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Friday, May 17, 2013

I Got More Guns Than the KGB

This month, an organization called Defense Distributed discovered how to “print” a plastic pistol that really shoots. Defense Distributed, which is dedicated to preserving the right to keep and bear arms, used a 3-D printer to read a real pistol’s electronic blueprint and print out a plastic version. On its website, company officials made the blueprint of its pistol, “Liberator,” available for download along with blueprints for various parts of other types of guns. 

On May 8, however, the U.S. Department of State demanded that Defense Distributed cease publishing gun blueprints on the company’s website. The State Department alleged the blueprints, which already have 100,000 downloads, may violate the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which restrict export of weapons information. So far, Defense Distributed has obeyed the State Department’s demand. 

Pandora’s box has already been opened. 

First, Defense Distributed discovered how to make guns available to everyone in the world. Using photocopiers or computers, people have been able to copy books, MP3 files, computer software, and other items without limit. Now, using 3-D printers, people can copy guns without limit. The neologism for such items is “non-scarce goods.” Jeffrey Tucker and Stephan Kinsella define these as “[things] in demand that can be replicated without limit…with no additional copy having displaced the previous copy and with no degradation in the quality of the copied good from the original good…I can have one, you can have one, and we can all have one.” Non-scarce goods are likely to hasten an age of abundance.

Second, Defense Distributed’s printed gun shows that the right to keep and bear arms can overlap with freedom of the press. The Second Amendment protects “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” which is an individual right. The First Amendment protects “freedom of …the press.” Based on UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh’s landmark research on press freedom, I’ve argued before that “the press” was meant to refer to any communications technology, such as today’s office printers or blogs. 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the founders did not understand “the press” to be one discrete set of people, like the mainstream media, bloggers, or even pamphleteers. Press freedom belongs to the average Jane as much as to any reporter. As people can use 3-D printers for a variety of purposes, including the printing of signs and the publication and replication of art, the First Amendment surely protects the product of 3-D printers. Thus, the First and Second Amendments protect the printing of guns. 

Printed guns show the folly of such gun-control laws as universal background checks on potential gun buyers, because anyone can now print guns at home. As Defense Distributed notes, any attempts to rid society of guns “will [now] require tyranny.” By invoking ITAR, the State Department is preventing Defense Distributed from publishing gun blueprints. However, as printed gun specs are non-scarce goods that the First and Second Amendments protect, any American could still have, to paraphrase rapper M.I.A., “more guns than the KGB.” 

I’ll start remixing.

  • Daniel Smyth is co-founder and editor of