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Panic Over 3D-Printed Guns 'Misdirected,' Scholar Says

Aug 1, 2018

A federal judge in Seattle has blocked a Texas group from publishing blueprints for 3D-printed guns. The ruling, which came down Tuesday night, was in response to a lawsuit from eight states and the District of Columbia. Their suit called the release of the gun blueprints “a bell that cannot be un-rung.”

Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says public concern over 3D-printed firearms misses the point and that "this can’t be controlled by passing a rule."

"The other thing that’s misdirected is current consumer 3D printers make really mediocre guns," Gershenfeld tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "Guns are easily available. But not just that, making a gun is an easy hardware store project. ... Creating a gun is just a very, very low threshold."

Interview Highlights

On the lack of regulation of ammunition

"One straightforward thing that’s a huge loophole is ammo is harder to make than the gun, and ammo is really poorly controlled. And so, if you look at access to ammo, that’s not really part of the map.

"[Regulating ammunition] would be the obvious thing to do, in a coherent world."

On the threat of synthetic bio and home fabrication labs, and how building a community could help address the problem

"I’m not scared about 3D-printed guns, for all the reasons we just talked about. What is scary is synthetic bio, the idea that in your basement, you could make a plague, a virus. That’s much scarier.

"What’s worked so far to control the scary threat of synthetic bio is two things that are applicable to the guns: One is surveillance, to try to look to see what’s happening where. But the missed one is providing incentives to opt in, rather than doing this by yourself in a basement and going off the rails, doing it in social settings ... and in the social setting, they get integrated into a community. The community helps steer, provide oversight, connect to more constructive projects.

"There’s really interesting legislation right now in the House and the Senate, bipartisan, to make a national fab lab network in the national interest. In the same way we have universal access to communication and computation, this would be universal access to digital fabrication as just sort of a right of anybody in the country."

On the benefits of creating fab-lab communities

"We’ve run these labs in shooting-war zones. We’ve had them in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. We have them in Belfast and Derry [in Northern Ireland]. We have them in these places of intense sectarian conflict, and consistently what happens is people come in from the community and connect. And so there is always going to be outliers and they’re going to get access to guns and no rule can prevent that.

"But, statistically, we can deal with much more of the population ... We have one of these labs on the Giza plateau in Egypt, and during the Morsi riots, we were really worried. And we called, alarmed, and they laughed and they said the kids in the community who had no interest in sectarian conflict took the day off to go work in the lab. And I think that’s getting to the heart of it.

"There will always be bad people who do bad things and they’ll get guns and they’ve had guns for perpetuity, and we can’t stop that. But what we can do is provide incentives to maximize the opportunity for people to come in to do this in social settings, not in darkness in the corner of their room."

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