Why Guns Won Before 3D Printing: Industrialization, Post-Industrialization, and the Problem of Scale in Small Arms Control

By Mark

“It might take 10 years or 20 years. Hell, it might take 50 years. But if we make it illegal to own a handgun, eventually there will be no handguns.”  -Gerald Ensley[i]

 “Gun prohibition then, is not the same as banning DDT or leaded gasoline. It is more like banning fire.” –Nicholas Johnson[ii]

When people hear that I write about 3D printed and homemade guns (along with some of the other security implications of the “4th Industrial Revolution and democratization of manufacturing), sometimes they ask me-

“So, does this mean gun control is going to be pointless now?”

After years of following this issue, I admit I’m still not sure how to answer the question. I don’t think all gun control is pointless, but I do think that a lot of the mainstream gun control orthodoxy is ineffective, superficial, and far too reliant on vacuous “guns are icky” argumentation. Gun control is often the feel-good solution we impose as a smoke-screen for our failure to address the far deeper and more systemic problems behind crime and violence in our most marginalized communities. “Supply side” gun control also exerts greater influence over lower-risk users (i.e. the law-abiding, nonviolent, and less-violent) who are more inclined to comply with controls, while exerting lesser impact on the higher-risk (i.e. criminal, terrorist, and mentally unstable) users who are more willing to break the law, and more motivated to engage in violence.

In America, this leads to bitter (and oftentimes, boring…) political battles over gun policies that usually have marginal impacts on crime. These dynamics make American gun control more feel-good solution than real-world solution. If someone expects gun control alone to end gang and drug-related violence in Detroit, Newark, Baltimore, Chicago, or East Saint Louis, but the same person doesn’t want to pay the real costs of addressing the deeper socio-economic, public health, policing, cultural, and drug policy issues, then I’m not sure we’d have enough overlap in our fundamental understanding of American reality to have a meaningful conversation.

The causes and realities of violence are complex and multi-variate because people and communities are complex and multi-variate. Solutions based on single factors are attractive and media-friendly, especially when that single factor is something scary that can be restricted or banned. Yet, complex problems are rarely solved by simply banning something. If I don’t want to pay black market prices, I’m pretty sure I’m capable of brewing up some 4-Loco in my bathtub should I ever feel compelled to drink liquid garbage. Same goes for lots of “banned” items. Many people are capable of making illegal stuff. Some inevitably will if there’s a strong incentive.

In reality, we are rarely successful at getting rid of the things we ban, so it’s a balance between the positive effects that bans can achieve, and the negative impacts of black market activities that bypass the bans. Even when bans are successful, similar problems often crop up with other ingredients, items, or methods used as a substitute. The worldview that we can solve social problems by banning physical objects is the same worldview that we can “win” the drug war by attacking the ability to make addictive drugs. Attacking supply is inefficient, and does nothing to reduce demand. The products can still be made illegally for wildly inflated black market prices. These artificial price inflations, or “enforcement premiums,” are generated by our attempts to combat illicit products, and tremendous profits incentivize traffickers to continually adapt and beat the system. The assumption that we’re going to address undesirable human behavior by controlling the physical distribution of desired goods is tragically superficial. This worldview disregards economics or human nature, assuming instead that laws make reality.

But the map is not the territory. In fact, the best we can expect from laws and police is that they have some positive influence on reality. Placing laws and law enforcement within the truly complex dynamics of human behavior and black market economics is a far more nuanced game than passing ambitious new regulations because slippery slopes, and morality, and freedom, and of course, the children. In truth, single-issue sloganeering to ban desired objects often has unfavorable results because these strategies create their own conditions for failure. Black market incentives are stronger than the dis-incentives we are willing to impose in free society,[iii] and the ability to make illegal products outstrips our capability (or desire) to dictate physical reality. Unless we are willing to address the deeper socio-economic and cultural causes behind the demand for illegal products, or conversely, accept the true costs of making our various “wars” on crime into real wars, the black markets are going to win. They usually do.

Where do DIY guns fit into this? Are homemade guns really a game-changer? Some of the 60+ legislators, commentators, security specialists, criminologists, and law enforcement officers I’ve interviewed for my research believe DIY guns are already a legitimate and substantial cause for concern, while others think they’re over-hyped and unlikely to ever approach the importance or scale of traditional illegal weapon activity. Most seem to think DIY guns are over-hyped at the moment, but will be a cause for more serious concern in the future as the technology evolves. I suppose they’re all correct. DIY small arms do pose new security and weapons control problems, they are seriously over-hyped, and they are getting better, more appealing, and more prevalent over time.

But it’s not enough to assume the “technologic determinist” position that because a potentially-dangerous technology exists, it will clearly pose a danger so grave that we should put all our efforts into a total ban or very serious restrictions rather than finding some other strategy that reduces the harm while still encouraging legitimate uses of the tech. Finding this compromise is a fundamental challenge that already plagues our most problematic crime controls. Whether we’re talking about guns, drugs, encryption, drones, or anything else people can make themselves and use for good or ill, attacking misuses of technology by attacking the technology itself usually proves an ineffective strategy, and sometimes leads to worse outcomes. A series of complex social, cultural, economic, and legal factors play important roles in whether a gun will end up in the hands of a child soldier, or in a drive-by shooting, whether it will sit in a sportsperson’s safe all year until the hunting trip, or safetied in a concealment holster under a concealed carry permittee’s blouse without incident.

If orthodox gun control can generate benefits for security, its benefits derive from exercising quality control and constructive influence on legitimate users, and deterring access and misuse of weapons among the most dangerous and harmful users. A few of the smarter gun controls can take credit for ensuring the quality of users. For example, concealed carry programs in America establish a “trusted” category of licensed weapon carriers who are statistically very law abiding. Many American cops consider concealed carry permits a good method to discern between low-risk and high-risk firearm carriers, and majorities have endorsed civilian concealed carry licensing as a public safety measure. Some American police openly encourage civilians to undergo training and background checks to gain concealed carry permits.

This kind of quality control and establishment of “trusted” categories can be a success for police and legal firearm users. Unfortunately, many orthodox gun controls fail to accomplish the second (and arguably more necessary) objective: deterring weapon acquisition and use among criminal populations. The least effective policies in the gun control toolbox continue to quixotically focus on reducing overall access to a thousand year old mass-produced technology. DIY doesn’t fundamentally change this, but does introduce the idea that this “old” style of gun control will become less applicable in a world where more and more people can make guns.

Still underpinning much modern gun control is the same kind of “supply side” thinking behind the unalloyed success of the international “War on Drugs.” It is as much about moralism and registering public disapproval as it’s about actually solving problems. Some gun controls proceed from the assumption that firearms are intrinsically linked to social harm, and anything that reduces access, availability, and use of firearms among the general population would be a good thing. Legitimate firearm users often bristle at this worldview because their own culture and experience causes them to reject the premise that more guns are always linked to more harm, and these legal users fear being penalized for the sake of “reducing access” among serious criminals who are usually able to get guns anyway. “Supply-side” gun controls are also based on an essential but decreasingly-accurate assumption: that all illegal firearms begin as legal factory products, so regulations and record keeping on legal industries and consumers will reduce illegal access to weapons. Homemade guns will increasingly undermine this traditional assumption.

Putting aside the intractable collision of “pro” and “anti” positions, from a “4th Industrial Revolution” perspective, supply side control is already out of pace with the scale and complexity of modern small arms production even before we consider the homemade stuff. Wherever guns are regulated by competent police agencies (including in the United States [iv] the regulated firearms and users are generally not the problem. The real problem is weapon use among criminals, terrorists, domestic abusers, and the violently mentally unstable. Laws and enforcement methods may differ between countries or states, but once it is clear that legal users and legal firearms are underrepresented in crime, and illegal users and black market weapons are where most of the problems come from, tightened restrictions on low-risk users will tend to pay diminishing returns for public safety. This “only outlaws will have guns” argument is simplistic and stereotypical, but does have a ring of truth. Guns are already one of the world’s most mass-produced objects. Most people don’t understand how many guns are actually in circulation, and how realistic it can be to acquire and keep them off-the-books even in countries known for strict control. If it’s easy enough for criminals to get guns outside of the regulated systems, then further restrictions on legal users will have limited impacts on crime.

Before any of this hype about 3D printing and DIY guns, traditional gun controls and tracking systems already struggled to prevent a small number of criminals and terrorists from skimming a small proportion of guns from the incredibly prolific legal supplies. It’s important to understand that before DIY guns came onto the scene, the assumption behind orthodox “supply-side” gun control was that all crime guns started their lives within the legal supply chains. If all guns are made in factories by licensed and regulated producers, restrictions on the legal supply chain are designed to prevent legal weapons from being “diverted” (basically “skimmed”) from legal supplies and re-sold on the black market to people who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy them legally.

Problem is, there aren’t that many criminals and terrorists. These bad actors are willing to pay a hefty premium in money, effort, or risk in order to get weapons illegally. In the old pre-industrial days, artisanal production was the only way to make a gun. Since the rise of mass production, guns became much more numerous, and illegal weapons have generally been skimmed from legal supplies through theft, “straw purchasing,” smuggling from another country or jurisdiction, or some other kind of “diversion” from the massive legal supply chain. The increasing scale of legal production makes it progressively more difficult to prevent relatively small numbers of guns from leaking to the black market.

Regulations on legal industries and users are supposed to reduce this leakage from the legal supplies, but the tremendous scale of production and huge legitimate demand for firearms are already a challenge. There are so many guns that only a small proportion of them need to be stolen, diverted, or smuggled in order for criminals to get enough weapons for their needs. Only very strict laws and very aggressive enforcement can hope to reduce criminal access to legally-made weapons, but successful restrictions on the legal supply can have the unintended consequence of displacing criminal procurement effort to black market supplies that are much harder (and more expensive) to combat.

That’s why sophisticated criminals and terrorists can often get firearms even in countries known for strict gun control: the guns that are most effectively tracked aren’t usually the guns criminals and terrorists are using. They don’t need to. Vast transnational networks of illegal traffickers move weapons, drugs, money, and people around the world. Sophisticated criminals and terrorist organizations are the groups with greatest access to these illegal flows. 3D printed and DIY guns only add another complicating factor, but this problem already existed with the black market in traditional guns for decades. Whether you think DIY guns are going to be a big problem actually has a lot to do with how you’d interpret the success of traditional gun control at reducing or tracking these legally-made firearms. It’s really a disconnect between what arms control proponents want gun laws to accomplish, and what human beings and illicit markets actually do when guns are restricted but demand persists.

Most international arms control treaties are meant to “restrict the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation, distribution, and usage of weapons.” International treaties on guns only recently became about “crime,” “terrorism,” or “public health.” International agreements on gun control were initially about preventing military arms races. Arms control was conceived as a method of reducing the “security dilemma” between countries by de-escalating international competition in weapon production. Disarmament takes it a step further: it aims to reduce and ultimately eliminate weapons, whereas arms controls simply try to restrict and limit them.

If disarmament (i.e. reducing or eliminating weapons) is the objective, then international treaties on guns have been a complete failure. There are more international agreements to regulate small arms than ever, but the global supply has been rising for decades. In reality, international treaties have more modest objectives: they try to limit the number of weapons leaked to the black market while also making concessions to economics, national defense, and legitimate demand for guns among militaries, police, and civilians. These more limited objectives have also had mixed results. The international small arms sectors continue to develop innovative new products and technologies, and they produce in truly impressive volume. Most governments and many legitimate civilians continue to acquire legal small arms, and illegal guns continue to circulate in black markets around the world.

The most justifiable mission for gun control is to limit weapon access among obviously dangerous populations like terrorists or international drug cartels. This has been a total failure. In many countries today, terrorists and drug cartels are more capable of getting weapons illegally than legitimate civilians are able to get weapons legally. Terrorist attacks using small arms have increased worldwide[v], including in locations with more and less restrictive gun controls. Drug cartels and similar transnational organized crime groups continue to secure guns with ease. Depending on how they’re set up, orthodox controls on legal industries and legitimate users can have benefits, but this kind of gun control does not address the fundamental issue of illegal weapon demand or black market behavior to service that demand.



Terrorist Attacks Utilizing Firearms as Primary Weapons 1970-2015. Graphic from Global Terrorism Database

And without addressing demand, the minor scarcities created by restrictions simply displace criminal procurement to alternate sources. These alternate sources are more difficult to deal with because they’re not within the legal market’s tracking and control systems.

It’s a lot like the drug trade: you can require people to show licenses and maintain databases for Sudafed, but meth cooks are still going to explore every possible way to get precursor ingredients under the table. In a bad scenario, you actually stop most of the local small-timers from making meth, but then somebody who is not affected by these controls (such as independent chemists and organized cartels) will be incentivized to find new ways to procure the ingredients, or just make the drugs with different ingredients. Shutting down many small time producers can result in cartels stepping in to make the same product at higher quality and in much greater volume. Sometimes it goes the other direction: temporarily shutting down high-volume production can incentivize many local small-timers to ramp up. This disperses production more widely, makes enforcement more difficult, and sometimes increases violence as multiple smaller networks vie for the market.

In a worst-of-both-worlds scenario, actually “succeeding” against one product might displace the market to even more dangerous substitutes. This happens all the time with drugs: squeeze the real cannabis market, and people start overdosing on synthetic “spice” and “bath salt” nonsense. Cut off peoples’ Oxycodone prescriptions when they’re not ready to quit yet? They’ll just go to heroin and suburban kids start dropping like flies. Want to ramp up the fight against heroin then? Watch out for synthetic additives that increase the potency (and cartel profits per unit-delivered) by an order of magnitude. They’re putting stuff in heroin now that makes it so potent that a single kilo is more than 50 million doses,and even handling it can sicken police officers. 

Why would drug cartels do this? Well, some cartels obviously have the hook up on these synthetic additives, and if you can increase potency by 50% per unit delivered, the border services can seize 50% more drugs and the cartels are still making the same money. In reality, the border services can never seize that much more contraband, so increasing potency almost always translates to higher profit. Caveat emptor.

Back to guns. Virtually every small arms control initiative relies on the mechanisms of monitoring, regulating, restricting, and arguably reducing supply among legitimate consumers, while trying to totally prevent access among criminal populations. Yet, with the exception of a few post-conflict disarmament programs, almost none of the international gun control agreements have been successful at actually reducing access to guns among the most dangerous and motivated actors who want them. In fact, restrictions have been largely ineffective at reducing small arms stocks among any population that wants them.

The primary method behind supply-side control and its presumptive role in violence prevention is a series of tracking measures to ensure that firearms are kept only by appropriate low-risk users. Registry systems and manufacturing records are the primary tools for tracing weapons and limiting criminals’ access to them. Yet, the registry systems of most countries are ineffective at tracking enough firearms to plausibly impact criminals.

This is where the incredible scale of industrial production comes back into the picture. In global terms, there are already 2.6 illegally-possessed firearms for every legal one[vi]. Criminals predictably seek firearms outside of gun control systems, but enough guns are in unregistered circulation that the number can’t be explained by criminal demand alone. Even before counting homemade weapons, illegal and unregistered firearms outnumber legal and registered guns by considerable margins in most countries. Americans may have a reputation as especially resistant to gun control, but non-compliance with weapons control is not peculiar to American culture. Even nonviolent people don’t like to register guns, and don’t like to give them up. It’s a classic “security dilemma.” Why should I give up valuable property and the best defensive tool I’ve got for the sake of public safety, if I know criminals are the last people who will give up theirs?

It’s harder for police to track and seize the illegal and unregistered guns than it is for them to track and seize legal and registered ones. As American gun rights advocates are quick to point out, registries have been notorious preludes to firearm confiscations[vii] in some countries. As a result, many civilians do not trust registries, and compliance with them is dismal. What is most problematic about all this, is that registries can’t accomplish much for crime control unless the vast majority of guns in circulation are on the registry. Yet, many otherwise-legitimate users will try to keep their firearms off the registry if they are suspicious the registry will be used to confiscate legally-bought guns. Needless to say, criminals aren’t registering theirs.

As a result, most countries have millions of factory-made firearms in circulation, but the majority go unregistered. DIY guns have people worried because they can be made without any paper trail to link them to gun registries or licensed users, but most crime guns are already unregistered (or diverted from the legal market in a way that makes registry info inapplicable), and illegal guns are most often used by unlicensed and illegal users. In most countries, perhaps only a few per cent (or less) of the guns in circulation need to be stolen, diverted, illegally built, or smuggled into the country, for criminals to get all the unregistered (aka “clean”) guns they want. Police have no idea where all these illegal guns are.

In Japan, between 25-50% of guns are unregistered and illegal[viii]. In England and Wales, illegal and unregistered guns may outnumber legally registered guns by nearly 250%[ix]. In Germany, 2/3 of firearms that are supposed to be registered, are not[x]. More than half of Canada’s guns are unregistered[xi], and there are twice as many unregistered guns in Brazil than legal ones[xii]. France has fewer than 3 million registered weapons, but as many as 20 million unregistered. Mexico has at least three times as many unregistered guns as legal ones. India’s unregistered guns outnumber legal weapons by a factor of eight. Jordan has 126,000 legal firearms, and 500,000 illegal ones. Sudan has 7,000 registered weapons, but between 2.2-3.6 million illegal ones. In China, illegal guns outnumber legal guns by nearly a factor of 60[xiii]. Seizing all these unregistered and untracked weapons, or getting them back into the legal tracking systems, could be so expensive, ineffective, and dangerous that in many cases we’re probably better off just letting it be.

Traditional gun control systems already struggle to meet their most basic objective: actually tracking all these guns. The global supply of small arms has become virtually unstoppable, and so many weapons are in illegal circulation already that it’s not clear how much good it will do to continue targeting our regulatory efforts at the legal industries and users. Individual countries do clearly enjoy better or worse outcomes with guns and violence. But, just as complete monopoly of force is largely a fiction of governance, complete (or even substantive) control over guns is largely a fiction of weapons law. Small arms began as high-tech weapons of the artisanal age, but as artisanal production advanced, guns escaped from state monopoly in the industrializing West. Now there are just too many guns to track, and we have industrialization and mass-militarization to thank for it.

By the late 18th century, western governments wanted more and better guns than artisanal production could supply. This catalyzed factory production and the industrial age.  Tremendous innovations in manufacturing resulted, and transformed firearms from high-tech and somewhat rare items, to relatively low-tech mass-produced consumer products. Unsurprisingly, the number of guns has grown tremendously since then. In the decades prior to industrialization, the artisanal “workshop” system in Birmingham England was one of the most productive firearms manufacturing centers in the world, with armies of skilled artisans producing 2400 muskets annually[xiv]. Less than 150 years later, only two industrial factories in America, the Springfield and Harper’s Ferry Armories, produced more than 60,000 muskets per year[xv], exceeding Birmingham’s artisanal output by a factor of 25. In 2011 alone, Sturm, Ruger, & Co., one of America’s most prolific and popular firearms manufacturers, produced over 1.1 million firearms, and pledged to increase production to 2 million in the 2015-16 year.

America has a lot of guns, but there are plenty to go around. In 2012 there were an estimated 875 million small arms in circulation worldwide, with at least 639 million of them[xvi] legally or illegally in civilian hands. This figure probably does not reflect a current count. Nevertheless, it is enough guns that at least one out of every twelve human beings could have one.

This is all a predictable result of politics, industrial improvements, and market forces. Massive state-sponsored 19th and 20th century industrial production started it. Post-WWII market liberalizations, international power politics, increased manufacturer licensing, improved processes, decreasing costs, and generalized technology transfer kicked off the deconsolidation of global firearm production from the 1960s onward. The industrial capabilities behind small arms are improving at the same time they have become cheaper and more accessible. 3D printed and DIY guns take this democratizing trend to its logical conclusion, but guns were already being made in more and more places by more and more manufacturers since the humble beginnings of industrialization. In the 1960s, ten industrial firearm manufacturers were operating in six Eastern European countries. By the 1990s this had diversified to at least 66 licensed producers in 15 Eastern European countries[xvii]. In Africa over the same time frame, one licensed producer in one country had grown to at least 22 firms in seven countries by the 1990s.

Similar trends toward diversification hold globally: in the 1960s, 69 licensed producers could be counted in 30 countries, but by the 1990s at least 385 licensed firms could be counted in 64 countries[xviii]. Writing for Small Arms Survey, Armament Research Services’ Nic Jenzen-Jones found that there were at least 1000 licensed companies producing small arms in at least 100 countries as of 2014. This diversification in small arms production has grown broad enough that neither scholars nor regulatory bodies can reliably track them all. The legal trade in small arms is quite regulated and fairly transparent in many of the major producing countries, yet the organizations that are supposed to track firearm production admit that they cannot actually do so. Let’s remember, this problem only regards the legal industries and licensed producers: the kind of people who actually fill out the paperwork for police, regulators, and arms control organizations to review.

The American firearms industry is often fingered as a primary culprit behind the international black market in guns. American manufacturers make so many guns, and American consumers buy so many, that a certain percentage are pretty much guaranteed to end up in the domestic and international black markets. Nevertheless, legitimate American manufacturers do work closely with BATFE regulators, and tend to be quite transparent and above-board on the manufacturing and tracing paperwork. America’s firearms industry is actually rated as more transparent than the reputedly-strict industry in Australia.  In the meantime, shady quasi-legal factories in the former Soviet Bloc and around the developing world continue to mass produce firearms, and it’s a roll of the dice whether they’ll do the paperwork, whether their governments or police care to read the paperwork or enforce export regulations, or where the guns will end up from there. As the UN states,

“Reliable data sets on small arms can only be built if countries provide information on production, holdings, trade, legislation, and use. But of all transparency measures on weapons systems, those on small arms are the least developed…  …There are no accurate figures for the number of small arms and light weapons currently in circulation globally.”

Obviously, this lack of accurate figures only refers to legal firearm supplies that are supposed to be the easiest to track. Accurate tracking of homemade or “off-books” firearm production is virtually impossible by definition.

To find out where all these guns go, first you need records on where the guns were made. Then, you need records on what wholesalers or brokers received them from the factory and shipped them on to retailers. Then you need records on which customers the retailers sold them to. From a practical standpoint, tracking possession by civilians is dependent on tracking manufacture because these chain-of-custody records start with the manufacturing records and serial numbers generated during factory production. If no record of production is generated, then a firearm is off the radar until encountered by law enforcement.

Like any regulatory challenge, tracking the supply of factory-made guns becomes more difficult and expensive as the production system gets larger and more diverse. The impact of industrialization and trade liberalization on gun supply can hardly be overstated. There were at least 20% more guns in 2012 than the total number of Apple iPhones ever made as of March 2015. For every four automobiles in service worldwide in 2014, there were at least three guns. The Sony PlayStation is the highest selling video game console of all time, yet for every PlayStation ever produced, there are at least two guns. The International Institute for Strategic Studies compiles a count of all active duty, reserve, paramilitary, and police personnel in 171 countries. As of 2014, each of them could have thirteen guns[xix]. For every nuclear weapon that exists, there are at least 533,000 guns.

And guns are not PlayStations or nuclear weapons. They are much easier to make, and they have longer service lives with less maintenance. There are already a lot of them, and their numbers are not declining. Awareness of the amazing numbers can impact our attitudes toward managing guns by tracking their supply, and can also impact our definition of what realistically qualifies as successful gun control.

Let’s also remember that even as the global small arms trade continues to grow, there has been a concurrent global and national decline in violence. It’s not totally clear that attacking the legal supply of guns is the most efficient solution to violence at this point, but if we accept the premise that “more guns always equals more crime,” then global crime control and conflict reduction efforts have seen big successes even as international gun controls have failed. Go figure.


A lot depends on how we select our time samples, cases, data collection, or analytic methods, and these factors can be strongly dependent on the background knowledge and pre-existing assumptions of researchers. Many studies which find evidence for the “guns=good or bad” hypotheses are contradicted by slight changes to method. The “Null Hypothesis” problem plagues gun policy research. Many studies include the common proviso the “correlation is not causation,” but nevertheless treat correlates as causative for the purpose of endorsing preferred policies. Anybody can do it. If we go back far enough, the introduction of firearms actually coincided with reductions to violence in the West, but this does not mean guns caused the reductions. The rise of guns in the West also coincided with the rise of literacy, scientific method, industrialization, the modern state, increasingly representative government, and vast improvements to quality of life. Industrial production of firearms didn’t spoil this process, it was made possible by it. Original Source: HRS Group. Date lines and text boxes added by the author.


As gun rights advocates like to point out, overall civilian supply of guns is not a reliable indicator of violence. One commonly-cited example: in the United States during the 1990s-2000s, the number of privately-owned firearms increased significantly and many US firearms laws were relaxed, yet firearm homicides underwent an unprecedented decline during the same period. Image Source: Mark J. Perry at AEI.org


Since industrialization, violence has generally declined even as the number of small arms in circulation has increased tremendously. However, the United States has the most guns per capita among all countries for which there are records. It wouldn’t be surprising if it also has the highest gun homicide rate. When selectively compared to other OECD countries, as Fisher does in this Washington Post chart (conveniently excluding Mexico, an OECD state with a homicide rate more than three times America’s), the United States does indeed stand out for gun violence among developing countries. However, if you check Small Arms Survey’s estimates of civilian firearm possession even in this selective list, you’ll notice that some of these countries with greater firearm possession and less restrictive laws have lower homicide rates. For example, the Czech Republic, Australia, Israel, Poland, and Norway have more firearms, greater civilian possession, and arguably “looser” laws than the UK, but identical or lower homicide rates. Image Source: United Nations (Max Fisher – The Washington Post)


Others point out that this comparison of the US only to other OECD states is misleading, and that comparing only gun homicides rather than all homicides is likely to skew the result since the US is an unambiguous global outlier in civilian firearm possession. McMaken argues that there are non-OECD states with comparable “Human Development Index” numbers to OECD states, that they just haven’t been admitted to the OECD yet. While lots of political factors influence whether countries become members of the OECD, the Human Development Index (HDI) looks at life expectancy, education levels, and per capita income for all countries irrespective of their membership in international trade organizations. This is arguable a better measure of actual quality of life in a country. Image Source: Ryan McMaken at Mises Wire

If non-OECD countries with similar human development levels (0.75 or above) to OECD countries are included, then America’s high homicide rate looks a little more reasonable. It’s still high compared to the most developed and peaceful nations on Earth, but moderate when compared to a wider sampling of countries that are developed enough to join the OECD. If you follow firearm law and firearm possession estimates, you’ll also note that Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, the Bahamas, Panama, and Uruguay all have far fewer guns than the United States, and considerably stricter laws, yet their overall homicide rates (not only gun homicides) are comparable or much higher. If you follow black markets and sources about DIY guns, you’ll also find that the countries with the most DIY guns are often the ones with poor development and governance combined with illicit market incentives like narco-conflict, and oftentimes, very restrictive gun laws overlaid on high-violence environments.

Gun control advocates and gun rights advocates just love yelling at each other over these things. One of the reasons is that many traditional gun control arguments (and some gun rights arguments) still focus on the “item” irrespective of deeper socio-economic, political, criminologic, policing, regulatory, and cultural conditions that probably play a bigger role in how the “item” is used. If licensed Swedish hunters buy 10% more guns this year, few people believe there will be a concurrent 10% rise in Swedish gun crime. If Mexican drug cartels buy 10% fewer guns this year, nobody expects a commensurate 10% decrease in narco-violence. Other factors matter. People know this intuitively, but it’s so much easier to cover our ears and yell GUNS over and over until we all pass out.

So how does all this funny business relate to people making their own guns? Well, one of the fundamental problems in trying to understand the conditions under which these newfangled homemade guns would be an issue, is that we haven’t reached agreement on the conditions under which regular guns are an issue. In mainstream American media debate, pundits tend to argue that guns and guns alone are:

  • The exclusive and seemingly-magical factor behind everything terrible and unholy in the world.


  • The only thing preventing you from being murdered by Visigoths right now.

This kind of GUNS GOOD/GUNS BAD debate revolves around proving that guns are the single most important factor behind violence or lack thereof. There are a variety of think tanks, university departments, government agencies, arms control organizations, and political lobbying groups devoted to empirically supporting one side of this coin or the other. This can bog down debate at the fundamental nature of “the item,” rather than expanding the debate toward quality control and socio-economic conditions that produce clear decreases in violence. Instead, we keep it simple: if guns are intrinsically good, it would be bad to restrict their supply. If guns are intrinsically bad, it would be good to restrict their supply.

But guns are a thing, and violence is an act. Most of this stuff misses the point.



These pictures are from some of the “worst” places to live in 3 different countries. Want to guess which one has the lowest murder rate? Image Sources: Soweto, Baltimore, Hogsby

If well-constructed, some gun control systems that do not attack supply, do not discourage the law abiding from owning guns, and do not create confiscation infrastructures that reduce civilian trust and compliance, can prove to be acceptable compromises with benefits to everyone. But most gun control proposals do not acknowledge this. The resulting debate lacks trust, and is less likely to produce pragmatic and workable proposals. Some gun control groups oppose programs like concealed carry permitting, considering them part of the “pro gun” agenda. Yet, these programs are responsible for encouraging millions of America’s low-risk gun carriers to get training, background checks, provide fingerprints to law enforcement, and be able to provide proof of licensing if contacted by police. This is a success for the permittees because they gain the knowledge and ability to legally carry firearms if desired, and a success for police and the public because the permitting programs provide for quality control that make America’s CCW licensees far more law abiding than the general population, and at least as law abiding as America’s police, according to some data. Without these programs, fewer firearm owners would undergo training and background checks, but high-risk criminal users would be unaffected. Criminal users don’t qualify for carry permits, and don’t bother to get them.

Attacking concealed carry programs because it’ll keep “guns off the streets” completely bypasses the issues of user quality that play a greater role in outcomes. Getting rid of concealed carry permits would only take low-risk guns off the streets, leaving criminal users in the same position, or perhaps a better position than before. Always attacking the overall number of guns instead of trying to influence how they are used, is really the most fundamental structural weakness of orthodox gun control. If the objective is to reduce the number of guns and gun owners, then eliminating these training and oversight programs becomes a logical extension of the desire to reduce firearms. Millions of low-risk Americans have carry permits, and getting rid of these permit systems would discourage most of them from carrying weapons. Ergo, attacking concealed carry programs would indeed take some guns off the street, but infinitesimally few of these legally permitted guns are used in crime. If the objective is reducing the number of guns being carried regardless of the risk their users pose, then attacking concealed carry background check and training programs is logical. If the objective is to effectively reduce crime, attacking concealed carry is a red herring of supply side mythology.

The “supply” fallacy behind gun control doesn’t just lead to poor enforcement trade-offs, it is also practically hopeless in post-industrial society. Traditional supply-side gun control looks very different when contextualized against the developments in manufacturing that transformed firearms from a cutting-edge military technology to what is now a practically garden-variety mass-produced industrial product. DIY guns do challenge the traditional tracking and control mechanisms focused on legal industries and users. Yet, the reality is that the tremendous number of guns in circulation already challenged these control systems long before this exotic and scary “new” phenomenon of homemade weapons hit the media.

Even with intricate control systems designed specifically to prevent guns from leaking to the black market, issues of scale, geographic dispersion, multiple jurisdictions, and non-compliance all complicate these traditional controls. The difficulty of tracking guns is not simply a problem of “loose” gun laws, it’s an inevitable result of industrialization and economies of scale. Keeping records on every product ever manufactured by a gigantic, growing, and increasingly diverse global industry, is a strategy that tends to produce increasing bureaucratic costs for decreasing effectiveness. If sophisticated trafficking rings can steal thousands of luxury cars in America and ship them on container ships to South America and West Africa, they can certainly do the same with guns. Strict controls on legitimate users can’t be expected to halt this illegal trade any more than stricter driver’s licensing requirements would be expected to stop the international stolen car trade. This doesn’t make all gun control (or vehicle theft enforcement) pointless, and it certainly doesn’t mean cops should stop enforcing weapons laws when they find criminals in possession of weapons, but it does make traditional gun control a weak tool for combating the real problem: black markets. Sometimes I use an analogy here, it’s an imperfect analogy to be sure, but it’s meant to be provocative.

Imagine a consensus in the international community that civilian possession of smartphones should be regulated at a level beyond most other products. Some countries decide to restrict access to smartphones on the basis that they are a threat to the government, other countries restrict access on the basis that smartphones can be used for crime, and other countries restrict access on the basis that they pose a risk to public health. This reflects the three primary reasons governments try to regulate guns. Yet, regardless of the reasoning behind the restrictions, they must be enforced by the same regulators and police services. This is an incredibly difficult objective with 1.75 billion smartphones already in use globally. Restrictions on smartphones would surely incentivize the growth of an illegal smartphone trade. Growth of an international illegal smartphone trade guarantees that at least a small minority of citizens in every country would trade in them.

Now let’s assume that smartphones (like guns) can function without service providers, and they work perfectly for decades or longer without becoming obsolete. The laws and culture in the world’s safer and better-governed countries might deter the vast majority of citizens from illegally keeping or trading smart phones. However, in weak, unstable, or corrupt countries people would know where their bread is buttered, and the restrictions would make little difference. Restrictions wouldn’t be universal either: some countries would permit civilians to possess smartphones with fewer restrictions, and others would have tighter restrictions or total bans. Some countries would ban smartphones, but lack any effective method of enforcing it, creating a worst of both worlds scenario. Some countries might have a more entrenched smartphone culture, making their citizens more resistant to restrictive policies. Smartphone consumers in these countries might see new controls as a penalization of law-abiding callers.

Illegal smartphones would be in demand among street criminals, terrorists, drug cartels, and organized crime around the world because they help these harmful actors do business. These bad actors would be willing to pay escalating prices to acquire them. If criminals are successful enough at using smart phones to victimize the public, some civilians would demand stricter smartphone controls, and conversely, other civilians would be tempted to get their own smartphones so they can call for help when victimized in smartphone crime. Some places might be so insecure, and the police so corrupt or ineffective, that legitimate civilians would seek illegal smartphones even if they know they can be punished if caught with them. Preventing illegal smartphone activity would be difficult and costly because they are easy products to smuggle. In some countries, corrupt police would capitalize on the illegal trade by ignoring or even supporting some smartphone trafficking. In some countries, civilians might want smartphones to use them to organize against the government, or to protect themselves against smartphone-wielding militias or drug cartels. Others might just think smartphones are cool, and collect them even if they have no intention of making calls.

Smartphone restrictions would be based on tracking the chain of custody for all of the phones made and sold. These tracking systems would need to be implemented in a complicated environment in which many millions of smartphones continue to be made annually by more than a thousand companies in over one hundred countries. No countries would totally ban imports of smartphones because governments would still want them for their military and police to communicate. The paperwork for legally trading smartphones could become so complex that even police do not understand all the intricacies, and have a hard time spotting “gray market” smartphone transactions. In the meantime, the smartphone industry would continue to be a vital asset to many national economies and manufacturing sectors. Millions of civilians would continue to be employed in smartphone production. Civilians might have jobs making smartphones even in countries where they are prohibited from possessing them.

On an international level, countries engage in a series of conferences and agreements resolving that the smartphone industry should be more strictly controlled. These control systems would try to monitor the legal supply-chain while also allowing smartphones to continue being produced and traded in large numbers. To conclude the analogy, suppose a small number of independent electronic engineers have always been able to make their own smartphones, but a series of increasingly accessible technologies now enable more people to make their own smartphones without any paper trail. That’s DIY, and it’s really only an overlay on this pre-existing regulatory mess.

The smartphone analogy is far from perfect, but it does illustrate some of the difficulties of implementing global controls on desirable mass-produced objects. The analogy clearly has a number of flaws: smartphones are not weapons. Mobile devices have much broader appeal and more legitimate civilian uses than guns. Demand for smartphones would follow different patterns, and would be stronger than weapon demand in almost any society. No doubt the benefits and harms would be somewhat different if smartphones were banned. Smartphones and smartphone users are also more common than guns: there are almost twice as many smartphone users as there are small arms in existence. Firearms are always more narrowly concentrated within populations than smartphones, so some patterns of possession and use would be different. Crucially, firearms are weapons by design and smartphones are not. It is more difficult to directly associate smartphones with the same kind of seemingly self-evident risks or harms, and it is easier to articulate the benefits of mass producing and enabling widespread access to smartphones.

However, smartphones actually do contribute some measurable risks for regime stability, crime, and public health, so perhaps the analogy is not totally irrelevant. For example, the Centers for Disease Control reports that at least 3285 fatalities and 420,845 injuries occur annually in the US due to distracted driving, with cell phone usage and texting a primary cause of distracted driving injuries. This adds up to 344,925 more annual non-fatal injuries caused by distracted driving than by all gun-related causes in the United States, as counted by the Brady Campaign. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that in 2013, at least 2,959 US drivers involved in fatal crashes were distracted, and that the number coded as using cellphones was probably underreportedResearch by Dr. Andrew Adesman and Dr. Alexis Tchaconas of Cohen Children’s Medical Center apparently put the estimate of US teenagers killed annually by texting and driving at more than 3000This number sounds incredibly inflated to me, but if actually true, it would considerably exceed the number of children between the ages of 0-19 killed annually in the United States by all firearm-related causes.

Like guns, smartphones enable both crimes and legitimate activities. Disposable “burner” phones became a mainstay of street-level drug dealing, organized crime, and terrorist communications. After the advent of civilian encryption, secure messaging apps and remote kill-switches made it possible for users to communicate beyond the technical capability of most police agencies to directly eavesdrop. However, between metadata, secret exploits, and legal frameworks for law enforcement surveillance, agencies do maintain considerable abilities to monitor electronic communications even without back doors or brute force attacks on encryption. As one former prosecutor and elected official told me in an interview on this subject, “the DIY gun issue now is a lot like where we were with cell phones, but now at least we’ve got a legal framework [for cell phones][xx].”

The 2015 Paris and San Bernardino attacks revived debate about disposable “burner” phones and smartphone encryption, since the plotters reportedly used these methods to avoid state surveillance, though they also engaged in un-encrypted communications that police were unable to act on. The Paris Attacks also revived debate about access to de-activated firearms in the EU, as the plotters apparently used weapons re-activated using shop tools. Likewise, smartphones have been identified as major organizing tools for nonviolent protestors and violent extremists, enabling them to more effectively challenge governments around the world. Some regimes restrict or heavily surveil smartphones and ISPs for precisely this reason[xxi]. As with virtually any desired commodity, controls on smartphones can produce violent and lucrative illicit trades, and can require expensive enforcement tools to even attempt to combat.

Outside of authoritarian states, the most restrictive environments for cell phones are prisons around the world. In prison facilities, illicit phones have now become a black market commodity to rival any narcotic or weapon. In two years, the California Department of Corrections seized more than 30,000 illegal cell phones from state facilities. One solution to illegal cell phone use in prisons is the managed access system,” which can cost more than $1 million to install per facility. Some electronics manufacturers market cheap and increasingly miniaturized phones that are easier to smuggle into a prison environment. The analogy between restricting smartphones and guns is certainly imperfect, and is not intended to downplay the humanitarian tragedy that as many as 365,000 fatalities occur from all gun-related causes globally in a typical year. However, the analogy should tell us something about the industrial challenge to traditional gun control. It may also foreshadow the increased difficulties to traditional gun control in a future of easier and better DIY firearm production.

Modern international gun controls began as conventional controls for military arms. But today, most modern military weapon systems are exponentially more expensive and complex than any firearm. The manufacture of such advanced military platforms is still firmly outside independent civilian capabilities, legalities, or incentives. The F22 Raptor is a case in point. Widely considered the most advanced fighter aircraft ever delivered, it is jointly designed and produced by Lockheed, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Pratt & Whitney. Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems develops and constructs the forward fuselage. Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems develops and constructs the mid-fuselage components. Boeing develops and constructs the wings and aft fuselage along with additional airframe components and training systems. Pratt & Whitney develops, tests, and delivers the purpose-built F119 thrust-vectoring afterburning turbofan engine. These prime contractors employ over a thousand sub-contractors spread throughout 46 US states to complete the F-22 supply chain. 195 Raptors have been delivered, with a final per-unit cost of $150 millionMany of the F-22’s technologies are tightly controlled, and there is no variant authorized for export. (Though Chinese hackers have apparently stolen and ripped-off some of its design components…) The Raptor is truly an amazing technology, but it’s also amazingly hard to make. Unless you’re the United States Air Force, you really can’t have one.

In contrast, the AK-47 assault rifle may be the single most common small arm in global circulation today. It was first designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1946 as a reaction to the Russian experience in World War II. German forces wielding high quality rifles had consistently outgunned Russian troops. The AK-47 was designed for ease of manufacture: it is remarkably simple, rugged, and easy to make. The rifle is so simple to produce that it was intended to be replaced more often than repaired on the battlefield, consistent with Soviet doctrine that inexpensive weapons are disposable items that resources should rarely be spent to repair[xxii]. Until 1956, its receiver was machine-milled, taking advantage of the pre-existing production process that Russian manufacturers used for its forerunner the SKS. In 1959, an improved version, the AKM, was designed. The AKM can be produced more quickly and cheaply from stamped metal, reducing costs and tooling requirements for mass production.

The AK47 was exported throughout the Warsaw Pact and its proxies. It was promptly copied by local regimes and industries with or without official licensing. Today, the Kalashnikov Concern claims that most AK47s are produced without license by national arms industries and grey market manufacturers outside of Russia. Only 10-15% of the world’s AK47s are actually produced by licensed Russian manufacturers. With at least 875 million guns in circulation around the globe, perhaps as many as 75 million, or 8-9% of all guns, are AK47s. The AK47 is so easy to produce that it is widely copied among low-tech artisanal manufacturers operating from workshops and sheds. Many of these artisans can produce good counterfeits for lower retail cost than a smuggled industry-made weapon.

Between independent DIY producers, unlicensed grey market manufacturers, licensed legal producers, and the Kalashnikov Concern itself, enough AK47s are produced and trafficked to virtually flood conflict zones with these cheap and user-friendly rifles. They are so ubiquitous that the United States recently began hiring contractors to make them in the United States for easier supply to allies who are more accustomed to the AK47 than the higher-maintenance American M16. In terms of production, the AK47 is the F22 Raptor’s antithesis: its design is so simple, its prerequisites to production so low, and its trafficking and use so easy, that it is virtually uncontrollable by any state where motivated actors wish to acquire them. It is certainly uncontrollable by the state that first produced it.

If we want to assess whether DIY guns are going to be a serious problem somewhere (or anywhere), first we have to understand the situation with traditional mass-produced small arms. Factory firearms are already so well-made, so incredibly prolific, so easy to smuggle, and so in-demand among precisely the people we don’t want to get them, that traditional supply side gun controls were already fighting for relevance even before all this DIY business started freaking out the media. Grandpa’s gun control was meant to prevent Japan from re-arming, or the Soviet Bloc from flooding the developing world with weapons (which they did anyway…). Dad’s gun control was meant to prevent drug pushers and street criminals from getting guns. Depending on lots of complicated political, social, policing, geographic, and economic factors, sometimes it seemed to work and sometimes it totally didn’t, but it mostly failed to stop motivated criminals from getting guns wherever they wanted them.

Today, gun control is still trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s methods, and there’s not much evidence that yesterday’s methods worked very well. 3D printing, DIY, and other forms of homemade guns don’t fundamentally alter this pre-existing problem. However, the trajectory of the technology and the innovative nature of the DIY firearm subculture suggest that DIY guns will eventually become good enough and accessible enough to be a viable alternate source for black market weapons. (If you read my analysis of the Australian black market, you’ll see that this is already happening in some locations where factory firearms are harder for criminals to get).

Increasingly viable DIY will circumvent the tracking systems on legal firearms, and cut out the hassle of diverting guns the old-fashioned way. When guns were made in factories, criminals had to steal, divert, fraudulently purchase, or otherwise “work the system” to get guns. Many gun controls try to prevent this by tracking firearms from their first stages of factory production. In the post-industrial world, criminals will increasingly design, make, and traffic their own guns entirely outside of this regulated system. Traditional gun controls focused on legal industries and licensed users will not be totally invalidated: they may still provide for screening, quality control, and a culture of responsibility among legitimate gun owners. However, legitimate gun owners and legitimate guns are not responsible for the majority of crime. Criminal actors and illegal guns play a disproportionate role in gun crime. The rise of DIY will only increase this gulf between legitimate and illegitimate firearm users, rendering traditional gun control increasingly ineffective at preventing criminals from getting weapons. At that point, “supply side” gun control will seem like a holdover from that simpler time when guns were only made in factories.


Notes & Sources

[i] Gerald Ensley, “Stop the insanity: Ban guns,” Tallahassee Democrat, January 7, 2015, accessed January 14, 2016, http://www.tallahassee.com/story/opinion/columnists/ensley/2014/11/22/stop-insanity-ban-guns/19426029/.

[ii] Nicholas Johnson, “Imagining Gun Control in America: Understanding the Remainder Problem,” Wake Forest Law Review 43 (2008).

[iii] Or even un-free society, as evidenced by the persistence of illegal drugs even in countries that maintain broad police authorities and the death penalty for drug traffickers.

[iv] Philip J. Cook, Susan T. Parker, and Harold A. Pollack, “Sources of guns to dangerous people: What we learn by asking them,” Preventive Medicine 79 (October 2015): 28-36

[v] “Terrorist Attacks Utilizing Small Arms 1970-2014” Global Terrorism Database, 2014, accessed October 1, 2015, http://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd.

[vi] “The 30 largest civilian firearm holdings (in descending order),” (table) in Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): table 2.3, 47.

[vii] Nicholas Johnson, “Imagining Gun Control in America: Understanding the Remainder Problem,” Wake Forest Law Review 43 (2008), 868-869

[viii] Aaron Karp, “Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms,” Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 55.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Aaron Karp, “Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms,” Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): box 2.4, 51.

[xi] “Correlation of registered to unregistered firearms in 52 countries,” in Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): fig.2.2, 56.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Aaron Karp, “Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms,” Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 47, 50.

[xiv] W.W. Greener, The Gun and Its Development, 9th ed. (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013), 214.

[xv] Great Britain. Report from the Select Committee on Small Arms: Together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix (London, 1854).

[xvi] Aaron Karp, “Completing the Count: Civilian Firearms,” Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007

[xvii] Pete Abel, “Manufacturing Trends, Globalizing the Source,” In Running Guns: The Global Black Market in Small Arms, ed. Lora Lumpe, (New York: Zed Books, 2000), 83.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] James T. Hackett and International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2014 (London: Routledge, 2014).

[xx] Confidential US subject with background in state government, criminal prosecution, and weapons legislation, interview by author, 2015.

[xxi] Anita R. Gohdes, “Pulling the Plug: Network Disruptions and Violence in Civil Conflict,” Journal of Peace Research 52, no. 3 (May 2015): 352-367

[xxii] James H. Irving, Soviet Weapon-System Acquisition (NWC AdPub409) (China Lake, CA: Naval Weapons Center, September 1991).

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