What happens when a politician confronts a new issue they hadn’t thought much about before? Most of them might try to learn as much as they can, and figure out which of their deeply held values are at play before arriving at a position. President Trump does something … sort of similar:
In 2013, a man named Cody Wilson put designs for a 3-D-printed gun up on the Internet, and he was soon told by the State Department that he was in violation of a law prohibiting the export of guns without a license. After a lengthy legal battle, last month the State Department settled a lawsuit with Wilson and gave him permission to publish plans to print your own guns, which he says he will start doing on Aug. 1. Attorneys general from eight states and D.C. are suing to to stop the publication of the plans.
Wilson has made no bones about his goal, which is to allow anyone to make as many guns as they want without government oversight. In addition to gun plans, his company also markets a CNC milling machine called the Ghost Gunner, which it says will allow you to “Legally manufacture unserialized rifles and pistols in the comfort and privacy of home.”
But those are metal guns, which are indeed legal to make yourself. It’s the prospect of 3-D-printed plastic guns that has people worried, because they wouldn’t be picked up on metal detectors and could therefore be smuggled almost anywhere.
We should note that while the Trump administration has decided to allow the publication of these plans online, there’s a law called the Undetectable Firearms Act that makes it illegal to manufacture or sell any gun that doesn’t have a certain amount of metal in it, enough to be picked up by a metal detector. So the status right now is that while you can get plans to print out a plastic gun, if you actually do it you’ll be breaking the law.
But when Trump says it “doesn’t seem to make much sense,” it’s not clear what he’s talking about. Does he mean that allowing the publication of plans for 3-D-printed guns doesn’t make sense? That allowing their manufacture doesn’t make sense? Or that owning one doesn’t make sense? As with so many of Trump’s tweets, we may have to wait for Sarah Huckabee Sanders to tell us that what Trump meant was actually the least controversial interpretation of what he said, and anyone who didn’t understand that to begin with is an idiot.
Although Trump is getting some well-deserved ridicule for admitting that he called the National Rifle Association so it could tell him what to think, he’s probably doing it because he got burned the last time he had the temerity to say something about guns without checking with the NRA first. After the Parkland school shooting, Trump said he’d support things like raising the minimum age to buy a gun, and even bragged that the NRA “have less power over me” than it does over members of Congress. Then in a humiliating show of weakness, he met with NRA representatives and quickly backtracked, dropping his support for anything the group wouldn’t support.
And where exactly does the NRA stand on 3-D-printed guns? The truth is that it hasn’t been as emphatic about it as it has about many gun-control issues. It didn’t oppose the UFA the last time it was reauthorized, but it did oppose an effort to make it more sweeping. The NRA wants people to be able to 3-D-print gun parts, but it isn’t exactly promoting it as something everyone should do.
You can understand the NRA’s ambivalence, because the issue puts two of its central values in conflict. On one hand, the NRA wants more guns everywhere, in as many people’s hands as possible and in as many places as possible. On the other hand, the NRA exists in a symbiotic relationship with gun manufacturers, whose goal is to maximize the sales of their products. At least in theory, if anyone could manufacture their own guns quickly and easily, that would threaten the manufacturers’ business model.
But that day is a long way off, and it’s possible that homemade guns will never be more than a niche product for hobbyists. And of course, thanks to the NRA and the Republican Party, it’s absurdly easy to get all the guns you want already. At the moment, plastic guns are just a curiosity; the ones that people have made tend to fall apart after firing a shot or two. And it’s already fairly easy to buy almost all the parts to make, say, an AR-15 without going through any background-check process; you’ll just have to get a partially machined lower receiver and do a little milling yourself, if you have the right equipment.
But that may not be true forever. One can foresee a day — say in a couple of decades — when new innovations in 3-D printing and materials will enable you to produce fully functional and durable plastic guns quickly, easily and cheaply. Indeed, it may be almost inevitable; it’s just a question of how long it takes. What do we do then?
The answer is that we have to update our laws. I raised this issue last October, after the Las Vegas massacre, with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who is one of the chief advocates of gun regulation in Congress. When I asked him whether 3-D-printed guns worried him, he said, “I’m always worried about Congress’s ability to keep up with the pace of technological change.” But he didn’t seem concerned that it would be that hard to address the issue:
“It’s not that there isn’t a public policy response to it. You can construct a set of laws that applies a background check system to 3-D printing, too. People can choose to ignore or violate that law, but you could either ban people from doing it, or you could regulate it once the technology truly exists and say that the only people that can do it are ones that pass a rigorous background check and potentially other regulatory hurdles as well.”
And it wouldn’t be a radical change. Most of our regulation of guns is focused on the point of sale, but we have laws against possession, too, in some places and for some kinds of weapons. If we want to extend those laws to account for technological development, all we have to do is decide that this is what we want. And, of course, overcome the inevitable resistance from the NRA, and politicians like Trump who will do whatever the gun advocates tell them. That’s the hard part.