By now, everyone's heard about the 3D printed gun that Defense Distributed demonstrated last week. The Texas-based group has been steadily working its way up the 3D printed firearms evolutionary ladder, making parts for guns, then guns themselves, then firing a gun, then making the plans for running up your own pistols on a nearby 3D printer. If Defense Distributed had set out to create a moral panic over 3D printing, they could have picked no better project.
The prevailing opinions on 3D printed guns fall into two major categories: the apocalyptic and the nonchalant. The apocalyptics – including grandstanding politicos like New York State senator Steve Israel, who's already introduced legislation aimed at banning 3D printed guns – greet this news with hysterics: the age of the undetectable plastic gun to be upon us, and Something Must Be Done. The nonchalant point out that the 3D printed gun that Defense Distributed fired cost a small fortune and requires a highly specialised and even more expensive 3D printer to produce; is fragile and liable to self-destruction after a few rounds are fired, and remind the apocalyptics that it's much, much easier to go and buy a traditional gun in the criminal underground than it is to produce a working 3D printed item.
There's some truth in both points of view, but it's hard to get at the truth when you're talking about an issue as polarising as guns. It doesn't help that Defense Distributed's founder Cody Wilson describes the project in ideologically loaded terms, calling his first gun "the Liberator" in homage to the cheap single-shot pistols that the Allies made for distribution in Nazi-occupied France – Wilson here implying that the ability to print a gun and arm yourself is integral to the defence against tyranny.