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Law and order
2 January 2013

Why gun control is about to get a whole lot harder

Do you remember desktop publishing? It was all the rage in the 1980s and 1990s when people realised that with a home computer and a printer they could produce their own leaflets and newsletters.

DTP hasn’t gone away, of course. It’s just gone to the internet, in fact to a very large extent it is the internet (think Facebook, Twitter, blogging and all the rest of it). Certainly, you wouldn’t be reading this now if it wasn’t for desktop publishing.

Now just think what desktop manufacturing could achieve. At a price, you can already purchase 3D printers for the home – capable of printing a small solid object in plastic or some other medium. Though not capable of anything like high volume production, 3D printers are allowing innovators to prototype products and components in ways that have never been possible before.

But there is a downside. As Devin Coldewey points out on the TechCrunch website, some 3D printers are already capable of fabricating guns:

  • “If we as a country, and indeed we as a global community, are going to seriously address the question of gun control, we need to address the issue of fabricated weapons and weapon plans, or else the discussion will be moot. This is because the proliferation of 3D printed weaponry changes both the definition of ‘gun’ and of what it means to ‘control’ it.”
  • “What is a gun? A barrel is not a gun, nor is a stock, or a sight, or a trigger. But at some point you put these and a few other objects together and you have a gun...”

Coldewey is writing from an American perspective, where, for obvious and tragic reasons, gun control is a burning issue. But it may be that the issue of 3D-printed weaponry is of greater relevance to us in Britain. 

After all, we take gun control for granted. Not complete control, of course; but, unlike America, we don’t expect guns to be easily and routinely accessible to any petty criminal or random nutcase. 3D printers could change all of that. It’s not just that the specifications of a gun – or a bomb – could be downloaded from the internet and fabricated just about anywhere, but also that modifications and 'improvements' could be made just as easily.

There’s no need for immediate panic. The current technology is pretty rudimentary. But having said that, developments are only heading in one direction: 

  • “Like the digitization of music, the digitization of objects, guns or otherwise, is a one-way street. Every step forward is ineffaceable. Once you can make an MP3 and share it online, that’s it, there’s no going back — the industry is changed, just like that. Why should it be different when you reduce a spoon, a replacement part, a patented tool, or a gun to a compact file that can be reproduced using widely-available hardware? There’s no going back. So what is ‘control’ now?”

It’s a good question and one we should start thinking about:

  • “We have had to come to grips with other transformative technologies, destructive and constructive. The telegraph, the atomic bomb, the computer. We can deal with this development, and that’s good because we are going to have to one way or the other.”


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