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On Friday, Rep. Steve Israel reportedly invoked 3D printing to illustrate his concerns about undetectable plastic firearms. This may represent the first time that a lawmaker has explicitly linked 3D printing with a perceived threat to society. Hopefully, Rep. Israel recognizes there is no such thing as a 3D printing-specific solution to the problem of plastic guns.
Let's be clear about one thing: nobody wants people sneaking guns onto airplanes or into other areas protected by metal detectors. And we have all seen In the Line of Fire enough times to understand that plastic guns can be smuggled into places that metal guns might never see. But any attempt to address these concerns should focus on plastic guns, not 3D printers.
Fundamentally, this is because there is not a 3D printing-focused solution to this issue. 3D printers work by turning a digital file into a physical object. That physical object can be made out of any number of materials. While a digital file may work better or worse with some materials than others, nothing about the file is inherently tied to a given material.
This versatility is one of the characteristics that makes 3D printing so powerful. Even without a 3D printer of your own, you can buy Bathsheba Grossman's Gyroid sculpture in plastic. Or steel. Or silver. Or glass. Or sandstone. You could travel to a Dutch Staples and print it in paper. You could make nice with Hod Lipson and Jeff Lipton at Cornell and print it in cheese or batter. That is just as true for a gun file. The difference between a detectable and undetectable 3D printed gun lies in the printing. Not the file.
And that file is a digital file just like any other. For all intents and purposes, once it exists in one place online it exists every place online. Congress cannot make a file for a 3D printed gun disappear off the internet any more than it can do so for a pirated version of The Avengers.
Finally, there is no way to stop a 3D printer from printing a particular type of thing. As we have written before, a 3D printer is a general purpose machine that can be used to make just about anything – both good anythings and bad anythings. Printers do not run software that checks with a central approved database before they print something out. In fact, because 3D printers can print themselves, there is not even a central database that keeps track of all of the 3D printers in the world.
That is why, as a general rule, we do not focus on tools when we are trying to solve a policy problem. We would never try and stop bombs by passing a law controlling wires or try and stop hacking by passing a law controlling the use of command line tools.
Instead, we focus on behaviors. It is illegal to blow something up with a bomb no matter how it was made. It is illegal to hack into protected database no matter how you do it. If you believe that people should not be able to carry plastic guns, make it illegal to possess plastic guns. No one is worried about printing undetectable guns with a 3D printer per se. They are worried about undetectable guns.
It is probably a good thing that Rep. Israel is pursuing a conversation about plastic guns, and these days invoking 3D printing is a good way to bring attention to an issue. But in crafting a solution, hopefully Rep. Israel will focus on the problem – not just a high-profile tool. After all, if Congress passed a law banning undetectable guns in 1988, and John Malkovitch's Mitch Leary was creating plastic guns in 1993, eliminating 3D printing from the equation is not going to solve any problems. But it could cripple the growth of legitimate applications for this promising technology.