The Federal government is trying to stop the proliferation of plans for guns that can be produced with 3D printer technology. That war was lost as soon as Washington launched it.
On Thursday State Department officials took action against the Defense Distributed website Defcad.org. They claimed that blueprints for the 3D-printable “Liberator” handgun hosted at the site may violate arms export control laws under International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. Regulators and judges will sort out whether ITAR applies to innovative technology its authors never anticipated or sought to regulate. The more important question is, what were the bureaucrats thinking when they imposed the ban? Which is to say, are they crazy?
Maybe they thought they had to make a bold statement in support of the Obama administration’s gun grabbing agenda. Maybe they were responding to pressure from Democratic members of Congress to “do something.” Maybe a GS-15 at the Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance was up for elevation to the Senior Executive Service and suggested this move to make it appear as though they were working for a living. Maybe it was all of the above.
But no one in their right mind at State could have thought this would have the effect of making these plans less available. Now they are everywhere. Almost immediately the printable gun plans were available at web sites, linked to in chat rooms, downloadable at torrent sites (for example: the offshore Pirate Bay site, if this link still works), accessible via FTP and passed around in emails. How many people had heard of the “Liberator” before John Kerry’s department decided to get involved in gun grabbing? How many had ever been to Defcad.org? How many even knew printing a gun was possible? Whatever the number, it is millions more now.
Maybe the wise heads at State thought closing down this one site would at least temporarily end the proliferation of printable gun plans. If so they are remarkably out of touch. Every time – every time – the government tries to prevent information from spreading in cyberspace, it goes viral instantly. Partly it is the self-defense mechanism of cyber-denizens who resent government intrusion of any kind. Partly it is curiosity of people who had never heard of the thing being banned before the government banned it. And partly it is the firmly rooted American contrarian streak that actually dates back to the Garden of Eden. It’s the oldest rule in advertising: tell people they can’t have something, and they’ll want it.
The government cannot stop downloadable, printable gun plans. Even if they ruthlessly hunted down and deleted every file developed by Defense Distributed, there will be thousands of others out there doing the same thing. In fact they already are, making guns that are more reliable, more accurate, more durable. The government cannot lock down the human imagination, much as it would like to. And it cannot – or at least should not — ban 3D printer technology, which will revolutionize lives in ways as yet unforeseen. An inventor’s paradise is on the horizon. People will be able to design, construct and sell all manner of things right in their own home. Have a better widget? Come up with the plan and sell it to people who print it out. Can you imagine replacement human organs being made by one of these gizmos? Well someone is already working on it.
Whatever the ruling on regulating downloadable gun plans under ITAR, the State Department has made a huge mistake. Their attempted gun grab is a global news story. Anyone who might have an illicit use for this technology knows it is out there, and can access it. By trying to bottle up the genie, the government has guaranteed that anyone who wants these guns can get them. Great work guys.
James S. Robbins is Deputy Editor of Rare. Follow him on Twitter at @James_Robbins