Wasted Outrage by David Montgomery

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One topic that has in recent months received far more attention than it deserves is 3D printing of plastic guns.  They are pretty much worthless, so that both the libertarian posturing of their makers and the frightened howls of the hoplophobes are plain silly.  

Throw into the mix the fact that a settlement was reached under the Trump administration allowing publication of computer code for programming a 3D printer to make an all-plastic gun, and the pot boils over.  Not only are reporters and editorialists having hysterics, but judges all over and the Attorney General of Maryland are wasting their time and our money fighting this settlement.

Here is the issue.  The Obama State Department warned a blogger that if he published instructions for using a 3D printer to make a plastic gun he would be in violation of one of its alphabet soup regulations – the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.  That was the first bit of silliness – using regulations intended to prevent publication of designs for advanced weapon systems to stop someone from posting computer code that could have been written by anyone with a course or two in 3D printing at a community college and a working knowledge of real firearms.  That raised legitimate fears that the State Department would classify such common activities as posting a copy of the manual for use and maintenance of a firearm to be a violation of ITAR.

The blogger – who has been described as a libertarian activist – sued the State Department for violating his First Amendment rights. In June the State Department agreed to a settlement that would have allowed him to publish the computer code on August 1.  While all this was happening, a plan developed in the Obama Administration to move export controls on commercially available small arms from State to Commerce was being implemented. And Commerce has made it clear that once something has been been published on the internet, it is no longer subject to export controls.  All in all, a sensible approach which would remove any restrictions on publishing instructions on 3D printing of plastic guns.

On the First and Second Amendment side, this plan makes the issue of prior restraint on dissemination of information about 3D printing of firearms moot.  In fact, even before the August 1 deadline, instructions similar to those that the State Department had tried to stop reportedly appeared on other websites. There was nothing left for either side to fight about.  The Bill of Rights was protected, and the cat was out of the bag in any event.

But that is not how the media and the anti-gun lobby see it.  Since the settlement with the State Department happened in the Trump Administration, it became another cause célèbre for Trump-bashing.

The fear mongers moved immediately to hyperbole and accusations:

Senator Markey of Massachusetts: “Donald Trump will be totally responsible for every downloadable, plastic AR-15 (gun) that will be roaming the streets of our country if he does not act today,”

Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut: “blood is going to be on his [Trump’s] hands.”

As usual, a Federal judge from the West Coast listened to all this and decided that President was again doing “irreparable harm” and issued an injunction to stop the publication of the 3D instructions.

Ironically, the “downloadable gun” that is causing all the fuss is at best a curiosity, a waste of money to make, and far more dangerous to the shooter than anyone it might be pointed at.  The plastics used by home-style 3D printers are far from strong enough to contain the energy of even a wimpy cartridge. A 3D printed all-plastic gun is no more dangerous than a large firework, which is what experts expect most of them to become sooner or later.  A successful product might last for a shot or two, but most are likely to explode in the hands of the idiot who decided to build one.

If the result works and really is “undetectable,” the maker is already in trouble.  The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 made it illegal to “manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer or receive” any firearm that cannot be detected in a TSA scan.  As a result, the design at issue included a firing pin and enough other metal to trigger a metal detector.

Even a tinkerer who wants to make his own off-the-books firearm has a less expensive way to make a superior product.  It is perfectly legal to purchase an unfinished frame for a pistol or even an AR-type rifle because the ATF does not consider it to be a “firearm” until some additional holes and hollows are drilled so that the parts that make it shoot can be installed.  The “80% complete receivers” as they are called are widely available online for under $100, as are the jigs and instructions needed to place the holes and hollows accurately. For the rest a few drills and end mills, a drill press or even a hand drill do the job.

Besides, why would any bad guy go to the trouble and expense to roll his own when far superior stolen guns are bought and sold on the streets of Washington and Baltimore every day?

So the NRA and President Trump (and I) agree with the ban on undetectable guns.  Nobody in his right mind who intends to use a firearm for any of its legal or illegal purposes wants or needs an all-plastic gun.  Even a nut bent on mass murder would discover that a single-shot self-destroying firearm is not very useful.

On top of that, keeping plans for 3D guns off the Internet is literally closing the barn door too late.  The offending bit of computer code is far from the secret of the atomic bomb. Not only are there cheaper ways to obtain a more effective weapon, the code itself is hardly a mystery or scientific breakthrough.  The necessary components of a firearm are few and well known and courses in programming 3D printers are widely available. The result may or may not work, but the opportunity is there for anyone who wishes to tinker innocently or to waste time and money.

I found this topic worth writing about for three reasons.  It is about guns, which is a good enough reason for me all by itself.  Even better, the out of sight reactions are good for a few laughs. But there is a serious point, about how easily people are now gulled into hysteria and outrage when the target is made out to be our President.

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.

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