Saturday, May 11, 2013

It Works!! Now What?

Cody Wilson risks life and limb to
prove a concept
On May 2nd, Forbes staff writer Andy Greenburg and a photographer accompanied Cody Wilson to a remote Texas firing range with a breakthrough in firearms technology.  Well, the technology is evolutionary, the breakthrough is more conceptual.

The gun in question is called "The Liberator", after the disposable single shot .45s dropped across occupied Europe in the second world war.  The idea was you used this simple, cheap gun to kill a soldier and acquire his more effective weapons.  Except that while the modern version is a single shot .380 of vaguely similar design, it has the distinction of being downloadable.  That's right - the entire gun (except for the use of a common nail for a firing pin) is ABS plastic, built over a period of hours on an increasingly commonplace 3D printer.

Now you might question Wilson's ideology, or even his sanity, but you may rest assured he is not stupid.  The first tests of the new all-3D printed handgun were conducted at the end of a 20 foot string tied to the trigger.  With the exception of a mis-fire due to a mis-aligned firing pin, the tests went well.  The next day, accompanied by his father and Greenburg, amid nervous discussion of the location of the nearest hospital and the availability of materials for a field-expedient tourniquet, Cody Wilson loaded and fired the gun himself.  Again, it worked flawlessly.

As alluded to above, this is not really a conversation about technology.  This technology was inevitable, and is still in its infancy.  Designs will improve, the 3D printers will become more broadly available, and most importantly, the materials will become more robust.  Much more importantly is what it means about freedom, democracy, speech, and their limits in a technologically advanced society.  The key problem is the gun's existence in the actual physical realm is fleeting, measured in hours or days.  Before that it is merely information, a collection of bits on a server somewhere in the world.  In very real terms, it is a lethal weapon that can be 'conjured' when needed, and then eliminated immediately after use.

The first shrieks of panicked outrage you'll hear are that it finally fulfills the original myth of the Glock - a plastic gun that can be carried through metal detectors without risk.  Because Wilson's company, Defense Distributed, is a licensed Firearms manufacturer, in order to comply with existing laws about the detectability of handguns, there is a slot inside the frame that holds a six-ounce steel plate.  But there would, of course, be no way to require or enforce the requirement that downloaders actually include the steel plate in the assembled piece.  In fact, however, this is a red herring.  Setting aside the fact that the ammunition will be detectable, the very idea of hijacking an airliner has become something of a non-issue after 9/11.  Nobody will sit by and allow a hijacker to take control of an aircraft - the calculation is not that some might die, but a generalized refusal to allow all to die.  Along with air marshals and hardened cockpits, airlines are protecting against destructive devices, not plastic guns.

No, the real issues are bigger, and harder than metal detectors.  The issue is the ability to acquire a gun on demand, without a transaction - indeed, without any intermediary whatsoever.  There is no point in that process where the history, stability and intentions of the individual can be considered or investigated.  The interesting challenge is that the gun becomes an abstraction, existing only in the cloud until, with a few clicks, it can be made real and functional by anyone with an Internet connection.  What that means, and how it will affect our society is entirely unknown.  But along with drones, ubiquitous surveillance and the end of privacy, it signals a post technological society far different from the one we hoped for...


  1. But along with drones, ubiquitous surveillance and the end of privacy, it signals a post technological society far different from the one we hoped for...

    I blame M. Bouffant, and all his irrational optimism.

  2. The downloadable zip gun is...

  3. The downloadable zip gun doesn't seem to work as well as the "car radio antenna" zip gun.