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On 3D-Printed Guns, Government, and King Canute


In 1995, a flabbergasted and irritated Senator Chuck Grassley informed the United States Senate that “83 and one half percent of all computerized photographs available on the Internet are pornographic.” Congress must act, proposed Grassley, “to help parents who are under assault in this day and age.” Online, he observed, “there is a flood of vile pornography — and we must act to stem this tide.” 

Whatever one’s view of pornography — or of Grassley’s ill-fated stand against it — the senator was destined merely to learn by experience what King Canute knew by instinct: However loudly you command them, some tides just will not be stemmed. “Continuing to rise as usual,” chronicled Henry of Huntingdon in the twelfth century, “it dashed over [Canute’s] feet and legs without respect to his royal person.” Witnessing his planned failure, Canute “leapt backwards, saying, ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings.’” Then he hung up his crown, never to wear it again.

Nine centuries later, we haven’t yet learned our lesson. In our current “day and age,” 28,000 internet users view pornography each second; 266 new porn websites appear each day; and on its own just one of the 42,000 adult sites currently in force on the web kicks out enough data to fill 1/15th of the total Internet capacity between the United States and Great Britain. It appears that our politicians have yet to realize that they are living in a brave new world. This morning, another Chuck — Schumer, this time — told CNN’s Erin Burnett that Congress must move to ban the manufacture of guns with 3-D printers, which he described as “beyond the pale.”

If he pursues this beyond the soundbite, Schumer will have his work cut out. Under current federal law, you may build as many firearms as you wish, provided that you conform to existing firearms rules and do not sell them without a license. One of those rules, codified in the Undetectable Firearms Act, is that all weapons must be built in such a way that will set off a metal detector. Here, Schumer has sensed an opportunity: This morning, he complained that because one cannot guarantee that amateur gun-printers will comply with the law, amateur gun-printing must be outlawed.

That it cannot be guaranteed that existing amateur gun-makers will comply with the law either appears not to have occurred to the senator. Nor has he explained the material difference between someone manufacturing a gun in their garage and someone printing one in their garage. Both provide the opportunity for violations of the law; why move to do away completely with one and not the other? Moreover, quite how Schumer would imagine the federal government can effectively ban the home printing of firearms has not been broached. Can it be illegal to share blueprints in America? Almost certainly not. Indeed, even Representative Steve Israel, who has proposed legislation, concedes that criminalizing the creation, distribution, or storage of digital files would be a step too far. In an interview with Forbes, Israel confirmed that under his plan: 

You want to download the blueprint, we’re not going near that. You want to buy a 3D printer and make something, buy a 3D printer and make something. But if you’re going to download a blueprint for a plastic weapon that can be brought onto an airplane, there’s a penalty to be paid.

Nonetheless, Israel doesn’t explain how he proposes going about actually prosecuting violators. In theory, I suppose, the state could insist that all 3D printers must run software that allows only the printing of approved files. But this is likely to work out about as well as Digital Rights Management does on downloaded music and videos: fine if you have no intention of getting around it; terribly if you do. Moreover, any effective such system would require that the state attempt to condone and then to track all 3D files – an intolerable violation of privacy. Although I wouldn’t underestimate the Left’s willingness to throw all attendant privacy and liberty concerns out of the window in pursuit of whichever prohibition it considers imperative this week, such a move would likely have a tough time getting through Congress.

The stark truth is that the Fourth Amendment gaurantees that Americans can own pretty much whatever they can get away with. Combine this with modern technology and, as J. D. Tucille writes on Reason today, “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.” The only realistic path for Representative Israeli and his ilk is to ensure that violators are prosecuted if and when it is discovered that they have a printed gun in their posession. But by then it is generally too late. Granted, Schumer and Israel might have some success in stopping law-abiding people from printing guns for kicks. But if, as they state, their concern is that criminals will try to get untraceable plastic weapons through metal detectors and do harm to the innocent, then merely making it illegal is unlikely to be helpful where it counts. No doubt we will hear variants of “if it saves one life” from advocate of government action, and we will be instructed not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Perhaps this is fair. But even those who would sign on to such a measure should start by accepting that they will primarily be establishing a framework for punishment, and not a system for prevention. That ship has sailed.



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