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Does not exist.

It’s not a question of whether or not one side of the debate “wins”, so much as the fact that the debate itself will inevitably be rendered irrelevant in the face of advancing technology.

I’m sure some of you have, by now, heard of Defense Distributed, the makers of the first 3D printed handgun.  From a technical standpoint, it’s an interesting accomplishment: making a weapon out of reasonably durable plastics that can fire a round with sufficient power to be lethal.  From a weapons standpoint, of course, the Liberator (named after the single-shot weapon designed to be distributed in mass quantities to the French populace during WWII) is a giant leap backwards, successfully creating the first firearm to be less lethal than a well-handled shortbow in over a century.

The press and hysterical gun control types made a huge deal out of the weapon, and more importantly the public release of the schematics for manufacturing said weapon in your own sufficiently-advanced 3D printer.  A lot of this revolved around its status as a “plastic gun”, therefor capable of slipping past security.  They tended to leave out the part that while the gun is plastic, the firing pin and more importantly ammunition are not.  Still more of it revolved around the idea of the plans being used to print firearms for felons, which is rather less worrisome when you consider the weapon itself: it fires a single shot at a time, from a weapon that must be disassembled to be reloaded, with laughable accuracy (all regards in which it is identical to its namesake).  On top of all that, it has a limited number of times that it can be fired before it blows up in your hand, and like every other weapon out there, the only way to test it is to fire it.

What makes the Liberator significant is not its potential to be a tool for assassination, or the means by which criminals obtain firearms, but rather the proof-of-concept that it represents.

And in that regard it is the first tolling of the bell in the death knell for gun control.

Because the limitation of the Liberator has nothing to do with the plans for the weapon itself; it could be streamlined a bit, certainly, but it is about as good a firearm as you can print out of the current generation of mid-range plastic 3D printers.

“Current generation” being the most important part of that statement.  Because the technology is still in its infancy, with the first generation of practical home 3D printers still a year or two out.  There is an existing subculture of bleeding-edge enthusiasts, of course, but until you see a machine capable of printing high resolution objects from durable materials for less than $300, it will remain just a toy for tech enthusiasts.

Those machines, however, are coming.

More important will be the next generation of printers.  Much like 2D printing evolved from dot matrix to inkjet to color inkjet to massive frustration with fouled printer heads and ridiculously overpriced ink, 3D printing will evolve, from low-resolution weak plastics to high resolution weak plastics to stronger plastics to circuit boards and ultimately you’ll see a machine in your home with the capability to print in metals.  At which point you will undoubtedly begin cursing the manufacturers of specialized proprietary metal powder cartridges and why they can’t seem to make a laser head or a nitrogen filtration system that lasts for more than a year without becoming irretrievably clogged.

On the off chance that you’re skeptical about that statement and don’t follow the technology in particular, bear in mind that there are industrial printers already doing this, in ridiculously tough alloys even.  SpaceX, for example, is currently using 3D printers to manufacture the rocket chambers on their SuperDraco engines.  The machines they’re using are expensive, to be sure; an EOS M 290 retails for about $700,000 and can only print relatively small objects.  And while I doubt that we’ll see machines with those sorts of capabilities (printing in Inconel?  Really?) on your desk anytime soon (unless your desk can support over 1200 kilograms of machinery), something more modest is entirely possible.

Gazing into my crystal ball, I expect we’ll see the first practical 3D printed handguns emerge in the third or fourth generation of home machines, once you get affordable printers capable of using tough plastics and printing limited circuit boards.  These weapons will be manufactured using the model pioneered by the Metal Storm system, with multiple rounds stacked in a single barrel, fired sequentially by electrical ignition.  These weapons will be essentially disposable, with the only part remotely worth salvaging being the battery pack used to fire the weapon.  They will be bulky, inaccurate, and more dangerous to the firer than any handgun currently on the market, but they will be cheap to make and readily available to anyone who wants one.

And there is functionally nothing that can be done to stop this.

Sure, you can try and control the schematics, build restrictions into the firmware of the machines themselves, and aggressively prosecute anyone caught making such a weapon.  But these are all exercises in futility.  In the case of the first two measures, I believe we’ve already established the fact that controlling the spread of information on the internet is impossible, and that hackers will always be able to crack the defensive measures built into any product, given enough time.  And as for prosecuting those who make their own weapons…  Well, if they don’t use them or flash them around in public, nobody will ever know they have them.

Until, of course, they do use them.  And it will only be a matter of time before that happens; a disgruntled loner prints a gun and shoots up a school.  The body count will likely be low, but the hysteria will be uncontrollable.

And due to the highly specialized nature of these weapons, they will ultimately lead us to the logical conclusion:  Gun control is dead.

Long live ammunition control.

Because while making guns is really quite simple, making ammunition is comparatively difficult and dangerous.  Manufacturing effective black powder or nitrocellulose are not endeavors fit for the amateur chemist who wants to retain little things like his fingers.  Missteps in the process can result in a weapon that explodes the first time it is fired, or a house that explodes well before you get that far.

Guns are, in a way, the low-hanging fruit of attempts to control gun violence.  They are easy to identify (though the ATF is terrible at it), easy to track (for first-sale purposes at least), and for the moment at least, difficult to manufacture.  But once you kick out the third leg of that tripod, the entire construct collapses.

Ammunition control is, of course, ultimately doomed to failure as well.  It is functionally impossible to manage alongside a civilian firearms market (a shooter only needs a certain number of rounds, after all) and while black powder and home reloading enthusiasts will no doubt be sorely vexed by the attempts to regulate their hobbies, the simple fact remains that our would-be shooter doesn’t need to purchase hundreds of rounds of ammunition.  He needs to purchase dozens, at the most, an amount that no conceivable system would flag as suspicious.  Which is not to say that people won’t try, of course, but simply that they will not succeed.

And by the time the fifth or sixth generation of home printers, coupled with advancements in capacitor technology, render the process of ammunition manufacture as complicated as taking a saw to a length of iron rod as people start printing their own railguns, we will be forced to acknowledge the futility of our efforts.

Guns are a tool.  A dangerous tool, yes, capable of enormous destruction.  Like a bulldozer, only you can keep it in your pocket.

But a gun by itself is harmless.  It is inert; it will not act until acted upon, and there we find the weak link in the chain of gun violence.


You want to reduce violence?  Reduce unhappiness.  Reduce inequality.  Reduce mental illness.  Reduce the social stigmas, crushing anxieties, and economic desperation that drive people to view the gun not as a tool, but as a weapon.  A means by which they can take what they want, be that money, power, or revenge.

Start soon.  Because the world moves fast, and it’s not going to wait for you to catch up.