The Dangerous Precedent and Unstoppable Future of 3-D Printed Guns

"The first shots were fired from an ABS-polymer Beretta knockoff made by a 3-D printer. The plastic gun jammed after three shots, but the killer had prepared for this by printing several more copies of the same gun, which were strapped to his body beneath a black trench coat. These did not jam as quickly. When his handguns were exhausted, the killer unslung a partly plastic AR-15, fitted with a high-capacity 3-D printed magazine, and unloaded on terrified bystanders. Within minutes, 35 were dead, and another 11 wounded in the carnage.

Representatives of the manufacturer of the 3-D printer the killer used to create his weapons expressed their sincere condolences to the victims' families, but offered no other comment. Shares of the volatile stock dropped 12% in trading today..."

Nobody who respects human life wants to see this nightmare become a reality. Efforts may already be under way to prevent it in the future -- but regulating 3-D printing's software is not the answer, and regulating the end product is an exercise in reactive futility, as these weapons are untraceable by design. So what is the answer? What is the future of the 3-D printer in a world where guns can be created by anyone with the right design file, and what can be done to avoid the worst of what that world implies?

Wiki weapons for the technically minded terrorist
It won't be long before a fully functional ready-to-fire gun can be created in a 3-D printer. Parts have already been produced and test-fired successfully. Defense Distributed, a nonprofit "Wiki Weapon" collective of technically minded gun enthusiasts, intends to "produce and publish a file for a completely printable gun." Such effort makes little sense in a country awash in easily obtained guns -- 270 million of them, at last count -- but the world doesn't always make sense.

Over the past four years, gun maker Sturm, Ruger (NYSE: RGR  ) has soared to all-time highs on record sales, spurred by paranoid black-helicopter-confiscation conspiracy theories bleated ceaselessly on talk radio, and by a growing sense of mistrust and isolationism often promulgated by talk-radio bobbleheads. Defense Distributed's site asks, "How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet?" How do you stop the ATF thugs in black helicopters from coming to take your guns? The answer used to be: Buy more guns. Now that it's faintly possible that buying guns might become a little more inconvenient, the answer changes to Print more guns instead.

Blocked from crowdsourcing funds on Indiegogo, Defense Distributed took to raising money in Bitcoins, a semi-illicit all-electronic currency used primarily to buy drugs anonymously on the Internet. Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS  ) was so alarmed by the group's stated intent that it rescinded its lease on a $16,000 printer last October, going so far as to send representatives to project leader Cody Wilson's home to get it back. Defense Distributed's focus has since narrowed to the lower receiver of an AR-15, the only part with a serial number and the one piece subject to real regulation. Low-cost 3-D printer company MakerBot, described as "reactionaries" in a Defense Distributed update, removed the file for that part from their Thingiverse pattern repository and has adopted a strict no-gun-files policy.

Defense Distributed has also successfully test-fired a high-capacity AR-15 magazine. The file to print that magazine has purportedly been downloaded over 50,000 times. There aren't even 50,000 3-D printers out in the wild yet. Think about that. The desire (or at least the curiosity) to print something that can hold 50 bullets is stronger than the desire to actually buy the printer to do so. The push for printed guns isn't going anywhere. Defense Distributed is today's public face. Tomorrow there might be no face, just a legion of angry men with assault rifles and Guy Fawkes masks, Anonymous with AK-47s.

Print me a revolution
Gun control advocates and liberal politicians are already trying to get out in front of tomorrow's threats. Rep. Steve Israel of New York has proposed a ban on 3-D printed magazines in a renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act, and is sure to expand his scope to cover any 3-D printed gun part as his office gathers more intel on the phenomenon. The existing act outlaws undetectable guns, specifically those made of plastic, but it already contains a giant loophole that Defense Distributed plans to blow open like a pumpkin hit with a point-blank rifle shot. Undetectable guns are perfectly aboveboard if made for prototyping purposes by a licensed manufacturer. Defense Distributed has already applied for a manufacturing license. The sensible and most likely regulatory response here would be to reject that application. However, considering the doggedness of the group's pursuit of this project so far, there's really no reason to expect them to suddenly stop trying if that happens. They might stop talking about it quite so much, though.

There is no reason to create a 3-D printed gun in the United States today. None. Anyone who cannot legally (or, heck, illegally) get their hands on one of the 270 million guns already in civilian hands more easily than they could print one out of plastic should not have a gun in the first place. The process costs more, the materials are weaker, the risk of catastrophic failure too high. The only reason to have 3-D printed guns is to avoid detection.

That won't be true forever. A typical handgun might cost $500 or so today, and it'll hold up a lot better than a plastic piece. A half-decent home-use 3-D printer usually runs you $2,000 or more. At five, 10, or 15 years in the future, the first price will probably be roughly the same while the second price will keep going down and the quality you can buy with it keeps going up. Print yourself four or five guns and you're already coming out ahead. That's what makes the 3-D printed gun such a huge legal and ethical challenge. Today we have crappy plastic parts that can only pull off a few shots at most. Tomorrow we might have printable metallic alloys. Heck, we have those already, just not in a form affordable to the average home user. 3-D printed guns probably will, in time, be easier to make and less expensive than a Ruger is right now. At that point, you'll probably see Sturm, Ruger and Smith & Wesson (NASDAQ: SWHC  ) and all their pals start to support stricter regulations -- on 3-D printers, which will be vilified as tools of criminals and maniacs that just so happen to be crimping the ol' profit margin, too.

Regulated into irrelevance
The direction regulation takes will have a profound impact on the 3-D printing industry, just as copyright legislation has threatened the software industry and the Internet. Prolific sci-fi writer and technology activist blogger Cory Doctorow has already envisioned one future for 3-D printing regulations, as have other writers, and the outcome doesn't look pretty. Here's an excerpt from "Printcrime," first published in 2006:

The coppers smashed my father's printer when I was eight. I remember the hot, cling-film-in-a-microwave smell of it, and Da's look of ferocious concentration as he filled it with fresh goop, and the warm, fresh-baked feel of the objects that came out of it.

The coppers came through the door with truncheons swinging, one of them reciting the terms of the warrant through a bullhorn. One of Da's customers had shopped him. The ipolice paid in high-grade pharmaceuticals -- performance enhancers, memory supplements, metabolic boosters. The kind of things that cost a fortune over the counter; the kind of things you could print at home, if you didn't mind the risk of having your kitchen filled with a sudden crush of big, beefy bodies, hard truncheons whistling through the air, smashing anyone and anything that got in the way.

Other sci-fi writers, such as Charles Stross, have also envisioned a future world in which 3-D printers are tightly regulated and yet are frequently used to print up "contraband," whatever that may be. In such a future, according to Doctorow:

[T]he regulatory response is to build devices that have internal snitches that check to see if their owners are running naughty unlocking programs.... [T]he need to prevent the dissemination of snitchware countermeasures leads to widespread surveillance and censorship of the Internet.... [N]one of this actually works worth a damn at stopping bad guys. Instead, it creates a vicious cycle of more surveillance and more control to overcome the failings of the current round of censorship and surveillance.

Even if, say, 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) were to build a consumer printer that had an always-on Wi-Fi chip that kept the machine connected to a central server to check constantly for contraband files, someone would find a way to strip the chip and make the printer work offline. Even if public design repositories like Shapeways and Thingiverse and Cubify police themselves and scrub the files that would print anything dangerous or otherwise unwelcome, dedicated users will find ways to get those files elsewhere. If Defense Distributed's site is taken down, it won't matter. There are already over 50,000 copies of their files out in the digital wilderness.

The genie is out of the bottle.

3-D printers may never reach critical mass in the home consumer market the way general-purpose computers have -- a point I've made before and see no reason to walk back from -- but contraband only needs the dedicated minority, not popular approval. Tightly regulating what these machines can make by default will ensure that the vicious cycle of Doctorow's vision becomes a reality. Give creative people a choice: Jump through a bunch of hoops to create under restrictions, or take a direct line to create anything you want with a vague risk of prosecution. Many will choose the latter option. This choice will also serve to hold back the popularity of legitimate on-demand 3-D printing manufacturing centers. Who would set up such an operation, at significant financial cost, if they felt that they might be prosecuted in the event that one non-approved creation sneaked through the cracks? Alternately, why go through the risk of regulatory approval when you can just be a 3-D bootlegger?

The 3-D printing industry has no lobbying power and no real supportive voice in the government. It took a coordinated effort by many of the Internet's biggest players just to turn back one threatening law. The entire 3-D printing industry together has nowhere near the financial clout or the public recognition of even one of those Internet leaders, so what hope do they have?

In the end, consumer 3-D printers will bring the possibility to create tools of death and destruction, no matter what anyone says about safety measures. Commercial-scale machines costing many thousands of dollars are more insulated, provided that operators self-police and block the creation of any contraband. It would be a similar arrangement to iTunes and other digital content delivery systems today, which stand as legal sanctuaries in a sea of torrent sites and Megauploads. Corporate power can protect its own backyard, but won't be able to do anything about the rest of the world.

The proper response is not to regulate the industry to within an inch of its life, but to examine the underlying drivers of gun violence and try to address them in a sensible way. Bullets could be regulated -- you can't print a working bullet because you can't print gunpowder. The sensationalism of mass murder could be met head-on. We could just go straight into Minority Report territory and prosecute pre-crime as well as post-crime.

Making 3-D printed guns a crime won't make 3-D printed guns go away. It'll just build a legal framework that restricts the growth of a legitimate technology with a wide range of possible uses. However, there's ample evidence that the government can and will walk right up to the edge of insanity when regulating something it doesn't really understand. If you truly believe in the future of 3-D printing technology, then you have to educate yourself and your elected representatives on what it can and can't be made to do. The last thing the industry needs is an unwinnable battle with an uneducated Congress.

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Read/Post Comments (18) | Recommend This Article (20)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 4:50 PM, irvingfisher wrote:

    Ok....so don't buy RGR and SWHC?

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 6:29 PM, JoshPittyTheFool wrote:

    I'm holding on to RGR and buying calls. I don't think printable guns are going to put them out of business anytime soon. This is just some anti-gun rant from someone who hates talk radio. People obviously want and need gun reliable guns to protect their homes from invaders. They are buying guns and not iphone 5's. So I would buy RGR and not Apple.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 9:14 PM, Deafinvestor wrote:

    The article is somewhat a political point instead of a financial piece. If you want a gun all you have to do is buy a real one. You can make a knife, club, numb chucks, etc. With a 3D printer as well.

    BTW, I just exercised my RIGHT, and purchased a Ruger 357 Mag revolver to protect my home and family. RGR, is a winner.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 11:38 PM, wan2bretired wrote:

    batt521 ... Deafinvestor ... I agree. Keep it up MF with the political drible.

    The beauty of the second admendment is that you will not need it until they try to take it away. TJ

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 8:33 AM, lynmar79 wrote:

    This guy is paid by the piece and this is the third in his string of 3D printed gun articles. Pure BS. TMF's is going down hill fast for not edited this ZZZZ.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 10:27 AM, STMacKenzie wrote:

    The Fool used to be better than this. One more from this jerk and I'm cancelling my subs and moving on.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 10:41 AM, kickaz4911 wrote:

    Alex, Tell us again how criminals obey gun laws?

    David Buckwitz,Hazel Park,Michigan,USA.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 10:58 AM, lanyib wrote:

    What hateful petty tripe about gun ownership and the 2nd Amendment. This guy, Alex Planes, is an anti-gun zealot, who demonstrated he is devoid of rational thought:

    "spurred by paranoid black-helicopter-confiscation conspiracy theories bleated ceaselessly on talk radio, and by a growing sense of mistrust and isolationism often promulgated by talk-radio bobbleheads."

    Bigoted verbal diarrhea written just days after draconian bans had been enacted in NY and the same day Federal legislation is introduced along the same lines. Yeah, gun owners must be paranoid lunatics to think anyone wants to take away their guns. Except they are already setting the machine in motion. Only a willing fool does not see that.

    I guess TMF lets anybody pulish pure garbage on this website anymore...

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 11:13 AM, TMFBiggles wrote:

    If anyone would like to point out the part of this article that says "we should ban guns," or even "we should ban 3-D printed guns," then I welcome the opportunity to debate you on that point. But I'm not going to defend or apologize for an imaginary version of myself simply because you think anyone who doesn't express an unqualified love for firearms wants to ban them.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 12:46 PM, FunesDMemorious wrote:

    No one wants to debate you, gun grabber, they are just letting motley fool know they don't like seeing pro-gun-control nonsense put forward as investment analysis.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 1:45 PM, lynmar79 wrote:

    This is hands down the worst article I've ever read on TMF's. The author's imagery was contemptable and beneath TMF's brand.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 1:56 PM, iChris wrote:

    Considering how rarely AR15s are involved in violent crimes this article stinks of hoplophobia.

    Some of the big gun companies already sell plastic AR15 lower receivers and sell them for under $150. They are cheap and widely available to consumers. Society isn't anymore or less violent because of it.

    The only thing the author seems to understand is how the media will sensationalize tragic events to push a political agenda.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 5:27 PM, SALTARELLO wrote:

    stupid article!

    is not what it can be produced with a 3D printer

    what can you with a car you drive every day? worse, what can you do with a plane?

    with a car there can be an accident, with a plain we can suffer a terrorist attack

    but if there was no technology we would still be living in caves

    is not about 3D printing which can be use for medicine and many positive things for human being

    IS ABOUT SOCIETY, IS ABOUT EDUCATION and IS ABOUT FIGHTING AGAINST DRUGS!

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2013, at 1:41 PM, rapid72 wrote:

    The author's protest above notwithstanding, his paragraph quoted in the post just before it, at best, shows lack of understanding of the buyer motivation which has driven gun sales to record highs the last 4 years. That is, the certainty that the current President wants to deny them that option. Events are proving their fear to be correct, not paranoia.

    But, the description of the potential plight of printer owners raises very important points about the role of government, censorship and the limitations of efforts to control behavior. It makes a strong case that outlawing technologies or certain types of them (guns or 3-D printers) generates repression, does not deter criminals, and criminalizes otherwise honest people.

    A good description of legal challenges that will face this industry. Could have been done with a lot more respect toward Ruger's customers. The sic-fi scenarios suggest those who value freedom from surveillance and interference with technology should make common cause with gun owners. Therefore, if Alex is opposed to gun ownership, he makes a contrary argument here.

    rapid 72

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2013, at 4:51 PM, dstb wrote:

    There is a reason groups like Defense Distributed exist in the first place. Government is becoming ever larger and more oppressive. More rules, regulations, and laws. Less liberty. If the trend continues (and I believe that it will) groups like this will no longer be considered "fringe." They will be mainstream.

    Trying to control people's behavior is pointless. Trying to regulate who buys a 3D printer or what they print is a liberal society building dream. Instead focus on realistic government that doesn't rob people of their liberty.

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2013, at 4:51 PM, dstb wrote:

    There is a reason groups like Defense Distributed exist in the first place. Government is becoming ever larger and more oppressive. More rules, regulations, and laws. Less liberty. If the trend continues (and I believe that it will) groups like this will no longer be considered "fringe." They will be mainstream.

    Trying to control people's behavior is pointless. Trying to regulate who buys a 3D printer or what they print is a liberal society building dream. Instead focus on realistic government that doesn't rob people of their liberty.

  • Report this Comment On January 29, 2013, at 6:12 AM, TMFCop wrote:

    I'm about as pro-gun as they come. I even advocate an open carry law instead of just a concealed carry because I think there'd be a heckuva lot less crime if criminals were able to see an armed citizenry around them.

    But I see nothing wrong with Alex's argument here or the article. It would require an ostrich-like stance with your head in the ground to not recognize that a 3-D printed gun is a gun control advocate's worst nightmare and explaining that mindset is an important act, particularly for 2d Amendment supporters.

    In reality, the additive manufacturing industry, e.g., 3-D printing, means the death of gun control. The saying "if you outlaw guns then only outlaws will have guns" is never more true than as it applies to 3-D printed guns. Crime syndicates will easily set up their own little manufacturing plants and churn out pieces for their minions.

    Unfortunately I think that's exactly what politicians will try to do. As Alex says, they'll try to "get out in front of the issue." But they'll do it in some boneheaded fashion. They'll start with regulation, even bans on posting and coerce the printing companies to remove objectionable parts from their catalogs (of course that won't stop the criminals; just the law-abiding citizen).

    I can foresee a future where a registry is created for those purchasing it where you're tracked by ordering it.

    Household lye used to be available on supermarket shelves. It's a common item for making soap, a very benign activity if there ever was. But because it's also used in making meth it's disappeared from the store and now can only be ordered online and manufacturers have to keep documentation on customers that buy in bulk. It's made it difficult for regular folks to find a convenient place to buy it, but somehow meth labs haven't disappeared or reduced in number.

    This is the future of 3-D printing. So, if politicians outlaw 3-D printed guns, then only outlaws will have 3-D printed guns.

    What we as investors need to ask ourselves is, what will the liability of 3D Systems, Stratasys, and other 3D printing companies be in such a world? The gun control advocates have vilified S&W and RGR; will DDD and SSYS be similarly held up for ridicule and regulation? It's certainly possible if history is any guide.

    I definitely don't agree with gun control advocates, but I think Alex's article does a great job in getting individuals to think about what's got to come next.

    Rich

  • Report this Comment On January 29, 2013, at 10:48 AM, TopAustrianFool wrote:

    "3-D printed gun is a gun control advocate's worst nightmare"

    I am not a gun control advocate so I will sleep pretty well.

    It is misguided to think that people are not already in a sense "printing" guns already. I come from a place where all guns are illegal and I cannot tell you how many homemade guns I saw on a yearly basis.

    "Bullets could be regulated -- you can't print a working bullet because you can't print gunpowder."

    No you can't regulate bullets. It is way too easy to make a bullet. After a high capacity magazine, a bullet is the easiest part of a weapon to make. You can't print gunpwder but you can produce it chemically.

    Mr. Planes is correct. Anyone who think they can ragulate behavior lives in a world of fantasy if they think that anyone can't already do whatever they want. All laws do is keep us decent people at the mercy of those who care not to follow them.

    But there is one more thing. The competitors that see a threat from 3-D printing will lobby to regulate it for safety and that way aliminate it as competition. They will give money to gun advocates. Follow the money. Some of the biggest contributors to the Sierra Club is Big Oil. This is all regulations are good for; to creat monopolies and kill the Free Market competition.

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