3D printers could force the NRA to beg for government regulation

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on January 12, 2013

From The News Desk

In the wake of the Newtown massacre and other tragic shootings over the years, which have led to calls for stricter gun control, the National Rifle Association has remained steadfastly opposed to any increased regulation of firearms. In fact, Wayne LaPierre, its CEO and executive vice president, claims the problem isn’t too many guns but too few. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” he said, “is a good guy with a gun,” and proposed placing armed guards in every school.

Putting aside LaPierre’s Looney Tunes argument, I can envision a day in the not-so-far future when the NRA would not only countenance greater government regulation it would demand it. In this way the NRA would mimic the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which promotes the music industry’s agenda, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the trade group for Hollywood.

The driving force for this change is the 3D printer, which is to the gun industry what cassette recorders and Napster were to music and the VCR and Bit Torrent have been to Hollywood. It’s a device with the potential to move manufacturing and production into the home, fabricating everything from bath plugs to prosthetics, guitars, trumpet mouthpieces. In Tokyo the Clone Factory will print out a doll-sized replica of you while SmartPlanet reports that another Japanese company will, for $1,230, create a plastic replica of a fetus from information gleaned from an MRI scan. A “chemputer” can spit out prescription drugs. NASA relies on 3D printers to test components. So does Ford. Quirky casts product prototypes from 3D printers.

Not only is the cost of 3D printers going down, they are going mainstream. Staples is testing out 3D printer kiosks in stores in Belgium and the Netherlands where customers can upload customized parts, prototypes, art objects, architectural and medial models, 3D Maps and all sorts of other items. Then Staples will print it out and either customers can pick it up at the store or it will be shipped to them.

But 3D printers can also be used to create more lethal objects. Ronen Kadushin, a leader in the Open Design movement, who offers product designs (mostly furniture) that can be “downloaded, copied, modified and produced,” believes a 3D printer may soon have the capability to “print ammunition for an army.” Bre Pettis, founder and CEO of Brooklyn, NY-based 3D printing firm Makerbot, blogged that 3D printers “offer another avenue for weapons to enter the world. Will the next war be armed with 3D printers? One thing that’s for sure, the cat is out of the bag and that cat can be armed with guns made with printed parts.”

Comedian Chris Rock once said, “You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control.” If a bullet cost $5,000 “there would be no more innocent bystanders.” People would think long and hard before they shot anyone. “’Man, I would blow your fucking head off…if I could afford it.’”

Fat chance of that happening when 3D printers become as common as HP Laserjets.

Last month, shortly after Newtown, Makerbot removed blueprints for gun components from Thingiverse, the company’s thriving online community where users post 3D-printable designs. Until then Makerbot had rarely, if ever, enforced rules that forbid users from uploading files that could be used for “the creation of weapons.” As I write this, however, a smattering of gun components are still available on Thingiverse, including a grip extension for a Ruger LCP pistol, a press to adjust the sight on a Glock, replacement grips for a handgun, and a .45 caliber stackable ammo box. Of course, you could argue none of these aids in the creation of weapons, nor would this replica of a .50 caliber machine gun bullet and this 7.62 x 39mm round qualify as real ammunition.

“If you shoot anything on Thingiverse fast enough, you could hurt someone,” Pettis pointed out. A lot of things “could be classified as weapons, but they could also be classified as toys.”

Makerbot’s removal of firearms-related files prompted Defense Distributed, a pro-gun activist group, to launch DEFCAD, a website that offers these banned blueprints, as well as others. Previously the group’s leader, Cody R. Wilson, a student at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, was awarded a $20,000 grant for a Wiki Weapon project to crowdsource instruction kits for guns. His ultimate goal: to “produce and publish a file for a completely printable gun.” Wilson and his group aren’t the only ones experimenting with homemade guns forged out of 3D printed plastic parts. In July, Michael Guslick, an American gunsmith, claims he fired 200 rounds from a .22 caliber pistol with pieces cooked up in a 3D printer. A month later he built a semiautomatic rifle – the same make and model James Holmes used in last summer’s Aurora Colorado “The Dark Night Rises” shootings.

Downloading specs to a computer and manufacturing “click, print, and shoot” weapons on a 3D printer would make it difficult to regulate – forget background checks or waiting periods. As a result, Rep. Steven Israel, D-NY, has been pushing for the renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act. The law, which took effect in 1988 and expires at the end of 2013, makes it a crime “to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm” that won’t trip X-rays or metal scanners.

Often when a new technology emerges, entrenched powers, intent on protecting their economic interests, try to stop it. In the 1970s, record companies fought the sale of blank cassette tapes because it feared “home taping” was “killing the music industry.” Thirty years ago MPAA’s former president Jack Valenti told a congressional panel, “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

Of course, record companies were wrong about cassettes and home taping and so was Valenti about the VCR and VHS. But unfettered copying is indeed a threat to traditional business models and leads to rampant piracy. It wrestles control from copyright holders to users, which is why after Napster hit the scene record companies began to feel the pain. Hollywood, one would assume, could be next. Gun makers could follow.

Which brings me back to the NRA, which espouses views that are out of lockstep with its membership. Approximately 35% of Americans (some 80 million people) report that they have a gun in their home, and there are an estimated 300 million guns in the U.S. A recent poll found that 77% of NRA members surveyed support initiatives to prevent the mentally ill from procuring firearms and half back a five-day waiting period, positions the NRA opposes. Another poll, conducted by Republican strategist Frank Luntz, reported broad acceptance among the NRA rank-and-file for “commonsense gun laws,” with 74 percent of NRA members supporting required criminal background checks on gun purchasers.

Does the NRA represent the views of its 4 million members, or is it a front for the $12 billion gun industry comprised of manufacturers, firearms dealers, and ammunition makers, whose interests may diverge from those of the common member? Let's follow the money. According to the Violence Policy Center, the gun industry has  plowed $40 million into NRA coffers since 2005. The organization's most generous donors include MidwayUSA, Beretta USA Corp., Springfield Armory, Pierce Bullet Seal Target Systems, all of which donated in excess of $1 million, while another gun maker, Benelli USA Corp., gave more than $500,000.

So what happens when 3D printing becomes commonplace and it’s possible for anyone to print out ammunition and parts or even a whole gun in the comfort of his own home? As with the VCR and Napster, I suspect the gun industry will do everything in its power to prevent this. It’s a direct threat to these companies' bottom lines.

To have any chance of succeeding, however, they will need the force of Federal Law. They will need the government to enforce anti-piracy statutes so gun printers can't simply download a blueprint and hit the print button to fabricate their own cheaper gun parts and ammo. Otherwise Smith & Wesson and their ilk may find their profits shrinking.

Then what will the NRA do?