Although the debate over gun control flares after each school shooting or spike in crime, it is genuinely difficult to pin down the start of this societal conflict. Some might argue that it began long before living memory, in December of 1791 when the Second Amendment was ratified by the states and added to the nation’s Constitution. Maybe the rift began in the Depression era, when public outcry at the crimes of gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger empowered President Franklin Roosevelt to launch a “New Deal for Crime” and to pass the National Firearms Act of 1934—the first federal gun control law in American history. Or, if you favor a more modern outlook, then the debate began with Senator Biden and President Clinton who, respectively, were the author and enacter of the 1994 assault weapons ban. While the origins of the gun control debate might be best left to the historians, I am more interested in the premises of the entire debate regardless of when it started.
For my entire life, the gun control debate has primarily been fought on philosophical grounds. One side argues that the Second Amendment is an absurd holdover of a past era. They believe its existence not only makes our country a more dangerous place, but also renders us a backwater laughing stock in the eyes of the world. The other side counters that although the Second Amendment is hundreds of years old, it continues to be both our surest safeguard against tyranny and represents the timeless truth that human beings have a fundamental right to defend their life, liberty and property. Yet, as the debate has swung back and forth over time, the march of technological progress continued in the background. For years, we have relentlessly argued about whether we “should” restrict gun ownership. But in doing so, we never considered whether we “could.”
Some day in the future, when the gun control debate is entered into the history books, we may not remember names like Antonin Scalia (known significantly for his pro-Second Amendment judicial philosophy) or Jim and Sarah Brady (founders of the Brady Campaign against gun violence) as much as we remember Cody Wilson.
Although you may never have heard of him—Wilson does not possess the status and power of a Supreme Court Justice or the influence of a prominent social activist—he could end up shaping gun rights more profoundly than anyone else alive. Which is why Wired magazine declared him the 14th most dangerous person in the world. Why? Because for years, Cody Wilson has been arguing that sharing gun blueprints online is an activity fully protected under the U.S. Constitution. More importantly, on July 10th, 2018, the federal government agreed. In a landmark settlement between Wilson and the Department of Justice, the DOJ conceded that “forbidding Wilson from posting his 3-D-printable [gun] data... was not only violating his right to bear arms but [also] his right to freely share information.” By arguing that his 3D gun blueprints were protected under both the First and Second Amendment, Wilson may have opened Pandora’s box.
From its beginning, the gun control debate relied on the assumption that gun control was possible. Prior to now, that assumption has gone untested because government has always exerted some control over the means of production and distribution of firearms. Whether that was accomplished through regulation of corporate gun manufacturers or by restricting transactions in firearm stores and outlets, the government traditionally had various means to impose political will over the process of acquiring a firearm.
What makes Cody Wilson’s legal victory so consequential is that it raises a new, important question for public policy analysts and government regulators to consider: how do you control the means of production of firearms when it will soon exist in each and every household? Although there is some debate on this point, the answer appears to be that at the most extreme it will be impossible or, at the least that it will be incredibly difficult. Without a doubt, a lot more guns will be entering our society.
To supporters of the Second Amendment, this will come as a welcome development. Not only does this mean that the Second Amendment will become nearly unassailable, but it could also mark the start of the “Tamigotchization” of gun culture. Much like SoundCloud enabled everybody to become their own music producer and distributor, the freedom to download, produce, and customize a wide variety of firearms without leaving the home will likely lead to a surge in the cosmetic and practical diversity of many weapons.
Simultaneously and understandably, Wilson’s legal victory could stir a panic amongst many gun control advocates and average people. Not only will the old calls to “Make America Australia” (due to the desire of many American gun control advocates to copy Australia’s ban on firearms) have to be quickly thrown out the window in the face of a new reality, but also a new fear of mass violence overtaking our country might arise in the coming years. Moreover, the anxiety over the idea of unrestricted gun ownership is not limited to left or right—even some gun rights supporters are worried. While I respect the concerns of those worried about impending “endless gun violence,” I believe that in the US’s case there is cause for optimism.
Although gun control advocates are probably worried about an incoming wave of unregulated firearms drowning our society, they really should not be any more or less worried than they are at present because we are currently living that reality. By nearly any metric, American society is awash with guns. This may be cold comfort, but given that we already live in a society with more guns than people, I doubt that an extra deluge of firearms will make much of a difference to our gun-related problems. Ironically, given that the Internet will make this surge in firearm ownership a global phenomenon, I would far prefer to be living in the gun-saturated US than in gun-free Australia while this huge change occurs. Although American gun culture certainly has many significant downsides, one huge benefit to its existence is that our society has plenty of infrastructure built up to handle mass firearm ownership. In the U.S., organizations like the National Rifle Association and the Boy Scouts of America, among others, annually teach millions of people of all ages how to handle and use a gun safely and responsibly. On a more granular level, millions of families in the United States own firearms and make an effort to teach their children how be a responsible gun owner. Unfortunately for countries like Australia, the United Kingdom or Japan—countries that have had tight restrictions on gun ownership for years—they do not have anything approaching the level of societal experience with t gun ownership that the US has. One shudders to imagine the degree of societal upheaval that might occur if an entire nation had to rapidly adapt to a new reality of mass, unregulated, civilian firearm ownership with no prior experience. They may never love guns, but even liberals might be thankful that the U.S. will never have to go through such a white knuckle transition.
To those who continue to believe, despite this huge, impending change in how guns are produced and distributed, that gun control remains possible, I envy your sense of control over the world. Going forward, gun control advocates should take pause and assess what is feasible. While the current products of 3D printing technology are rudimentary, the potential remains. With time and research, 3D printers themselves will only become cheaper and more accessible. Their products will be more intricate, more deadly and nearly untraceable. If gun control advocates fail to realize that 3D printing technology has the potential to seriously cripple their movement, then they will be caught in a sad place: standing athwart the inevitable tide of technological progress, yelling “Stop!”
Reiss Becker is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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