Guns, after all, can profoundly shift the balance of power between the individual wielding one and anyone else in proximity. Or, in the words of Yoshitomo Imura, a man arrested in Japan for allegedly 3-D printing five guns in 2014: “A gun makes power equal!!”
It isn’t just guns: the central offering of many technologies is a leveling effect, based on the idea that a machine might correct asymmetries. Guns promise to make the weak powerful; 3-D printers promise to make guns out of—well, not quite thin air, but slices of hot plastic in the privacy of your own home. But while a gun is ultimately designed to do one thing, 3-D printers are designed to build almost anything. That includes gun-safety technology, incidentally. Timmy Oh, the co-founder of Dual:Lock, a fingerprint-authentication system for firearms, says he has used 3-D printing for his company’s prototypes.
“Personally, as an engineer, I just don’t think the technology is completely there for making guns,” he told me. Many people agree with him. All-plastic weapons aren’t very good at withstanding the heat and pressure that comes from firing a gun. Often, if a 3-D-printed gun works at all, it doesn’t work for long.
But that won’t always be the case.
“Such a change, if the technology continues to improve, could be profound—if individuals can eventually produce firearms comparable in quality and durability to what factories produce,” Spitzer told me. We know something of what such a profound shift can look like. The mass manufacture and wide dissemination of firearms in the United States is already a cultural, social, and political phenomenon. There’s a parallel in all this to the use of key technologies in the agricultural and industrial revolutions: widespread gun ownership began with people using technology to reorder their relationship with nature; but led to them ultimately reconfiguring their relationships with other humans.
To build a homemade firearm, you don’t need cheap, affordable 3-D-printing technology, or an Internet subculture devoted to sharing gun designs—but access to both certainly created the potential to upend the concept of modern gunmaking within a familiar framework.
Spitzer, for his part, has already made his own gun. Well, a piece of one, anyway. He spent an afternoon building a portion of an AR-15 called the lower receiver. He details the experience, which he said was “demystifying,” in his latest book, Guns Across America. “The act of deconstructing something that is complex, inscrutable, or menacing has the effect of pushing aside its cumulative effect or consequences,” he wrote.
“The AR-15 is like Legos for grownups,” Gary Lenk, a West Hartford detective who has traced the rise of the AR-15, told the Hartford Courant in 2013, “because you can adapt them for different calibers, different barrel stocks, with just a few simple tools.” Or, in at least one case, quite literally like Legos. Michael Guslick, a gunmaker who blogs about his experience making 3-D-printed guns, built a lower receiver for an AR-15 using the same kind of plastic used in actual Legos, he told The New York Times.