Controlled by Guns

The Liberator photo by Defense Distributed

On January 20, 2000, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan issued a preliminary injunction against the distribution of DeCSS, an algorithm that descrambled DVDs in violation of the DMCA. In essence, Kaplan ruled that code that could be compiled and executed did not count as protected expression under the First Amendment.

Computer people lost their minds. My favourite artifact of that era is the Gallery of CSS Descramblers which helplessly attempts to prove the absurdity of the ruling by showing all the ways that DeCSS can be expressed. In itself, it is a masterpiece of translation, a kind of rosetta stone of algorithm and code. As an effective lobbying tool, it failed utterly.

So did the ruling. DeCSS is everywhere, including in a filing from the plaintiffs demanding the injunction. Since court documents are public, the code they sought to suppress is now irrevocably part of the public record.

It was a landmark moment in the ongoing battle about how computer code is like speech or like math or like something else and so whether and in what way it should be patented, copyrighted, suppressed, distributed, translated, and otherwise dealt with.

Which brings us to Defense Distributed’s latest plastic weapon and the consequent freakout.

The Liberator

The Liberator is interesting. It’s the first gun made entirely (except for the firing pin) using a 3D printer, which is a technical triumph. No one has done that before. It’s clear from their test videos and the lead up to this device that they are pushing the printed material and process to its limits.

In creating this weapon and publishing the plans, the folks at Defense Distributed take their place alongside the creators of the Błyskawica, the Sten, Jerry Baber, Libyan rebel engineers, and countless anonymous inmates or other DIY weapon makers. Which is to say that the Liberator is interesting but it’s not that interesting.

After all, it’s not as if there is a big supply problem with guns anywhere in the world. Decades of innovation have brought us a whole panoply of extremely effective, durable, and reliable killing devices and the small arms supply chains are second only to Coca Cola in their ability to reach every corner of the planet. Some people worry that the plastic weapon will be undetectable by airport metal detectors, but it took only box cutters to bring down the towers.

Social Engineering

The hack that Defense Distributed have committed is a social one. Like many before, they have found and exploited the notoriously unpatched hole in the press’ defences—a vulnerability to sensational headlines. The science fiction promise of 3D printers (remember, Makerbot had the temerity to call their latest line of machines Replicators, after Captain Pickard’s miraculous tea provider) blurs with the Matter Battle reality. So the press will spend a few days collectively wringing their hands and debunking the wringing of hands around crude plastic guns when all around us very good guns can be bought or made using older more proven tools.

As materials scientist Deb Chachra once said, if they ever make a thing capable of making a truly great 3D printed gun, the least interesting thing about it will be that it can print guns. The truly interesting thing will be all the other machines and devices that can come out of it.

In the interim, Defense Distributed’s hack is interesting as a provocation. They’ve taken the world’s categories and grabbed and twisted the kaleidoscope. Suddenly, Maker movement adherents finds themselves uncomfortably on the side of gun owners, which is a place I suspect few of them wanted to be or realized they were in the first place. Sales people and advocates for 3D printers promising that these new machines will let us make anything are learning that weapons are things. Now they find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with gun enthusiasts arguing that a tool is just a tool and you can’t ban a thing just because of a few bad apples.

The resulting parallels and analogies are instructive. Consider that one of the arguments I used to show that the Liberator wasn’t that big a deal was the ubiquity of mass-produced weapons. This is the exact same argument used by those who seek to downplay the coming impact of 3D printing in general. “Who cares that you can make a cup when there are millions of cups coming from China?”

If you think that 3D printing is going to be a big deal—if you think that there is reason for any enthusiasm about rapid prototyping, desktop manufacturing and the galaxy of tools and devices that lower the barriers of entry to small scale production runs—when someone points out that the global supply chain does it better, you smile and say, “Wait and see”.

So does Defense Distributed. They announced they’d made a plastic receiver and we said it wasn’t a big deal, since it broke after 6 shots. Then they made a reinforced version that lasted for 660. The current fully plastic gun isn’t a great weapon but it’s the first. Any objections to it being a big deal because of how crude or clumsy it is, is kind of like looking at the Wright Brothers’ Flyer and saying it doesn matter because no one is going to want to fly 120 feet. Wait and see.


Defense Distributed seems intent that their invention will somehow disrupt gun regulation. They keep ending their posts with epitaths like “Whither gun control?” This is a category error, the same mistake as the DeCSS advocates made when they believed that by revealing that the DMCA’s slicing between code and speech was absurd that it would make the law go away, as if the legal system was a rampant AI that you could shut down by shouting a paradox.

The law is slow and monstrous and contains multitudes. Kit guns like the AR-15 have already whittled away the meaning of what a gun is, in murderous demonstration of the sorites paradox. And yet, the weapons are still regulated, for all the good that’s doing.

The ubiquitous copying of copyrighted material as a side effect of the network running has done little to weaken copyright. If anything, the chaos has emboldened the copyright régime and those on the side of liberty-of-use find themselves fighting an exhausting holding action against increasingly draconian measures to protect effectively infinite copyright terms. This is exactly the opposite of what Napster promised us would happen. There has been a shift and a rebalancing of power, but it’s not nearly as clean or predictable a transformation as the revolutionaries and pundits of Y2K were predicting.

Why then would we think that a future of cheaply and easily produced weapons would engender deregulation? Every indication from Congress so far is that they’ll engage in some kind of panicked law passing. Guns’ great advocate in America, the NRA relies on membership dues, industry funding, and donations made at the till. If Defense Distributed succeeds, wouldn’t gun sales plummet and with them a good chunk of the NRA’s income? Will gun manufacturers cheer wiki weapons or will they find themselves in the odd position of suing their (armed) customers?

Wait and see.