In just two days, blueprints for the world's first (almost) entirely 3D printed gun have made their way onto the hard drives of over 100,000 potential quick-draws around the world. And the idea of this many people gaining non-regulated access to lethal weapons this quickly should be sending us into a mass, hysterical moral panic, right? Slow down there, cowboy.
Designed by non-profit group Defense Distributed and carrying a name as comical as it is unsettling, "The Liberator" itself shouldn't be what's making you uneasy, nor should 100,000 downloads. It's theoretically disconcerting, sure, but this incarnation of the 3D printed gun isn't going to do much to upset the social order. And neither are the people who know how to build it.
While that massive number of blueprint holders sounds daunting, it's not like 100,000 anarchists are going to be waving around plastic pop-guns by this weekend. In fact, since the plans are totally free and open to the public, why wouldn't someone want to get a look at this anarchist's dream made digital? Destructive and terrifying as the final product may be, it's hard to argue that the concept itself isn't fascinating. We already know the gun works; why not get a closer look at its impressive engineering and design?
Plus, this project has been getting massive amounts of media attention and cries of terror, creating a big ol' mess. So even if under different circumstances you wouldn't have thought twice about a 3D-printed anything, at this point, you're going to want to know what all the talking heads are screaming about. A huge number of these downloaders are voyeuristic onlookers, and a voyeur does not a future plastic-gun-wielder make.
Now, let's cross out the majority (hopefully) of that 100,000 person pie who will take one look at the file, satisfy their curiosity, and doom it to an eternity in recycle bin purgatory without so much as an afterthought. This leaves us with an admittedly probably still sizable group of individuals who, for whatever reason, can't wait to get their hands a gun that looks deceptively like a harmless child's toy. And a totally unregulated one at that.
A few jittery nerves might be warranted at this point, but one of the good things about being in the infancy of the 3D printing revolution is that people's ability to actually, physically reproduce what lies in these blueprints is still severely limited. And should you somehow have access to a 3D printer, you're going to need to make sure it's the right 3D printer.
To print a gun with a decent chance of functioning, you'll have to step it up from the £1,500 consumer-oriented Makerbot to something with a little more pro power. Something like the £5,000, second-hand Stratasys machine Defense Distributed used, for instance. Of course, Stratasys seized the printer last October as soon as it realised exactly what Defense Distributed was doing with it. So you're not going to have a lot of support in your endeavour, to say the least, and even if you did it would cost orders of magnitude more than pretty much anything you'd find at a gun show.
On any practical, economic level, the choice to 3D print when shopping for firearms would be decidedly absurd.
At this point, assuming you do actually want to one day hold a single-shot, plastic gun in your hands and have access to a 3D printer, you're still not quite ready for target practice. One essential piece your 3D printer can't whip up is the Liberator's metal firing pin, without which your hunk of ABS plastic is effectively useless.
Additionally, Defense Distributed's plans call for a a six-ounce piece of steel in the body of the gun — a little piece of steel that, essentially, is the only thing keeping these legal in the US. The Undetectable Firearms Act explicitly bans any gun that can't be detected with a metal detector. Without this piece of steel, there's virtually no way of knowing who might be packing plastic-encased heat.
In all likelihood, anyone willing to 3D-print illegal guns also probably wouldn't hold any qualms about obtaining a far superior, far cheaper firearm through equally illegal means. So while laws surrounding the Liberator are still hazy and need clarification, its impracticality outweighs any real benefit for hooligans, criminals, and otherwise ne'er-do-wells.
So while those 100,000 downloaders aren't as threatening as they may first appear, there's still plenty of cause for unease.
Try as we might, there's virtually no way to keep people from accessing these files once they're on the internet. The US government has, at least, begun to acknowledge the threat in the country where most of the commotion over Defence Distributed originates from. New York congressmen Steve Israel and Chuck Schumer have been lobbying to renew the Undetectable Firearms Act but not without a key addition: banning 3D printed firearms altogether.
It's a nice thought, but the US Congress also doesn't have the best track record for getting things done — ever. So with technology advancing at a faster pace than we're able to keep track of, much less regulate, anticipatory measures may be the only way to make sure our own innovation doesn't also become our downfall.