On December 14th, 2012, after fatally shooting his mother, Adam Lanza arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he gunned down 6 adults and 20 children, all aged between 6 and 7, before taking his own life as the first responders arrived on the scene. The weapons used were legally purchased by his mother. On July 20th, 2012, James Eagan Holmes murdered 12 and injured 58 others in a Colorado cinema before he was apprehended, using legally purchased weapons. On August 5th 2012, Wade Michael Page carried out a mass shooting in a Wisconsin Sikh temple, killing 4 and injuring 6, before committing suicide as police attempted to apprehend him. Again, his handgun was legally purchased.
Free access to firearms and unpredictable, unpreventable, indiscriminate murder come hand-in-hand. Gun control, where it has been effectively been implemented, has been a proven success in averting such indiscriminate slaughters, as well as lowering suicide and accidental death rates.
However, in around 20 years, gun control will fail, forever. This is likely to happen for three reasons.
The first is the quintessentially American obsession with guns. With the right to bear arms codified into their constitution in the form of the Second Amendment, gun ownership has become one of the American political psyche’s great sacred cows. In 2010 firearm-related fatalities in America were 31,328, amounting to roughly 10.2 for every 100,000 people. This is in stark contrast to Britain, where strict gun control legislation was introduced in the aftermath of the 1996 Dunblane massacre. Here, the firearm-related fatality rate is only 0.25 in 100,000, a vindication for proponents of gun control.
Next comes the internet and the radical new political ideologies which have emerged with its expansion. With nearly superabundant access to information, there now exists a culture of sharing for sharing’s sake. To some it has become a moral imperative to distribute, without limitations or pay walls, any and all media and information. There isn’t much that can’t be learnt with a Google search and a few clicks of the mouse.
Lastly, we add a still-nascent technology, one with the capacity to be violently disruptive to the established order and intellectual property regimes: 3D printing. A 3D printer does what it says on the tin, allowing the user to create physical objects out of raw material (normally plastics) using a digital blueprint, typically distributed online, limited by the size of the printer and the detail which its capable of reproducing. A 3D printer today costs about $5000, still putting it out of reach for the casual consumer, and is limited in functionality; its capabilities and precision are still far less developed than traditional industrial processes. Toys, clocks, and certain tools have all been successfully manufactured with them, and as time goes on, their prices will continue to drop and their capabilities will continue to grow.
A 3D revolution is coming, similar to the Intellectual Property revolution currently underway, but far more radical, and with far more obvious consequences. Why would you buy an expensive lampshade when you could print it at home from the comfort of your desk? Why would you pay through the nose for your children’s toys when you can print almost identical ones for nothing more than the cost of the raw materials? Why pay for any physical good, if the blueprints can be found online for free and you own a machine capable enough to realise them?
Taken together, these three strands converge to produce a future where people will be able to print any gun they want, at home, as if they were Airfix kits or flat-pack furniture. In such a world, efforts at gun control will have completely failed, and will be irredeemable. Take America’s rabid pro-gun lobby, inject a mindset of radical information sharing and grant them access to 3D home printers, and you have a potentially lethal weapon in every home, untraceable and unregulatable.
People and companies are already working toward this exact aim: Defense Distributed is foremost amongst them, aiming to create a so-called ‘Wiki Weapon’. This is, in their words, a “non-profit, collaborative project to create freely available plans for 3D printable guns”. Against this, the gun control advocate has no recourse. One can no more halt technological progress than one can stop the tides.
Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, has already managed to design and manufacture an entire handgun (the only external part required is a nail for a firing pin), named “The Liberator”, that has since been shared online hundreds of thousands of times, despite the best efforts of the Obama Administration to shut it down. And this is just the beginning.
So, what can be done? In short, nothing. In such a world, attempts at prohibition will resemble nothing more than the persistent attempts to shut down piracy databases such as Pirate Bay, websites which resemble multi-headed hydras; new ones emerge as soon as old ones are shut down. There is no reason to believe that gun blueprint distributors will be any different.
For now, gun prohibition works: Britain is testament to this. But once 3D printing technologies reach maturity, firearm control will come to be worse than useless – it’ll be positively dangerous. In the same way that abstinence-only sex education fails in a world where sex most certainly exists so too will prohibition-based gun control be completely off-kilter with a world where anyone with an internet connection, a grudge, a penchant for gun-based Xbox games and access to his parents’ printer will be capable of untold destruction.
Some make the claim that given differences in culture, one cannot transplant conclusions on gun control from Britain to America, and vice versa, but the Internet ignores national boundarie
s, and will spell an end to firearm regulation even in territories where it has, in the past, been successful. To simply say “no guns allowed” will be so detached from reality that it will be of no use at all, and will likely be actively counter-protective to efforts in education and harm reduction.
The gun control advocate’s sun is setting. In a stark example of the disruptive impact technology has upon society, the cause will cease to be effective, and become not only unfeasible but actually irresponsible. The age of the “wiki weapon” draws ever closer, and all we can do is try to prepare ourselves. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that it might not happen.