3D printed guns are going to create big legal precedents

Cory DoctorowCory Doctorow takes on the latest 3D printed gun controversy:

The most interesting part of the whole affair is what it says about all forms of technological regulation in the future. All technologies are being subsumed into general-purpose computers connected to the general-purpose internet, from thermostats to hearing aids to pharmaceutical factories to automobiles to radios. Many of these technologies have historically been regulated through rules about how they must be built, used and monitored, and in addition, there’s a kind of de facto regulation that comes from the complexity of building complex devices from readily available parts. Anyone with enough resources can build a jumbo jet, but that’s a pretty specialised use of the word “anyone” – if you’re building a jumbo jet, you’re in a relatively small pool of people to begin with, and the act of building a jumbo jet throws off enough detectable signs that it’s hard to keep secret.

Inherent in the notion of regulating a technology is the regulatability of that technology. It’s the idea that you can figure out who’s making or using a technology and dictate terms to them. That’s where computers come in. Computers make it possible for semi-skilled people to do jobs that used to require highly skilled people. A computer program, computer-readable model-file and computer-based 3D printer can (in theory) encapsulate the expertise of a skilled machinist and deploy it on demand wherever a 3D printer is to be found. If that’s hard to grasp, think of recorded music versus live performance: before sound recordings, you needed to find (and possibly pay) a musician every time you wanted to hear music; after recordings, the musician was only needed for the initial performance, which could be captured and reproduced at will.

The existence of a 3D printed gun that can be output on a high-end machine by a skilled user doesn’t do much to change the regulatability of guns. After all, you could already “print” a much more powerful gun by ordering it, piece by piece, from any of the many overnight-shipping custom metal fabrication companies that will turn a 3D model into a precision-machined piece of metal and FedEx it to your door. Such a gun would keep firing as long as you kept feeding it ammo, too – unlike a plastic gun, which is likely to experience critical failure after a comparatively small number of rounds fired.

That said, 3D printers keep getting better and cheaper and today’s uncommon professional model is likely to be tomorrow’s ubiquitous home hobbyist machine. If there comes a day when more powerful printers are common, then the regulatability of guns will shelve off dramatically.

Read the full article @ The Guardian.

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