Solving the (ethically) right problem

There’s been a lot of ink spilled over Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, a non-profit with the goal of making plans for 3D printed guns and gun parts available for free on the Internet. Most of the reason for everyone’s interest is that it involves a new technology—3D printing—because people have been making firearms at home for a very long time, and it’s generally legal, as long as you don’t sell the weapon or give it to someone else1.

Wilson, a law student, is articulate about his anarchist leanings, which makes the right-wing support of his effort seem a little strange, but politics will do that. He argues that liberty is a positive right and therefore can only be restricted with cause. In a documentary and an interview Wilson raises some interesting and potentially important points about personal freedom and the ability of the Internet to empower people. And I find myself agreeing with him a lot.

Part of his grand experiment is to show the futility of the government trying to ban items, and it’s a point well taken. He’s being deliberately provocative, especially with his printing of a functional handgun , but it is having the effect of giving him a wider audience for his views—and when was the last time you heard an anarchist being taken seriously in the media?

But despite the support he’s found from some people, Wilson is trying to solve a non-existent problem—that of access to firearms in the U.S. We saw a few weeks ago that the Senate is unwilling or unable to do anything to strengthen gun laws, let alone take on the concept of banning even some types of guns outright. Wilson originally was making high-capacity magazines to show that banning them would be useless, but the government has proven it doesn’t even want to do that.

There are already about 300,000,000 guns in private hands in the U.S., and it doesn’t seem like access to more will be curtailed any time soon.

I’m curious to see how Wilson’s work will affect other nations, especially affluent ones with much stricter gun regulations. Because right now, a standard desktop 3D printer simply isn’t good enough to produce a working, reliable firearm—for that you need a much more expensive industrial model—and even if it were, most desktop 3D printers are still beyond the reach of most people in the developing world. Although, as we’ve seen, Syrian rebels are making their own weapons, though using traditional machines like lathes and milling machines.

I question the ethics of what Wilson is doing. I don’t think he’s done anything illegal, and don’t even know if what he’s doing should be illegal. But that doesn’t make it ethically correct. Just because there’s a market for something doesn’t make it ethical to serve that market. He’s testing the limits of liberty, and that is a good thing, but he’s also helping to enable conspiracy theorists and people with an agenda that looks less like giving more liberty to everyone and taking liberty from everyone but themselves. That makes me uncomfortable.

And this isn’t about my opinion on guns—governments have an interest in the security of their nation, and the idea of a 3D printed gun could go a long way toward undermining that2.

There are a lot of problems in the world to be solved, and technology like 3D printing might hold some of the answers3. I think Wilson would be a better world citizen if he were addressing those problems, even if they didn’t bring him the attention he’s now enjoying.

1: Part of this is that fact that most media—not just tabloids—focus on the novel and the potentially shocking. I have a long post coming on that. Eventually.

2: Maybe. Potentially. Someday. Because although Wilson has put more than 600 rounds through one of his AR-15 lower receivers, that’s a long way from being able to print a complete, reliable, safe to operate gun. That could prove to be beyond the realm of what’s possible given the plastic used. We don’t know yet.

3: I realize this comes perilously close to a false dilemma, but I stand by it. It’s worthwhile and valid to examine or at least question why people choose one problem to solve and not another.


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