Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
American politics and a segment of American society are currently engaged in that periodic shouting match known as the gun debate. Without intending to be overly cynical or simplistic, the debate goes like this: a tragedy occurs involving guns, there is public outcry to do something about guns, legislators propose some restrictions, the gun lobby says no, proposed legislation gets watered down, the public loses interest, some very weak legislation gets passed, nothing really changes…and then the cycle repeats.
[Allow me a momentary digression: my aim is not to pen a moralizing piece about guns, a point I feel I should make as this debate frequently devolves into a shouting match, and I am not interested in having a shouting match. Generally I find shouting matches to be boring and stupid except when they fall under the heading of “crust band with two vocalists.”]
The current cycle of this debate seems likely to produce some slightly-less-weak-than-normal legislation (due to the scope of the tragedy), but in the end what is revealed in the watering-down-phase (that we are currently in) is that inevitably this debate will happen again. Some government officials have taken more aggressive steps, including NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose legislation—amongst other things—bans ammunition clips that can hold more than seven rounds. While Governor Cuomo’s steps are worthy of discussion (a shouting match is not a discussion) what may ultimately be far more interesting and significant is not Governor Cuomo but the “Cuomo.”
What is the “Cuomo?” It is the nickname for a 30 round ammunition clip for the AR-15 rifle that has been designed by the group Defense Distributed. Actually, that’s a rather misleading description. The “Cuomo” is really a computer file, a blueprint for a 3-D printer, which can be downloaded and printed by somebody with a 3-D printer.
Based out of Austin, Texas, Defense Distributed describes its purpose (on its website) as supporting the second amendment to the US Constitution:
“through facilitating global access to, and the collaborative production of, information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms; and to publish and distribute, at no cost to the public, such information and knowledge in promotion of the public interest.”
or (more simply):
“a nonprofit effort to create freely available plans for 3D printable guns.”
At the moment the Defense Distributed website does not boast any full “3D printable guns” (with the exception of a blueprint for a “.22 single shot firearm”); however, the site still has much more on offer than just the “Cuomo,” the most important item likely being the file for a printable “AR-15 Reinforced Lower Receiver.” The role of the ”Receiver” was well explained by Adam Clark Estes in a piece titled “The ATF Has Yet to Be Convinced That 3D-Printed Guns Compare to the Real Thing” (posted at Motherboard), Estes writes that:
“the receiver is what’s considered the “gun” under the law, and thus it’s the part that has a gun’s serial number and is what is technically regulated by federal and state laws. That means the receiver is the cornerstone of both a working firearm as well as firearms regulation.”
This is especially important to bear in mind when you consider that the other parts of an AR-15 can be purchased fairly easily over the Internet (and the Defense Distributed website also offers a 3D-printable grip), the other parts (such as the barrel) don’t count as the “gun.” Estes splits his article between discussing Defense Distributed and writing about a conversation he had with a source at the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms). As the title of Estes’ article likely makes clear, the ATF does not find printable guns to amount to a huge issue as of yet. Estes cites the expenses of 3D printers as being one aspect (3D printer costs are usually around two thousand dollars [but this will drop over time]), and he also cites the ATF source’s sentiment that these printed firearm pieces don’t hold up all that well over time.
A fine point; however, Defense Distributed has posted video of an AR-15, built with printed parts, firing several hundred rounds in a shooting session. Will those parts hold up for years? Probably not, but they clearly work well enough for firing off several hundred rounds, and the key thing about durability of such parts is that somebody can always go print another when the original parts are worn out. Assuming they still have the 3D printer.
Keep in mind it is legal for a person to make their own firearms (with some exceptions), and what Defense Distributed is doing is legal. Although there is certainly a wide gulf between the skills and equipment required to make an AR-15 Receiver out of metal and the skills and equipment required to print one out at home. And from the perspective of somebody shot by one of those hundreds of rounds it will matter little whether the bullet was fired from a gun with all metal parts or whether the bullets were fired from a gun with 3D printed parts.
It is tempting to read stories about 3D printing and gun parts as articles about weaponry, and it is not wholly inaccurate to read these articles in such ways, but ultimately these are stories about technology (and guns are certainly technology). When thinking about the issue of 3D-printable weapons it is easy to supplant the broader technological questions for the gun questions, which can give the deeper questions something of an undeserved pass.
“All media and all technologies have biases. It may be true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people;” but guns are a technology more biased toward killing than, say, clock radios.” (26)
Indeed a gun is a technic of harm. That is its function: to harm. There is certainly a debate to be had about different types of harm: harm caused in defense, harm called hunting, and so forth. But the gun, as Rushkoff, noted is more biased toward causing harm than it is towards, say, playing 33 rpm LPs. But I think it is wrong, when thinking about 3D printers, to focus on the “gun biases” when what needs to be focused on are the biases of the 3D printer, the process that creates the gun parts.
Writing about the history of technologies that have run parallel with advancements in firearm making, the theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote (in Understanding Media):
“The techniques developed over centuries for drilling gun-barrels provided the means that made possible the steam engine. The piston shaft and the gun presented the same problems in boring hard steel.” (371)
3D printing of gun parts is something of an inversion to the above quote, for now it is not that techniques intended for making guns are being used for other means but a device designed for more broad applications (the 3D printer) is being used for making weaponry. 3D printing allows for a step away from more difficult technical challenges and more complex techniques. As I wrote earlier, there are certainly people with the tools and expertise to make an AR-15 receiver in their garage, but the skills and expertise required to download and print out the receiver are much simpler and are much more readily distributed amongst the populace(and frankly I’d imagine that the cost of the equipment for a full [decent] metal working shop is likely not too far off from the cost of a 3D printer).
The 3D printer is biased towards keeping its users from having to obtain a part through traditional market means. If you can print out an AR-15 receiver or a refrigerator safe plastic bowl (I made the later one up [but it seems plausible]) you don’t need to order one or go out and buy one. Will the printed out item be of less than stellar quality? Probably, but it will likely be decent enough to fulfill its own particular technological bias (the printed item, that is), for at least a while. And 3D printers are new, as time goes on the prices for these devices will steadily drop and the quality of their printed materials will probably increase.
Furthermore as 3D printers make things off of downloadable designs, these are devices that thrive off of the information being created and disseminated across the Internet. Let us be frank, once a design has been created and uploaded it will be available to those looking to find it regardless of legislation that seeks to ban a given design (even if this eventually means that these receiver blueprints will be stored on thumb drives being surreptitiously sold in gun show parking lots).
This is not, therefore, really a question about guns. It is about 3D printers. Don’t confuse the two. If the AR-15 gets banned (which won’t happen) will you still be able to make your own? If so, would printing it out count as “making” your own? What about the “Cuomo,” due to the current NY legislation you wouldn’t be able to buy a 30 round magazine in NY, and though printing out such a clip might well qualify as illegal, what’s to stop somebody from doing it? And would simply having the file be illegal?
In the end I think that the voices that call for regulation of 3D printing of weaponry may very well come from a rather odd quadrant: weapons manufacturers. I do not mean to sound conspiratorial, but I think that it is fair to hypothesize that much of the current gun debate is largely shaped by the lobbying dollars and influence of weapon manufactures. Such groups put up a front of “defending the second amendment” and standing up for “liberty” but what they’re really doing is defending their liberty to make a lot of money by selling guns. A ban on AR-15s would hurt weapons manufacturers ability to make money, so they oppose such a ban, and perhaps it will be for this reason that they may take a stance against 3D printing of weapons. Not out of some ethical or constitutional stance, but because the only groups that stand to make much money in the matter of 3D printed guns are the sellers of 3D printers, and bullet companies. True, weapons manufacturers will still be able to sell the components that are not yet printable (like the barrels) but such pieces may at some point become printable…and it is still a blow to overall profits.
Defense Distributed may become the darlings of certain 2nd Amendment aficionados, while they may be viewed as reckless by gun control supporters, but the question is whether or not they will eventually be viewed as a financial threat by gun manufacturers.
In his brilliant, two-part, history of technology The Myth of the Machine the thinker Lewis Mumford devotes a great number of words to mulling the consequences of weaponry, specifically nuclear weaponry. In volume 2 of The Myth of the Machine (titled The Pentagon of Power [published in 1970]) Mumford writes:
“The penalty for producing nuclear bombs sufficient to destroy the human race was that it put these genocidal and suicidal weapons in the hands of demonstrably fallible human beings whose astounding scientific achievements blinded their contemporaries to the human limitations of the culture that had produced them.” (265)
It would be the height of absurd hyperbole to suggest that 3D printers or printed out AR-15 receivers are anything like the “genocidal and suicidal” bombs of which Mumford was writing. And yet there is still a bothersome through line here.
For – to rewrite Mumford’s lines for this matter: it may be that “the penalty for producing” 3D printers and plans that enable those devices to print out weapon components that can fire hundreds of rounds is that it will put this way of creating “weapons in the hands of demonstrably fallible human beings.” 3D printing is an astounding achievement, as are the plans that Defense Distributed has created, but we should not allow “astounding scientific achievements” to blind us “to the human limitations of the culture that had produced them.”
Is anybody in the United States in 2013 really surprised that an invention like a 3D printer is being used for purposes such as printing out guns? Let us not be naïve. 3D printer manufacturers and even Defense Distributed are not ultimately the sole culprits for the inevitable day when some tragedy involves components that were manufactured using a 3D printer. Rather “the culture that had produced” such devices and plans with no attention to its “human limitation” will be at fault on that tragic day.
At which point the cycle will start over.
[UPDATE – some related thoughts on this topic can be read in “Freedom” and “Technology” are not the same word]
This post references the following books:
Mcluhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Routledge, 1964.
Mumford, Lewis. The Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine, volume two. A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1970.
Rushkoff, Douglas. Program or Be Programmed. Soft Skull Press, 2010.