Enrique Dans
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Enrique Dans

Plastic guns and barn doors…

The notorious Liberator pistol, created entirely from plastic components printed in 3D, designed by the self-described Texan anarchist Cody Wilson’s Defense Distributed company, is highlighting the many contradictions produced by technological progress.

In the company’s five years of life, it has a 3D printer seized by Stratasys, while 3D model repository Thingiverse has refused to list anything to do with firearms and the US Department of State first closed its website and strictly prohibited the distribution of the plans of its weapon, based on arms exports legislation (too late, because they had already been downloaded by anybody interested in them), only to reach a settlement last month allowing Defense Distributed to freely publish the 3-D files and other information at issue. The government also agreed to pay a significant portion of the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, and to return $10,000 in State Department registration dues paid by Defense Distributed as a result of the prior restraint.

Now a judge has blocked the release of 3D-printed guns online, saying: “there is a possibility of irreparable harm because of the way these guns can be made.” Donald Trump has since weighed in, tweeting “already spoke to the NRA, it doesn’t make much sense!” Some judges believe the government could backtrack on the agreement it reached with the company.

A judicial mess: before the first blocking, and in the days following the settlement with the State Department, the instructions and files necessary to print the pieces have been downloaded several thousand times and shared on all kinds of sites. It wouldn’t be hard to find them online.

Plastic guns are undetectable by metal detectors, have no serial numbers and can be made at home by anyone using a relatively easy to obtain 3D printer. It is a one-shot weapon and may explode in the hands of anybody stupid enough to fire it. Some judges have suggested inserting a piece of metal into the design with a printed serial number, a proposal that the bad guys are unlikely to follow.

The United States, the country with the fewest restrictions on the sale of firearms, is now gripped by hysteria because now people can make their own guns. The problem is that it has been easy to make less dangerous guns than the Liberator for many years with parts bought in a any hardware store. The Liberator takes its name from the FP45 Liberator, another easy-to-manufacture, single-shot, cheap weapon project designed to be distributed among the population in occupied areas, and there are countless examples of home-made or improvised firearms used in war zones all over the world. In short, homemade guns are nothing new.

In which case, what is the point of blocking the online distribution of something that has already been distributed, and in the process calling more attention to its ready availability? Is technology to blame, or has it merely highlighted an already existing problem? Can or should something be done at this stage other than applying already existing laws, or has the horse bolted, in which case, perhaps it’s a bit late to close the barn door?

This article was previously published on Forbes.

(En español, aquí)



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Enrique Dans

Enrique Dans

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com