achieving the end was not worth the cost. If it had so wished — and if it had enjoyed the blessing of the people needed to change the social order — the state could have enforced the Volstead Act brutally. It could have poisoned the entire alcohol supply, terrorizing lawbreakers into obedience; it could have executed everybody caught in public with a drink; it could have incurred great debts hiring swathes of officials to enforce it.
It didn’t, of course, because the people ultimately did not think that enforcing the law was worth the price that they were being asked to pay. This is to say that Prohibition was not just a practical question but an ideological choice. What good was a ban on alcohol when the American way of life was suffering in the name of its execution? I suspect that the same will go for 3-D printing. Even the most wide-eyed of gun-control advocates recognizes that merely passing a law against a certain type of firearm is not on its own sufficient to prevent it from being circulated. Certainly, you could make it illegal to print your own Colt 1911 and ensure that violators are punished after the fact. But how are you going to ensure that people do not print them up front? Any meaningfully effective attempt to do so would inevitably involve violations of free speech, of privacy, of due process, and of the principle of prior restraint. Is it worth it?
It would involve a much more active government presence on the Internet, too. Back in May, authorities forced Defense Distributed to remove from its website the digital blueprints for its plastic 3-D-printable gun. The group complied, but not before the plans had been downloaded 100,000 times and shared not only on sympathetic websites but across distributed peer-to-peer networks. How, precisely, does the state intend to stop this from happening in the future? Is it going to introduce a filter through which all traffic must pass — perhaps one of the sort that is in place in Iran and China? Might it require the manufacturers of 3-D printers to prevent the printing of certain shapes? Or report to the police anybody who does so?
And where is the line? Federal law holds that Americans may build at home as many firearms as they want, as long as they do not build — or sell — anything that is illegal or that they are not licensed to pass on. The gun that Solid Concepts printed in metal was a pretty standard handgun, of the sort that is clearly protected by the Heller decision and legal in every state in the union. Why would Congress make it illegal for this gun to be printed at home but not make it illegal for amateur gun manufacturers to produce firearms using a different technique? Because more people can potentially do the former? Both processes provide the opportunity for serious violations of the law. Why move to do away completely with one and not the other?
America has been here before. Back in 1995, a greatly worried Chuck Grassley told the U.S. Senate that “there is a flood of vile pornography” online and that the government should “act to stem this tide.” In the abstract, Americans may well disagree as to the appropriateness of government action in this area, but they cannot credibly disagree that Grassley’s proposal now looks astonishingly naïve. In 2013, 28,000 Internet users view pornography every second, and the archipelago of sex has grown so extensive that 266 new porn websites appear each day, joining the 14 percent of all Web searches and 4 percent of all websites that feature pornographic material. Given that they operate on precisely the same principle, once the cost of hardware comes down, there is no reason to think that 3-D-printed firearms — or 3-D-printed anything — will be any different. That genie, I’m afraid, is out of the bottle. America might as well embrace it.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.