The Philadelphia City Council voted unanimously last Friday to ban the 3D printing of guns in the US’s fifth largest city. If approved by the Mayor, the legislation will make it America’s first city to take action against additive manufactured firearms. We should expect many more stateside cities to follow suit in the near-future.
But what is the actual effect of such a ruling? And do the politicians involved in the decision actually understand what they are legislating against?
Announcing the results of the vote, Councillman Kenyatta Johnson said:
As instructions for the manufacture of guns via 3D printing technology are already available on the Internet, we could be looking at a recipe for disaster.
The somewhat alarmist nature of that last turn of phrase may raise eyebrows, particularly when put beside the comments made by Steve Cobb, Johnson’s Director of Legislation, when pressed regarding the need for such a law:
It’s all pre-emptive. It’s based upon the internet stuff out there.
While certainly ‘the internet stuff out there’ sounds suspiciously like one of those statements politicians make regarding new technology that immediately causes you to lose faith in their judgement, Cobb and Johnson’s motivation is understandable.
Trying to keep the peace in one of America’s most violent cities (331 homicides last year, an annual rate that has risen each year since 2009) is not easy. Any potential item that might inflate that figure further has to be taken seriously.
Yet anybody who knows about 3D printed firearms will immediately sense the somewhat flimsy nature of the ruling.
The spur for it is, quite clearly, the two big 3D printed gun stories of 2013: Cody Wilson’s plastic Liberator pistol, which was printed back in March, and the recent announcement by Texan 3D print company Solid Concepts that they have created a workable metal pistol based on the classic 1911 design.
In the case of The Liberator, the ruling will have little or no effect. Though it has been proven to work, it does not work much better than a zip gun. The thought of a career criminal buying a consumer 3D printer and all the raw materials necessary to create a Liberator before undergoing the long, painstaking process of printing it out when they could just go to a gun fair and pick up a factory made, tried and tested metal hand gun for about 50 bucks is rather absurd.
Even a madman bent on wreaking terror with homemade weapons could slap a bomb together in his garage using material they picked up for next to nothing at the DIY store and be more certain of its destructive capabilities than if they were to use Wilson’s Liberator.
With all that considered, illegalising the Liberator is unlikely to have much impact on the crime rate. In terms of the Solid Concepts model, this truly effective, workable metal hand-gun is the result of a Selective Laser Sintering process that requires large scale 3D printing equipment and a fairly decent level of skill and knowledge to execute properly. The only people likely to be capable of creating such a model are experienced, qualified professionals with big budgets behind them.
Prohibiting such a process, therefore, only makes sense if you are making the manufacturing of all firearms, including those made by traditional, subtractive means, against the law too.
So, while this current legislation may have little effect on today’s situation, that does not mean it is, as some commentators have claimed, a totally pointless move.
As Democratic Californian Senator Leland Yee pointed out when discussing his own efforts to take action against 3D printed weapons:
We must be proactive in seeking solutions to this new threat rather than wait for the inevitable tragedies this will make possible.
The truth is that, although we are nowhere near the stage where criminals print their own weapons for the purposes of waging war against the law abiding citizens of American cities, the technology is improving all the time.
As the processes involved become both more sophisticated and more accessible, the idea that one day a consumer 3D printer will print a firearm cheaply, quickly and effectively enough to make it a danger to the populace at large is not an absurd one. These above-mentioned lawmakers will argue it is better to nip such a possibility in the bud, as oppose to dealing with the eventuality when it arises.
Whatever your take on the law itself, there is no getting away from the most problematic factor of all in this debate: enforcement. Nobody from the Philadelphia City Council has explained how it plans to put the law into effect and this may well be because they don’t know themselves. As Homeland Security has already pointed out, stopping people from printing off weapons on their home 3D printer may not just be difficult but impossible.