More on Disruption

If you stay in this job long enough, you get to see the progression of technologies as they move from mere ideas, to prototypes, to real-world products ready to challenge the world and ascend the ladder to that mystical measure of success that the venture capitalists call “disruption.”

Dear Reader,

If you stay in this job long enough, you get to see the progression of technologies as they move from mere ideas, to prototypes, to real-world products ready to challenge the world and ascend the ladder to that mystical measure of success that the venture capitalists call “disruption.”

Eight years ago – in the July 2013 issue, to be exact – I wrote about a quirky little story in the news that fell on one of those eternal fault lines of American culture. Some gun advocates had published plans for a 3D-printed gun, which they called the “Liberator.” At that time, 3D gun printing was little more than a concept – something for the opposing sides of the gun control debate to face off around. The Liberator, which was made of plastic (and, I should add, the kind of plastic that was available for 3D printers eight years ago), didn’t look like much and didn’t shoot very accurately. As I recall, some considered the gun a significant danger to the owner. In one test, it shattered with first use, but the tester later admitted that “Printed under the right conditions, the Liberator gun has a lifespan of 8-10 shots” [1].

After a brief run in the headlines, 3D guns slipped out of sight for most of us. The Liberator really wasn’t reliable enough to serve as a sidearm for either the good guys or the bad guys, and, as I stated in my column eight years ago, there are “many easier ways of getting a gun than printing one on an $8,000 printer.”

But that was then…. Technology has a way of marching on, soaring higher, pushing back against all barriers. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) reported this month that so-called “ghost guns” assembled from 3D-printed parts have contributed to more than 100 violent crimes in the past year. According to the report, ghost guns in LA have been involved with 24 murders, 60 assaults, and 20 armed robberies – and that’s just for one city. The report refers to the proliferation of these ghost guns, which have no serial number and are virtually untraceable, as an “epidemic” [2]. The LAPD confiscated more than 800 ghost guns in the first half of 2021. According to the report, felons who are banned from possessing firearms due to previous convictions are increasing turning to ghost guns to minimize the chances of getting caught.

Although they have largely been under the public radar, 3D-printed guns and gun parts have had an extensive run in the courts over the last eight years, and many questions remain about what is legal and what is regulatable. Is this the moment when I launch into an impassioned plea for (or against) gun control? No – there are other places to hear that kind of stuff. I talk about tech. We all knew this was coming – ever since the first shot from that first plastic Liberator. 3D printers have gotten better and less expensive, and plans for 3D guns have gotten more sophisticated. Are we ready for this? Do we have the regulations in place to contain the epidemic of untraceable ghost guns? We are giving our law enforcement agencies a brand new challenge they didn’t have before, and we are taking away a very useful tool of their trade (gun tracing by serial number). Are we going to provide them with additional resources to take on these tasks, or do we expect them to divert funding from other priorities in order to chase after ghost guns?

In May of this year, the Biden administration proposed new rules that would hold the sellers of home-assembly gun kits to the same rules that conventional gun sellers face, including background checks on buyers and a unique serial number on each gun. This effort seems like a sensible first step for addressing the ghost gun epidemic. Even if you oppose background checks, you could make the case that the same rules should apply to all gun makers equally, rather than the government giving a free pass for weapons assembled through a glitzier technological paradigm.

When I consider the eight-year history of 3D-printed guns in the news, it makes me wonder what other emerging technologies are out there now that we should be planning for before they land in our laps. Disruption works much better if you come down out of the clouds and prepare for the messy details.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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