New isn't always better. Remember LaserDiscs? New Coke? Subprime mortgages? Venetian blind sunglasses?
How about 3D printers that fabricate inexpensive and untraceable plastic guns in the privacy of your home?
I'm not sure Gutenberg envisioned this day when he invented the movable-type printing press in the 15th century.
It's not science fiction. The technology exists, and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro rushed to federal court Sunday to block a Texas nonprofit from making its downloadable gun blueprints available in Pennsylvania. New Jersey and eight other states also have filed suit.
By Tuesday, a federal judge in Seattle had issued a temporary restraining order to stop the release of blueprints to make the 3D-printed plastic guns, saying they could end up in the wrong hands. Earlier in the day, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate to outlaw the publishing of data files that result in the manufacture of a firearm.
As a First and Second Amendment guy, with a virtual license to opine and an actual license to carry, I should be outraged. But I'm not, because no right is absolute.
Distributing these guns "in Pennsylvania in reckless disregard of state laws that apply to sales" would bring direct and immediate harm to the commonwealth, Shapiro said in a statement.
Local gun-law expert Jon Mirowitz believes the 3D guns "are going to be constitutional" but can't predict how court rulings will get there. In any event, he said, "you can't stop knowledge from being spread and built upon."
The Texas nonprofit Defense Distributed describes itself as a private defense firm "principally engaged in the research, design, development, and manufacture of products and services for the benefit of the American rifleman." It put plans for an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle on its website Friday, and 1,000 people had downloaded them by Sunday, it was reported.
I wanted to ask Defense Distributed why it chose the AR-15, a weapon so often used in mass killings. Was that deliberate, some kind of a weird message?
The Texas company did not accept my offer to palaver, so let's look to Scott J. Grunewald, writing in 3DPrint.com. He explained why there's not much to fear from 3D-printed guns — everything from the plastic not holding up to repeated use, to the time and money it takes to create a complex weapon like the AR-15.
Grunewald seemed complacent because printers, he wrote, are too expensive for the average person. Actually, they are not. Low-end printers can be had for as little as a few hundred dollars. Grunewald didn't allow for technological leaps that I fear will simplify the process and reduce costs.
Because guns are widely available now, he writes, it would be easier and cheaper to buy or steal a weapon than to print one. That's true, but there are the oddballs who prefer to brew a batch of .38s in their basement. The potential for great harm is there.
The NRA did not respond to my request for its position on downloadable guns.
I couldn't access Defense Distributed's gun blueprint files from my Pennsylvania office, but if I used a Wilmington computer, I probably would get in. The Achilles heel of Pennsylvania's action is that it can be thwarted by driving across the state line. State bans are well-intended but ineffective.
Defense Distributed recently settled a suit with the federal government allowing it to continue its in-home, gun-printing business. The feds apparently are OK with Americans downloading an armory of guns — with the plastic ones able to pass through metal detectors.
Paradoxically, only the feds can provide some relief — such as treating home gun manufacturers as actual manufacturers and requiring them to stamp serial numbers on their weapons and maintain records of who gets them, to make them traceable. That would be nice, but don't count on it.
Let's review what's "new" here:
Making guns at home with a 3D printer? Bad idea.
Regulating the home gunsmith as a manufacturer? Good idea.
Which idea will turn out to be the Edsel?