This weekend, Forbes reported the successful test-firing of the world’s first 3-D–printed handgun. The weapon, a plastic handgun that fires .380-caliber bullets, has been long in the making. For more than a year, Cody Wilson, a law student and self-described “crypto-anarchist,” has been trying to create what he and his allies call a “wiki weapon.”
This gun, in Wilson’s description, will exist as much online as it does in the real world. “What we’re interested in producing is a digital file … containing the information for a 3D-printable weapons system,” Wilson announced in a fundraising pitch last summer. “As long as there’s a free Internet, that file is available to anyone at any time, all over the world.” After downloading the file, you need to feed it to a 3-D printer, a device that constructs a three-dimensional object according to computer-aided design specs. You’ll also need to use a common hardware-store nail as a firing pin—as Wilson explained to my colleague Will Oremus, the plastic pins they tried “were a little too soft.” Add that one metal part and, voila, outside the control of any authorities, you’d have yourself a gun. “A gun could be anywhere,” as Wilson explained in his pitch video. “Any bullet is now a weapon.”
For Wilson, creating a working gun is only an incidental aim. “What’s great about the wiki weapon is that it only needs to be lethal once,” he has said. That’s because the 3-D–printed gun’s real purpose is to provoke debate. Wilson argues that once printable guns become a reality, they’ll make all gun control efforts moot. Wilson and his allies take it for granted that in the Internet age, information is the one resource that is beyond the control of governments. Authorities may be able to take away your gun, but they can’t delete the plans for the gun. For gun advocates, the beauty of the 3-D weapon is that it shifts gun control from a fight centered on the Second Amendment to one focused on the First. It brings gun advocates into common cause with other global activists who are pushing for all manner of information to flow freely—document-leakers like Julian Assange, copyright fighters like the Pirate Bay, currency libertarians who favor alternative monetary systems (e.g., bitcoin), and Internet-abetted freedom fighters from Syria to Iran to China.
Don’t fall into Wilson’s trap. Though it’s a clever stunt, the printable gun does nothing to weaken the case for gun control—and, in the long run, it might well strengthen it. That’s because, for the foreseeable future, the printed gun can’t compete with manufactured weapons. It’s more expensive, less durable, and a worse shot than any gun you can buy from a store. At best, then, it’s a distraction from the mainstream politics of gun control. And so people who are concerned about gun violence should continue to focus on the real guns that are available now. It makes more sense to worry about printable ones later on, if they ever become a threat.
To see why, let’s look at the numbers. In 2011, according to the research firm Wohlers Associates, 6,500 large professional-grade 3-D printers were sold, along with 23,000 cheaper, “personal” machines. (Wilson’s gun prototype required a professional machine.) Wohlers estimates that the industry will more than double by 2020, with sales topping $5 billion a year, and printers getting much cheaper and more widely available. At some point, people in the industry have speculated, 3-D printers will cost less than $500 and people will buy millions a year.
That sounds big. But it’s small compared to the gun industry. There are an estimated 310 million non-military firearms in the United States. In 2012 alone, gun makers created 6 million new guns, with sales estimated at close to $12 billion. With so many cheap guns available, 3-D guns don’t warrant much attention. Sure, 3-D printers will get cheaper and better, but they aren’t anywhere near as cheap nor as widely available as manufactured guns, and they won’t be for many years. Until then, there are plenty of non-printable firearms to worry about.
But imagine what would happen if 3-D guns did take off and became a viable alternative to mass-manufactured firearms. What would that do to the gun industry, the leading financial supporter of the political opposition to gun control?
When music went digital, sales of physical media plummeted and piracy became rampant, draining the profits of the major record companies. With his 3-D gun plans—which he’s making available online for free—Wilson could bring about the same forces in the gun industry. If you can make your gun at home for just the price of plastic, why would you ever buy a real weapon? And if the 3-D gun starts to look like a real alternative, why would the weapons industry support this disruptive new enterprise? Wouldn’t gun manufacturers instead fight the rise of printable guns—perhaps by advocating the same tough laws that Hollywood has successfully pushed against file-sharers?