08 May 2013

How to advance freedom? One word: plastics. And 3D printing.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it? 
With the much-publicized successful test-firing of the world's first 3D printed gun, politicians wasted little time calling for a ban on the plastic weapon.

When will they learn?

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the "Saturday Night Special," a loosely defined term roughly encompassing any inexpensive handgun, that was the target of special bans, including the Gun Control Act of 1968. That Act referred to them as "relatively inexpensive pistols and revolvers (largely worthless for sporting purposes)" That phrasing stood on its head the Supreme Court's 1939 reasoning in U.S. vs. Miller, which upheld a ban on private ownership sawed-off shotguns specifically because they did not have "some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia..."* The courts have never held "sporting purposes" to be relevant to the Second Amendment. But inexpensive guns challenged the state's monopoly on violence, so they had to go.

In the 1950s, it was "zip guns," or home-made firearms, once popular among street gangs (even among fictional street gangs,) that were identified as particular contributors to crime. Since they could be built by anybody with a little ingenuity, zip guns also threatened the state's monopoly on violence, so they had to go.

So now we have these large, awkward, one-shot plastic guns threatening the Republic. As of today, you'll need to buy an $8000 printer in order to make one, and you'll need a new barrel after each ten shots or so, which is significantly more expensive and less convenient than a "real" gun. But let's stipulate that technology tends to come down in price and improve in quality over time, and assume that one day anybody could "print" a more practical gun.

Where Schumer and his cohorts are so badly mistaken is in their apparent belief that banning this application of the revolutionary printing technology is somehow putting their finger in the dike. Maybe they are right. After all, the Dutch boy's finger was only a temporary solution - the dike would still have failed without permanent repairs.

But 3D printed guns are not a leak in the sea wall; they are a storm surge that first overtops, and then destroys the levee.

The question is whether you should keep trying to build higher levees, which will ultimately consume all of your resources for diminishing benefit, or learn to live with the ocean. The 3D printer is revolutionary technology, and not only for weapons. It is less akin to zip guns, and more akin to Gutenberg's press, which ultimately democratized literacy and advanced the cause of human freedom.

It is true that the 3D printed guns should cause us to re-think gun control, but reviving earlier failed attempts at micro-regulation hardly qualifies as "re-thinking." The rich will always have health care, and money, and guns; 3D printing is for the rest of us.

* U.S. vs. Miller, strictly read, would seem to especially support private ownership of "assault rifles," a ruling the Constitutional Law Professor in the White House might do well to review before calling for a ban on those "weapons of war." There's nothing wrong with believing the Court has decided a case wrongly, but we must at least acknowledge the current state of the law.

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