Blurred Lines: When Guns Become Speech

The digital revolution is erasing the old boundaries of "stuff" and "speech"

Suing the government is always risky. It’s mostly unsuccessful. But the inventor of the first 3-D-printed gun (“The Liberator”) is forging ahead anyway. He has filed suit against the US Department of State for forcing him to take down his digital files from the Internet.

The New York Times quoted several constitutional attorneys who believe that Wilson case is non-trivial and could possibly be decided in his favor. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams told the Times: “On the face of it, it seems to me like a serious claim.”

The grounds he has chosen are interesting and compelling. He says that by forcing his data offline, the government violated his free speech rights. He did nothing but post a file type with digital content, essentially just a series of 1s and 0s

 The State Department scrambled to find some old regulation to use to force it down. They scrounged up Cold War-era regulations concerning “International Traffic in Arms” — legislation designed to control the flow of arms from the US to Soviet-bloc territories in Eastern Europe.

But Wilson never trafficked in guns. He didn’t even manufacture any with an attempt to market them, much less transport them across national borders. He merely shared an idea through the medium that is the primary vehicle for the exercise of speech in our time. How can a law designed to prevent guns exports pertain to the sharing of an idea?

What is the difference between a real gun and a digital model of a gun? Guns are physical, weighty, take up space, and subject to the constraints of scarcity. To be transported, they have to be packed and shipped.

But what if you can take the model for printing a gun and render it in an infinitely malleable, portable, reproducible, weightless file that can shared like an email? Anyone who obtains that file can print a functioning gun.

Under those conditions, a gun leaves the physical world to become part of the realm of ideas. To invent it, change it, and share it is no different from inventing, changing, and sharing any other idea. It is a human right. And that is precisely what the First Amendment seeks to protect. For any government to forbid it is to muzzle the freedom to think and to speak.

Wilson publicly posted his computer-aided design (CAD) files on a distributed network. He did nothing more. It’s a form of speech. But the government said no. Over the following two years, Wilson tried his best to comply with the regulations to which the government claimed he was subject, but never did receive a green light.

Meanwhile, this being the Internet, his CAD files migrated to a thousand other places online. Wilson very cleverly assured that this would happen by releasing his file with a compelling video that garnered massive media attention. Millions of downloads took place. Just days after the files had been posted, crowd-sourced improvements to his 3-D gun were all over the Internet, and YouTube was hosting video tutorials in how to print and assemble them.

The case really pushes us to think about the implications of government regulation in the digital age.

Over the last 20 years, we've seen the acceleration of a great migration of the physical world to the digital world. It began with messaging, moved to images, and then onward to sound files and movies.

With 3-D printing, potentially any object can be digitized and ported peer-to-peer anywhere in the world, making a mockery of production controls, consumer regulations, trade barriers, patents, taxes, and a thousand other government restrictions. With the migration of money from physical to digital, and from national to global, as with Bitcoin, the same new reality presents itself.

The more this revolution progresses, the more we become aware of just how outmoded our systems of government control really are. They were created in an analog age where all sources of economic value seemed to be instantiated exclusively into scarce, physical goods. When government sought to control them, they were really controlling physical things and persons. This is what government does well, by use of its monopoly of coercive control in a particular geography. Government is a uniquely analog institution.

But what happens in a digital age when the physical inhabits a digital space in which “things” become infinitely portable (regardless of borders), infinitely malleable (regardless of regulations), and essentially indestructible (regardless of how much coercion is used)?

Government experiences a loss of control. It becomes ineffective, outmoded, and obsolete. Inner contradictions begin to reveal themselves.

In a digital world, government attempts to control really amount to an intervention in fundamental civil liberties such as speech that nearly everyone believes must be protected.

The American left — which has long believed it could heavily regulate the “economy,” while leaving civil liberties intact — will have trouble making sense of this one. The American right — with its belief that free enterprise can live happily alongside censorship — faces a similar cognitive dissonance.

What’s beautiful in this case is that Cody Wilson knew of this tension all along, and his gun was designed to underscore the point: If you try to control the Internet, you are really attempting to control people in ways that are unconscionable. He is a student of the libertarian tradition, and his passions are fundamentally with the cause of human liberty. He is not a “gun nut” so much as a “human rights nut”; now he can fairly be said to be a free speech nut. Matters are playing out exactly as he had hoped.

Regulating in the world was much easier when we are talking about land, heavy machinery, and other things that take up space. It all comes down to who has the most manpower and firepower.

But when the truly valuable things in the world cross that great divide between material and merely intellectual, the balance of power shifts too. The cause of freedom has the advantage. This is the single most salient feature of the politics and economics of our time.

I truly hope that Wilson wins his case. But even if he loses, he has made his point: Either we shut down the progress of the world toward ever more sharing of information, or we stop trying to impose atavistic forms of coercion and control.

Meanwhile, I just Googled for CAD files of printable guns. In a fraction of second, 2,000 different models filled my screen. In some ways, Wilson has already won. You can’t stop the signal.

More by Jeffrey A. Tucker

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