Antonio García Martínez 'Ideas' writer at @WIRED. Author of NYT bestseller 'Chaos Monkeys'. Formerly @Facebook, @YCombinator, @GoldmanSachs. Yes, I really live on a boat. 🇺🇸🇪🇸 Aug. 01, 2018 8 min read

Partly, this is hysteria. Partly, it’s the crowning act of a decades-long technical evolution that will render most gun law obsolete. Here is my take, for the non-gun (and maybe gun) people out there. There's lots of initial setup, but hopefully worth your while. Tweetstorm!

The most recent news about ‘3D printed guns’ out of a company called Defense Distributed (@DefDist) cannot be understood without understanding the past half-century in firearms development, which has been advancing at a lightning clip. First, the beginning….

This is my (inherited) grandfather’s Smith and Wesson .38 Police Special, once the standard police sidearm. It’s a forged hunk of metal, where close to nothing can be modified without serious gunsmithing, and even then, it’ll never be more than a medium-frame, six-shot revolver.

This is a WWII-era M1 Garand rifle, the rifle that won the war. It was produced in the millions, is not modifiable easily in any significant way, and every GI carried something that was effectively identical to this.

Fast forward to the present: This is a Sig Sauer P320C, the new US Army sidearm. It was partially chosen for being completely modular, allowing for changes in concealability, accuracy or even caliber with only easy parts swaps.

This is a disassembled AR15. It is modular in every way, and every bit of it can be swapped out like so many Legos. You might ask: If it’s all just Legos, then what part is the ‘gun’, the hardware with unique rules around sales and ownership, unlike say chainsaws or blenders?

The Fed bureaucrat responds: The ‘gun’ is the thing with the serial numbers on it. Everything else is an accessory, even though they actually do the work of a gun, namely, loading a cartridge into the action, and firing a projectile out of a barrel. They’re all ‘accessories’.

This is the official ‘gun’ part of an AR. Everything else is really, truly not considered a 'gun'.

This is the official ‘gun’ part of a modern pistol. Everything is else is officially not part of the 'gun'.

This is a momentous bureaucratic decision. It means that everything in the ‘non gun’ category can be bought and sold unrestricted online, like so many shoes on Zappos, and they are. You can buy everything in ‘non gun’ with zero checks, online, right now.

You might be asking: If the ‘gun’ is this small piece of metal or plastic, and heavily regulated, then why can’t I make it myself? That’s the real crux of this issue, and the only thing worth talking about in this entire story (we’ll address the 3D printing BS in a moment).

Thought experiment: What if I took a rectangle of aluminum, and machined out a hole like the magazine well of the AR? Then I machined out the trigger opening. Then every other detail in the ‘gun’ part above. At what point did the hunk of metal become a ‘gun’?

This isn’t sophistry, it’s a real issue in gun regulation. Per Federal law, that piece of aluminum became the ‘gun’ when you got 81% of the way to finishing it. After that point, it must be bought and sold as a gun, with all the restrictions that apply.

What’s the market do? It sells you a 80% finished piece of metal, which is officially not a 'gun' (though it really looks like one) on the Internet, no questions asked. (Link for reference, not an endorsement.) 

The aspiring unregistered gun owner then finishes the last 20% at home, with a drill press and/or milling machine. Combined with the ‘non gun’ parts bought freely online, they now have a fully-functioning AR15. Nobody knows that gun exists, and it is completely untraceable.

This entire debate is really about that last 20% on the bureaucratic ‘gun', and how and where it happens. 20% of something like maybe 20% of the gun, so 4%. Everything outside of that is completely unregulated, and little real gun law exists. How the 20% happens though is key.

This is where @DefDist comes in. They sell you a gadget that makes that last 20% step easier than doing it yourself, via a computer-controlled milling technology that’s been around forever. It isn’t a fundamentally new gun technology, but it is an incremental last-mile advance.

I mention 3D printing nowhere. That’s because it’s irrelevant, and most of what you read about 3D printed guns is noise. 3D printing is a relatively immature manufacturing technology, and it won’t be making a modern, repeating firearm any time soon.

The only reason 3D printing is even in the story is because @DefDist, geniuses at marketing, created a toy 3D-printed product that could fire one round (before maybe exploding in your hand) as a way to plant the meme in the heads of people who know nothing about guns.

Worth repeating: If you read media coverage of this story that focuses on 3D printing, and perpetuates some Star Trek replicator fantasy of making guns like you microwave popcorn, you are reading complete rubbish and should stop.

So why is everyone freaking out? Two reasons: 1. Misunderstanding the technology, and believing Star Trek replicator fantasies. 2. More seriously, advances in gun modularity and manufacturing now make most gun regulation obsolete.

How has gun regulation worked historically? In US states like CA and NY that wish to limit dangerous weapons (e.g. the AR), regulation has focused on certain features associated with military-style weaponry, like pistol grips, quick-release magazines, folding stocks, etc.

Say you wanted to keep noisy, dangerous race cars off city streets. You ban features associated with them, like spoilers. But then an aftermarket develops, and *non* race cars have spoilers (for looks), and some legitimately dangerous race cars remove them. Regulation fails.

With this modularity of firearms, this has essentially already happened. This is a .50 Barrett sniper rifle. It fires a projectile the size of your finger, and can kill a man from over a mile away. In spirit, illegal in CA. In fact, legal (with the right mods). Regulation fails.

Why does this status quo exist? Our current gun laws are a necessary compromise between a silent majority of Americans (including gun owners) who support background checks but *don’t* support a total ban, bracketed by both NRA and anti-2A extremists.

With the current political compromise, the NRA zealot is placated by Dem rhetoric around ‘not banning all guns’, plus the technical knowledge that they can tolerably dodge most Blue State gun laws via the modular technology and homebuilding described above.

The Blue State anti-gunners are placated because politicians are ‘doing something’, and due either to magical thinking or technical ignorance, think their gun laws are actually stopping the distribution of firearms, when really they’re mostly security theater.

This is the necessary political charade around guns this country has maintained for, oh, two decades or so. @DefDist’s ultimate goal is to kick the final, weak leg out from under this tenuous political compromise, and force a reckoning with the state of firearms technology.

When the last-mile problem of untraceable, unregistered guns has finally been solved (coupled with an unregulated market in ’non gun’ parts), even politicians can’t maintain the charade of effective gun control. So what would be viable, self-consistent gun regulation?

I can see only two self-consistent routes: 1. Blanket bans on most classes of firearms, seizure of existing arms, and allowing only minuscule calibers (.22, air rifles), and maybe hunting guns (double-barreled shotguns, etc.). This is the Europe, Canada, or even Japan policy.

2. Maintaining bans on unambiguous firearm classes with near-zero civilian use (howitzers->illegal, fully automatic->illegal), but everything else unrestricted. The pro-gun state policy, effectively.

(1) would require a repeal of 2A, or a backdoor repeal via legal precedent. It would also require the largest weapons seizure in human history, as the US currently has more guns than people. The pro-gun states would secede or revolt before the prospect. 

Conversely, as gun violence persists, particularly the bloody mass shootings that draw massive attention, the anti-gun states will be completely unwilling to embrace (2), even as technology increasingly makes incremental regulation ineffective.

Whether @DefDist manages to spark the conflict now, or advancing technology eventually sparks it later, this country will come to a total impasse on guns, where the existing compromise becomes untenable. Then one of two things probably happens.

1. Foundational ideological conflicts in this country have always been resolved with one side co-opting some feature of the Federal government (e.g. the US Army, SCOTUS) to force the other side to accept its interpretation of the Constitution. The same could happen here.

2. Faced with divergent opinion on key issues like guns, abortion, and immigration, the union will be preserved by reverting to a pre-Civil War level of federalism, where the US becomes a loose association of states, and every state goes off their own version of the Constitution.

As part of (2), 2A won’t be formally repealed, but in anti-gun states politicians will make gun ownership effectively impossible. Anyone who can’t live without them will rail online about ‘from my cold dead hands!’, and then quietly move elsewhere.

It’ll be weird, and our national debates will be ruthless and zero-sum, as they are now. But we’ll prefer an awkward compromise to the alternative: another Civil War, or the dissolution of the 242-year-old experiment in democracy we call the USA. (end)