XX.3 May + June 2013
Page: 80
Digital Citation

The weapons factory in the den

Daniela Rosner, Jonathan Bean

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In the summer of 2012, Cody Wilson was enjoying time off from his first year of law school at the University of Texas. Prior to that, four years of liberal arts education in college had provided him with no particular technical or design skills. But he was ready to change that. He had been reading about the recent emergence of consumer-ready 3-D printers—printers that, as we know, can produce tangible artifacts much like standard printers produce images. Three months, one Indiegogo pitch, and $20,000 later, he sent some files to a 3-D printer. What had this fledgling designer dreamed up? It was not a cup, showerhead, or earbud holder. It was a gun.

Along with developing "freely available plans for 3-D-printable guns," Wilson founded an organization called Defense Distributed. The group was inspired by CAD files from another maker going by the handle HaveBlue, who had designed and 3-D-printed a component for a rifle that fired 300 rounds before breaking.

Guns cause trouble—and surface ideological divides. After the Colorado shootings last fall, the company MakerBot Industries, which owns the popular file-sharing site, removed instruction files for 3-D-printed guns. In retaliation, Wilson's organization Defense Distributed launched the sister site Defcad. org, "a makeshift response to MakerBot Industries' decision to censor files uploaded in good faith at Thingiverse, specifically firearms-related files."

Guns are not the only printable tech causing trouble. Handcuffs and cars can now be unlocked with 3-D-printed keys. Bank accounts can be fraudulently accessed with 3-D-printed skimming technology grafted onto an ATM. And more is sure to come.

It turns out the desirable qualities for 3-D printer output—parts that are precise, smoothly finished, and durable—are also the qualities needed to make parts for guns. Even at this early stage, there appears to be plenty of demand and rapid innovation in 3-D printing. Formlab's stereolithographic Form1 printer, which promised higher-quality output, was posted on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and reached its initial $100,000 milestone in its first day. Eventually the company raised $3 million, becoming one of the most successful Kickstarter projects of 2012.

Over the past year, Kickstarter has become a major player in the wider movement of crowdsourced approaches to design. Today people can crowdsource a design, leaving the finicky details to others. If they don't have a 3-D printer at home, they can walk down to their local corner store, such as a Techshop—what some call "the Kinko's of the maker movement" [2]. Kinko's isn't quite the right metaphor for crowdfunding, however, because the massive publicity it makes possible is more similar to putting your brand of sunglasses on Lady Gaga. For example, Kickstarter competitor Indiegogo gave Defense Distributed a jolt last summer by getting the media interested in the story. Defense Distributed raised $2,000 in 22 days, but after the mass shootings in a theater in Colorado, Indiegogo pulled the plug and returned the committed funds to donors. From one perspective, Indiegogo was being sensitive to the victims of mass shootings, but from another, liberal values were riding roughshod over individual creativity and basic rights. This "shutdown" has prompted a controversy over the ethics of 3-D-printable guns. Defense Distributed, which has yet to demonstrate an original print, has proven a thorn in the side of many proponents of open source tech. Openly available 3-D printer files include plans for manufacturing weaponry. Guns still kill people, and aspects of the burgeoning crowdsourcing movement are making them newly available.

So our brave new world of distributed technology has given us crowdsourced gun designs for crowdfunded 3-D printers. This is not quite the future of democratized creativity we imagined. For now not everything can be printed. Circuits are printable. So are clocks, belt buckles, and clothing. Possibly even organs. Though researchers have tackled replaceable body parts, no one has yet to print a living creature—or a complete gun, for that matter. What can be printed depends on the fabrication technology. Most off-the-shelf printers use plastic extrusion, printing material in 2-D layers stacked atop one another; others use stereolithography, an optical fabrication technique with higher resolution than plastic extrusion. Stereolithography means smoother parts—ideal for elaborate devices like firearms.


At the heart of the issue is whether we ascribe responsibility for violent effects to what Bruno Latour calls a hybrid actor [3]. The hybrid actor is the gun and gunman considered together. The hybrid actor—the person holding a gun—confronts the world differently than a person without a gun. When we introduce guns to a person, some characteristics of the gun become part of the gun holder and some characteristics of the gun holder become part of the gun. The same can be said of 3-D printing.

So what happens when plans for guns, keys, or ATM-skimming devices are readily available on the Internet and when all it takes to make them is the push of a button? When the right to free speech and the right to bear arms intertwine in the form of a computer peripheral and crowdsourcing? When we try to follow this new hybrid actor of person and bad machine? When a new form of life can be printed to order?

The answers to these questions don't jibe with most of the solutions we have—solutions that focus on keeping technology out of certain people's hands. Sure, we can pass new laws restricting the sales of 3-D printers much like we do guns: not let certain people own them, or not sell them without background checks. Even if such a draconian solution were palatable, the cat is out of the bag: 3-D printers can be used to print 3-D printers [4].

In the wake of the unthinkable shootings in a Colorado theater, a Wisconsin temple, and a Connecticut elementary school, guns have reemerged as the locus of political debate over rising violence. Just as the right to bear arms has come under fire, the reality of 3-D-printed guns has raised new questions. Not only about the practical issues underlying the making of guns, but also about the legal repercussions [5], the institutionalization of social values and standards, and the role of the new hybrids in their midst. Under California's Penal Code 12020, a person can be convicted for knowingly manufacturing parts that are capable of being used as weapons [6]. Yet, people have long built guns as a hobby. As the celebrated maker and hacker movements continue to grow, we need a declaration—or at least a discussion—of the boundaries of personal manufacturing: the acceptable social conventions, policies, and practices related to this cross section of First and Second Amendment rights. The use of personal technology is not just technical; it has social, moral, and political consequences.

For the time being, some things remain impossible to print. As Chris Rock once said in a stand-up routine: "You don't need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control." You can 3-D print a gun, but you can't 3-D print a bullet. At least not yet.

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3. Latour, B. Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Harvard University Press, 1999.




back to top  Authors

Daniela Rosner is a Ph.D. candidate at U.C. Berkeley's School of Information and a lecturer at the California College of the Arts (CCA). Her research focuses on how cultural histories are woven into our interactions with the things we create.

Jonathan Bean is a postdoctoral fellow at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, where he is helping to start a new program in design studies. His work is interdisciplinary and deals with domesticity, technology, and consumer culture.

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