Kroese: The Feds Fall for a Plastic Gun

Cody Wilson tests the 3-D Printed Gun (Photo: Defense Distributed)

In his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, legendary theoretical physicist Richard Feynman tells of his experience working on the atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project. Feynman had some free time when he wasn’t figuring out how to split the atom, and a mixture of boredom, curiosity and concern about the Los Alamos lab’s security protocols prompted him to try his hand at safe-cracking. It didn’t take him long to figure out how to crack every safe in the facility. He demonstrated the vulnerability to the colonel in charge of the complex, who listened attentively and then took immediate action to address the security flaw. In Feynman’s words:

The colonel… sent a note around to everyone in the plant which said, “During his last visit, was Mr. Feyman at any time in your office, near your office, or a walking through your office?” Some people answered yes; others said no. The ones who said yes got another note: “Please change the combination of your safe.”

This being one of Feynman’s first encounters with bureaucratic ineptitude, he was stunned that the colonel had completely missed the point of his demonstration. “That was his solution,” Feynman writes. “I was the danger.”

If Feynman were still alive, he would have recognized this same bureaucratic idiocy at work in the U.S. government’s response to Cody Wilson’s demonstration of the feasibility of printing a handgun. Wilson, a 25-old law student, is the founder of Defense Distributed, a non-profit firm founded with the goal of creating a working firearm with 3D printing technology.

Explaining the motivations behind Defense Distributed, Wilson says, “It’s one of the ideas of the American Revolution that the citizenry should be the owners of the weapons. Every citizen has the right to bear arms. This is the way to really lower the barrier to access to arms. That’s what this represents.”

As Farhad Manjoo explains in Salon:

Wilson argues that once printable guns become a reality, they’ll make all gun control efforts moot. Wilson and his allies take it for granted that in the Internet age, information is the one resource that is beyond the control of governments. Authorities may be able to take away your gun, but they can’t delete the plans for the gun. For gun advocates, the beauty of the 3-D weapon is that it shifts gun control from a fight centered on the Second Amendment to one focused on the First….

Don’t fall into Wilson’s trap. Though it’s a clever stunt, the printable gun does nothing to weaken the case for gun control—and, in the long run, it might well strengthen it. That’s because, for the foreseeable future, the printed gun can’t compete with manufactured weapons. It’s more expensive, less durable, and a worse shot than any gun you can buy from a store. At best, then, it’s a distraction from the mainstream politics of gun control.

Predictably, the feds have fallen into the trap, confusing an exercise in political theater for a bona fide threat. The US Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance, Enforcement Division (DTCC/END) sent Wilson a letter demanding that he remove the plans for the gun from the public domain, apparently on the grounds that posting the plans violates ITAR, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

This isn’t the first time ITAR has been used to prevent the promulgation of information: until 1997, for example, strong cryptography could not be legally exported from the U.S. The strange thing about the invocation of ITAR in this case is that the information ostensibly being guarded is for relatively low tech weaponry. Other than the fact that the gun in question is made almost entirely of plastic, it’s essentially an artifact of 19th century technology. Anyone with a mechanical engineering background, a credit card, and access to a hardware store could build a comparable firearm. The Liberator, as Wilson has christened the gun, is unreliable, inaccurate, and flimsy compared to a typical modern handgun. It’s as if the federal government suddenly decided to crack down on sites explaining how to make your own musket.

What’s so special in this case is not the technology inherent in the weapon; it’s the technology used to distribute that technology. The feds are essentially saying that the problem isn’t what’s being distributed; it’s how it’s being distributed. And that’s where you run into a problem. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m fairly confident that ITAR is only concerned with the what, not the how. If I send information on enriching plutonium to Syria, I’m going to be in a lot of trouble whether I send it by email or courier pigeon. But what if I email instructions for building a musket out of PVC pipe to a friend in London? To be consistent with their apparent position on distributing plastic gun technology, the government would have to claim that my email is a violation of ITAR. And suddenly every Civil War reenactment group with a Facebook page is a potential den of international criminals.

This is the trap that 25-year-old Cody Wilson set up for the federal government, and the feds took the bait, hook line and sinker. Apparently not content with having to contend with the NRA, the feds have now aligned themselves against the guardians of the free Internet – The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, anonymous, et al. It’s going to be an ugly battle, and ultimately the feds are going to lose. Trying to outlaw disseminating instructions for printing plastic guns is as useless as changing your combination to thwart a safe cracker. But more importantly, it misses the point: Wilson isn’t offering printed guns to meet the needs of some untapped market niche of people who are jonesing for plastic guns. He was simply trying to demonstrate the ultimate futility of the government’s attempts to control guns. And because the feds don’t know when to back down from a fight, he’s going to get exactly what he wants.