Tuesday, Oct 23, 2018
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A plastic gun battle

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There seems to be little or no disagreement that the prospect of anyone being able to make their own plastic handgun at home with a 3D printer is terrifying.

The Obama administration didn’t like the idea. After initially agreeing to a legal settlement that would allow it, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to like it either. Many in Congress don’t like it. A few state attorneys general suing to stop it surely don’t like it. Even the National Rifle Association does not like it.

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Plastic guns made at home with instructions downloaded from the Internet create a nightmare scenario in many people’s minds. There could be hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of handguns without serial numbers or other tracking information. And the people who carry these guns could do so without them being detected by metal detectors. All thanks to 3D printers and, theoretically, a set of instructions being offered on the Internet by a Texas man.

Cody Wilson, who runs the nonprofit Defense Distributed group, wrote the software with instructions for 3D printers to produce mostly plastic guns in 2013. He then made those instructions available on the Internet.

The Obama State Department ordered Mr. Wilson to stop offering the instructions because, the government said, doing so violated laws against exporting arms on the grounds that Mr. Wilson’s instructions could be downloaded and used in foreign countries.

Mr. Wilson sued and the case was pending until June, when the Trump administration reached a settlement with Mr. Wilson that allowed him to once again offer gun-printing instructions online. A federal judge in Washington has intervened, temporarily blocking Mr. Wilson from resuming his sharing of the technology for 3D-printed guns.

The first problem here is that Mr. Wilson’s instructions are already out there. Instructions for one model were downloaded an unknown number of times before the judge issued his order.

And, of course, there is the problem that Mr. Wilson probably is not the only person to write such instructions. There may be other versions out there now, or there likely will be others in the future. So, stopping him does not stop the threat of made-at-home plastic guns.

And then there is the very serious issue of the First Amendment. Blocking Mr. Wilson from sharing, for free, his instructions is an intrusion on his rights to free speech.

Instead of blocking Mr. Wilson’s instructions, or any instructions, which will be nearly impossible to stop in the Internet age, the government should be focused on stopping the guns those instructions may produce.

Thanks to the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act, it is already illegal in this country to make, sell, or possess a firearm that is undetectable by metal detectors. So how about putting more resources into enforcing that law?

The feds also could put their heads together with 3D printer makers and discuss safety features that might be designed into those devices to prevent them from being used to print firearms. This kind of collaboration is not unprecedented. Makers of photo-editing software have designed their products to thwart counterfeiters from using them to make bogus currency.

In any event, much of the anxiety about printed-at-home guns could be overreaction. Consider how expensive 3D printers sophisticated enough to print a handgun are. Now consider how easily would-be bad guys seem to be able to get their hands on conventionally manufactured guns on the streets of any U.S. city.

The United States has a shameful problem with gun violence. It would be more useful to turn the energy being spent here toward more meaningful measures that will affect more likely violent scenarios.

In Ohio alone, the General Assembly could vote on a package of common-sense gun bills proposed by Gov. John Kasich that would prohibit people with domestic-violence protection orders from buying or possessing guns, prohibit the sale of armor-piercing ammunition, and stop third-party “strawman” sales of guns to people prohibited from having them.

While the possibility of an unlimited number of plastic make-at-home weapons is understandably unsettling, the uproar over one man’s quest to share the instructions for them is drowning out debate on more practical solutions.

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