Ethical technological question of the day: If technology is neither good nor evil, but simply a means to an end, what happens when that end has potentially dangerous consequences?
Cody Wilson, a University of Texas at Austin law student, has developed a working gun—which he calls The Liberator—using a 3D printer, and he’s made the design available on his website, Defense Distributed. Wilson’s home-made firearm becomes all the more striking as the cost of 3D printing drops precipitously, with low-cost printers poised to enter the mass market.
So how big a deal is this? Jacob Silverman, in his New Yorker blog, writes:
“In a technology industry notorious for unearned epochal pronouncements, it’s tempting to say that this development doesn’t mean much. After all, the United States is already awash in firearms, and it’s relatively easy and affordable to procure a gun far more powerful than the one that Wilson demonstrated. But Wilson’s project is significant—and not only because 3D printing hobbyists all over the world will now be able to modify and manufacture their own cheap, virtually untraceable guns. More important is what Wilson’s work and the “Wiki Weapon” community at large represent: the fusion of ultra-libertarian politics and a prophesied manufacturing revolution fuelled by 3D printing.”
Importantly, Silverman points out that 3D printing is “an iterative practice. Each printing session is another trial, an opportunity to work out flaws in the search for perfection”—meaning that Wilson and other DIYers will only improve in developing prototypes as they master the printing technology.
So will The Liberator—and its kin—make guns more accessible to people all over the world? It’s probably safe to say that 3D-printed firearms will remain on the fringe for the foreseeable future, but the fringe may be precisely where they could do the most harm. We’re about to find out if the inertia that has stalled aggressive gun legislation will carry over to the regulation of DIY weaponry.