“This is a symbol of irreversibility. They can never eradicate the gun from the earth.” — Cody Wilson, founder of “Defense Distributed”[i]
“From an Orwellian perspective, you’d be better off brain scanning people for malicious intentions than controlling for 3D weapons.” — John Wanberg, Industrial Designer[ii]
Homemade guns are an interesting cross between novelty, genuine innovation, legitimate security concern, and well-hyped harbinger of a technologic moral panic. People have been ready to freak out about 3D printed and “do-it-yourself (DIY)” guns for a few years now. The reality of DIY weapons is more complex. DIY guns are getting easier to make, and the products are getting better. These improvements are inevitable, but their security and crime implications are not going to be the same everywhere. DIY guns do have some legitimate security implications, and we should understand these implications if we want to address them as a security issue. However, from a security perspective (and I’m aware this is going to sound very American), homemade guns are ultimately only guns.
In many countries, high quality factory-made guns are already pretty easy for criminals and terrorists to get without resorting to all this do-it-yourself stuff. DIY guns do pose a few unique challenges for security and policing, but the most damage DIY guns can do is still unlikely to be worse than what criminals and terrorists already do with normal guns. In this blog, and in the book I’m working on: “Making Crimes: Technology, Law, and the Future of Gun Control,” I compare some of the similarities and differences from a security perspective, and try to separate legitimate issues from hype.
We should remember that homemade, “craft,” DIY, or “expedient” weapons are nothing new, and despite concerns about new high-tech methods of making them, functional firearms can also be made with methods and materials that are low-tech and basically impossible to stop. 3D printing has thrust homemade weapons into the limelight, but most homemade firearms (and most of the best ones), are still made without dependence on digital tools. Consumer-grade digital tools are rapidly improving, but there’s still nothing like traditional materials and traditional machining skill. Anybody can make a low-tech zip gun with a few bucks of parts from the hardware store. Most reasonably skilled machinists could make a more capable “expedient” firearm before lunch. Many machinists could make higher quality guns if they put their mind to it. Skilled professional gunsmiths can do all kinds of cool stuff. This was true decades before anybody had heard of 3D printing or CNC.
It’s also important to point out that in America, it’s legal to make your own firearms without a license under certain conditions, and lots of people do this legitimately as a hobby. Almost everywhere else, making a firearm without a manufacturer’s license is quite illegal. However, laws have less impact on home production than on traditional larger-scale factory production. There are about a dozen countries where unlicensed gun making is tolerated (even supported by corrupt police), and many more where it’s not tolerated, but it still happens and police can’t stop it. In some places, unlicensed gun making has become an economically-essential cottage industry regardless of the legalities.
Mainstream companies are also using the tools, and they’ve got the skill and money to push design innovations with state-of-the-industry technologies. The same tools allow for skilled home and small business operators to emulate mainstream industry designs if desired. Licensed gunsmiths and makers in America and many other countries increasingly use CNC and additive tools for legitimate firearm design, production, and repair. Skilled artisanal gun makers produce very fine firearms for well-to-do hunters and collectors. High-quality artisanal and collectors’ pieces virtually never show up in crimes.[iii] It’s not enough just to say that DIY guns are scary “ghost” weapons intrinsically worthy of a massive flailing reaction. If the capacity to build more and more things is spreading to more and more people (and it is), then the noise-to-signal ratio increases, and the basic capacity to make weapons becomes a poor way to assess real threats. Instead of pursuing a largely-futile fight against the ever-increasing ability to make firearms, we need to focus on understanding why DIY guns would or would not be attractive for crime, how they do impact the security game, and how they don’t.
When new technologies change the regulatory or policing situation, sometimes it pays to step back and take a deep breath before pursuing a hasty “security theater” reaction. Good policy is rarely crafted out of fear or ignorance. Overreaction can lead to unnecessarily toxic political battles, and new countermeasures that often prove costly to implement but ultimately ineffective at combating the problem. With DIY guns, ignoring the issue and hoping it goes away is unwise, but the costs of overreaction may also be significant. In a worst case scenario, we introduce new countermeasures that impose real costs to legitimate areas of industry, privacy, civil liberties, internet freedom, entrepreneurship, firearm access, or open source culture, but these efforts don’t put a dent in real criminal operations. If we want smart policies, we need to separate the real security issues from the hype, and evaluate the reasons people would actually make, sell, or use DIY guns illegally. It’s not helpful to assume an inevitable DIY bloodbath because a makerspace opened down the road.
Acknowledging the costs of fighting DIY weapons is also important. The clock is ticking until governments get serious about trying. In America, active shootings remain a statistically rare threat, but they do happen consistently, leaving the public disturbed and exhausted by their televised constancy. But America is big. Despite the impressions given by Hollywood and the 24-hour news cycle, in statistical terms Americans are pretty safe outside of our urban enclaves of street violence and narco-warfare. Despite recent upticks in some of our more violent cities, violent crime has declined substantially in America for decades. America also has special cultural connections, economic interests, and legal protections for guns, and while researchers vehemently disagree on the conditions under which “more guns = more/less/same crime,” it doesn’t play well for the politics of orthodox gun control that America’s most violent cities also tend to have strict gun laws, while some of its least restrictive jurisdictions have very low crime. The relationship may not be causal, but the pattern does undermine the assumption that gun restrictions alone will “solve” America’s urban violence, or that less-restrictive gun laws will always lead to a high degree of violence irrespective of socio-economic conditions.
So, despite the cable news yelling matches, America tends to be fairly stable on guns. Most people involved in American gun policy debate know that guns aren’t going away. (This includes many gun control advocates). We know we’ve got problems with gun violence, but we don’t usually make major changes to our messy patchwork of gun laws because of a single statistically-rare incident. We also, perhaps shamefully, accept a high level of status quo violence in some urban communities. However, many Americans remain understandably skeptical that these communities are going to be “fixed” by making it marginally more difficult to legally buy a gun in New Hampshire.
Guns are constitutionally protected and well integrated into many aspects of mainstream American culture. Though they may draw wildly differing policy recommendations from it, many Americans do intuitively understand that combating the “thing” is not quite the same as combating the conditions under which people are most likely to abuse the “thing.” If you’re an American reading this, there’s a reasonable likelihood that you have guns. There’s also a near-statistical certainty that if you do have them, you’ve never shot anybody. Even if you have shot somebody, it’s likely that you were wearing a uniform and the shooting fell within your job description. Maybe you don’t have a gun, but you probably know some people who do. They probably haven’t shot anybody either.
Whether aware of it or not, most Americans living outside of New York City or San Francisco probably know somebody who has guns. Even for readers in NYC or San Francisco, there’s a decent chance you’d know a cop, sportsperson, business owner, or criminal who has guns, but none of these people have much reason to talk about it among populations that consider guns to be scary or deviant items. In most US states, a significant proportion of the civilian population is licensed to carry concealed. Under the “Law Enforcement Officer Safety Act” or LEOSA, off-duty cops are authorized to carry guns almost everywhere, and are often encouraged by administrators to carry off-duty. Millions of Americans quietly carry weapons in public without anyone knowing or caring, and criminality among these users is quite rare. In other words, American political culture is a bit less likely to fixate on the “thing” because many Americans understand the “thing” is already all around us. Human factors like socio-economic conditions, the quality of users, and criminal incentives become more important to the discussion once we acknowledge that America is already an environment where guns are common, and almost anybody can get one legally or illegally if they are motivated.
The cultural (and numeric) integration of guns is not so strong elsewhere, and guns make a ready (though usually rather superficial) target for media criticism and public fear. The United States is the third largest country in the world. We have a tremendous number of guns in circulation, and we’ve been dealing with their benefits and costs since the beginning. Smaller countries unaccustomed to gun violence are sometimes so appalled by active shootings or gang warfare that they completely re-tool their gun laws when a significant incident occurs. That’s predictable, and to a degree, understandable. In some countries, citizens expect the government to provide a very high level of security and safety, and guns are more exotic, less mainstream, and have far fewer voters interested in protecting access to them.
These countries are likely to pursue serious initiatives against DIY weapons as soon as some noteworthy incidents occur, but most controls are unlikely to successfully stop DIY guns for the same reasons ISIS idiots and common thugs can buy factory-made AK47s behind the train station in Brussels: the gun controls imposed by governments do not touch the guns that fall outside the control system, and lots of guns fall outside the control system. Smuggled AKs and homemade guns are both in this off-radar category. Paperwork, registries, tracing systems, background checks? These are less relevant to smuggled guns, and totally irrelevant to homemade guns. Unsurprisingly, there is growing concern about terrorists using DIY or homemade weapons, and anything connected to terrorism is also more likely to result in serious countermeasures. In my post “Terrorism and DIY Small Arms: What We Should Worry About, What We Shouldn’t, and Why Traditional Gun Control Is Less Relevant than Most People Assume,” I address some of these concerns about terrorism and DIY weapons.
In some respects, DIY guns are a distraction. Some people worry that homemade guns would be a game-changer because now “anybody can get a gun.” This bypasses the reality that normal guns are already available on black markets even in many countries with strict controls and reputations for low gun violence. In America? Forget about it. If you’re a criminal or terrorist in America, there is little reason to prefer a DIY gun when superior firearms are easy to get, and cheaply too. But eventually, something will happen. Something tragic and scary and messed up enough to really make people freak out. And it’s going to involve a homemade weapon. What then?
In 2013, an active shooter in California used a DIY AR-15 to shoot up a college library. In Britain shortly before the “Brexit” vote, a mentally-unstable right-wing extremist assassinated a Member of Parliament with a homemade gun. Incidents involving DIY guns have occurred in the US, UK, Australia, China, India, Japan, and EU states. DIY guns have been common in developing countries for decades. Homemade handguns and submachine guns have turned up among criminals in Brazil, the UK, Australia, Russia, Ireland, China, EU countries, and throughout the developing world. Some of these are based on commonly-circulated “expedient” designs. A few illegal 3D printed guns have turned up too. Most of these homemade weapons are functional, and some are fairly well-made. Some are actually high quality knock-offs of name-brand small arms. All of this is very illegal of course. In most countries that try to keep track, these DIY firearms appear to be on the increase. And they’re much more difficult to stop. This is black market production of black market guns. Contrary to the traditional weapons control mythology that “All Illegal Guns Begin as Legal Guns,” these guns are illegal and off-record from the start. Traditional gun registries and tracing systems can’t touch them.
So, when a sufficiently disturbing incident involving DIY weapons does occur, new calls to combat the DIY menace will probably include proposals that go beyond traditional gun control. Understanding the costs and scope of effectively fighting DIY weapons is important to deciding what we should or should not do about them. Because DIY guns involve a different kind of supply chain than factory-produced guns, the methods needed to combat them effectively could be broader, more expensive, and more invasive than traditional gun control. If DIY guns became popular enough in crime to justify strong actions, we’d have to monitor a wide variety of non-criminal activities, tools, materials, and information if we expect to effectively combat them.
Even then, we couldn’t possibly stop them all. That’s why the implications of DIY guns are less about the weapons and more about the legal and technical thresholds they cross. Our reactions to DIY weapons may have far greater impacts than the guns themselves. Clandestine production of firearms is very difficult to prevent through traditional gun control laws and enforcement methods. If illegal DIY guns catch on for crime, legislatures and police agencies can easily find themselves grasping for effective strategies. The most (seemingly) effective solutions could involve broadening the scope of gun control laws, surveillance, or search powers to a level previously considered unusual in the policing of democracies in peacetime. Some people think DIY guns will challenge traditional state power. Conversely, the methods needed to fight DIY weapons may collide with traditional limits to state power. Both angles are worthy of consideration.
Even in non-democracies where gun controls are draconian and police have wide latitude, homemade guns are practically impossible to stop. In China, guns are generally illegal for civilians, and penalties are serious. “Most” of the 38 million guns confiscated by Chinese police in recent years have been homemade, with “few real guns being used in crimes.” India’s got them too. In India, gun control is strict, and legal permits are all-but-impossible for average people to get. There, 85% of guns are unlicensed, and “most” of these are DIY “country made” guns. This is not uncommon in the developing world: many developing states maintain strict gun laws, but in countries with weak governance, restrictive laws have little impact except to guarantee that most of the guns in circulation will be illegal and more difficult to track. Cottage industries of illegal gun making have cropped up all over the world. Locals are (illegally) making pretty good guns in Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, West Africa, and parts of South America. Some of them export to surrounding countries. Nepalese civilians are mostly armed with homemade guns from India. Columbia receives DIY weapons from Ecuador. Cottage industries in Ghana and Senegal produce guns for the region. Pakistan and the Philippines host thousands of small-time DIY gun producers par excellence. We’ll explore some of these cottage industries in future posts.
It’s reasonable to expect that weapons laws, and the police who carry them out, would be more effective in the developed world. Yet, China can’t stop homemade guns even with firearms almost completely outlawed and their police free to search virtually anybody, at any time, for any reason. Should we expect to fully “defeat” DIY guns in the developed and democratic world, where technology and information are less-controlled, and citizens expect police to respect rights and exercise restraint?
If we citizens of democracies decide that fighting DIY guns is now a responsibility we want our police agencies to seriously undertake, we need to understand the benefits, costs, and unintended consequences of enforcing bans on physical objects in a world where making things will only become easier. DIY guns are more than a curiosity: they are a crossroads. DIY guns will be the first phenomenon that really tempts us to reign-in the open source and maker movements, to “securitize” the information and tools behind the democratization of production. And though guns will be first, they will not be last. How we choose to handle a few 3D printed guns in the short-term will substantially shape the future of security, policing, and open source culture in the longer-term.
[i] Cody Wilson, interviewed by Glenn Beck, “Wiki Weapons Founder ‘They Can Never Eradicate the Gun from the Earth,” The Blaze TV, January 17, 2013, accessed September 20, 2015, http://www.glennbeck.com/2013/01/17/wiki-weapons-founder-they-can-never-eradicate-the-gun-from-the-earth/.
[ii] Interview by author, 2016
[iii] At least, not in the United States. In countries where illegal firearms are more difficult to acquire without an international hook up, criminals and black marketers put more effort into finding alternative sources for illegal guns. In the UK, criminals are stealing and refurbishing antiques more than a century old. They’re even (illegally) making or modifying custom ammunition for discontinued calibers.