I was having a conversation with my mother-in-law and wife a couple of weeks ago over lunch and was shocked my wife’s mom had never heard of 3D printing. I started off by describing prototyping and other standard applications, but then talked about some of the current events in the space like printing guns. She and my wife’s jaws dropped thinking about all the implications involved with what could happen. Her recent favorite fear was a criminal burning a plastic gun after a crime to get rid of the evidence.
One of the groups jumping into the debate is Defense Distributed and their download site called DefCad. At this site you can download printable gun parts or in some recent cases complete 3D printable gun prototypes. Just Google “3D printed gun” and you’ll find lots of video, news and information on the recent happenings, so I’ll skip most of that here. If you want a good summary about the current state of 3D printed guns there’s a great radio interview with the DefCad people here. (Note that there are also some strong anarchy overtones and a lot of talk about BitCoin, but it is a great explanation of who they are, what their goals are and current technology limitations)
One implication of 3D printed firearms was on display on a recent episode of CSI. In the episode the bad guys printed out single use guns to commit the crimes that were able to initially befuddle the investigators. It was great to see them accurately portray the state of the art being that a complete printed gun has some longevity issues, so single use made sense. It was a small part of the episode, but was a powerful mainstream mention of the topic.
We’re in the early days of this and the majority of the public is ignorant to all the implications of this new technology. No doubt mainstream media coverage will eventually latch on to this and there will be an outcry for legislation. I think the 3D community needs to seize the opportunity to educate so that any new laws aren’t passed from a position of ignorance. You can already make a cheap plastic gun with just a pen and a 0.22 bullet (popular in prisons) and find plans for it in seconds on Google. I remember when color printers came out and everyone feared that people would just print money at home. This fear was overblown as is probably most of the fear of 3D printed weapons. If you’re smart enough to print a 3D weapon, you’re probably smart enough to get one another way. If you ban the files it’ll probably be like illegal digital music files, you can still find them if you look hard enough. My dad always said, “padlocks keep the honest people honest” and I’d imagine the same would be true here. No doubt someone will use a 3D printed something for a stupid act at some point, but I think we have to be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater just like we didn’t ban color printers on counterfeit fears.