Cody Wilson, an American law student and libertarian gadfly, was the first in the world to do it, and now Matt Ratto, a professor at the University of Toronto, is the first in Canada. Both have built single-shot handguns using 3-D-printer technology, and both, in doing so, have made valuable and thought-provoking contributions to society.
On its surface, the idea of a person being able to “print” a working handgun is frightening and raises concerns about imminent danger to the public. But scaring the public is not the point of the endeavour.
The real point is the debate about digital technology and personal liberties. All technology, digital and otherwise, can be used for ignoble purposes. The forging and casting of metal brought huge advancements to civilization, but also gave us the sword and the cannon (and now the pressure cooker). Major developments in communications, from fixed type to the Internet, have always been co-opted by pornographers. In neither case has society forgone the advantages of the technology because of worries about its downsides.
As well, what people do in the privacy of their homes must be protected from constant government surveillance and control. There is no reasonable way to prevent every single crime without compromising our freedoms.
Society should not be distracted by the thought of handguns being made on 3-D printers. At this point, printing up a gun requires expertise and equipment not available to the average person. It’s not a real worry now, and it probably won’t be in the future. Full-colour home printers have long been embedded with software that prevents them from scanning or printing currencies in order to prevent counterfeiting. By the time 3-D printers become affordable household gadgets, there is little doubt that similar limitations deemed acceptable by consumers will be in place.
What matters is that Messrs. Wilson and Ratto have provoked an important debate before that day arrives. Questions about the protection of free speech on the Internet have only been the beginning. Like the Internet, 3-D printing – which has huge potential in medicine, the arts and many other areas – will be a boon to society, but only if we are allowed to use it as freely as possible.