Given the National Rifle Association's image as an organization defending the rights of Americans to own guns, you might think that new technology enabling the proliferation of weapon production would be a cause the organization would support. The problem? Despite its claim to be a sportsmen’s civil rights group, the NRA is funded in large part by gun manufacturers, whose motives and goals don’t always overlap with those of the organization’s membership.
Now, with the development of new 3-D technology, which could dramatically increase the number of available weapons – and competition to gun manufacturers -- these two competing pressures are at odds. In other words, the NRA faces a test: Will it back the new technology and promote the rights of everyone to have unlimited guns? Or, in an effort to protect its generous contributors, chart a different path?
In the mid-20thcentury, science fiction writers imagined a 21stcentury where consumer goods and food could simply be printed in a machine quickly and at very low costs to the consumer. While this world has yet to truly materialize, we are rapidly seeing the beginnings of such a world emerge with the developments of 3-D-printing technology.
As Salon’s Andrew Leonard has detailed, 3-D printers use computer assisted design blueprints — downloadable over the Internet — as a template to print solid objects out of raw plastic polymers. This technology allows for the creation of a huge variety of goods, ranging from lawn ornaments and tools, to, as of this month, fully working firearms.
The first functional 3-D-printed firearm, called “The Liberator” was designed by Defense Distributed and first fired on May 1. After its successful test fire, Defense Distributed released the CAD blueprints of the gun onto the Internet, turning the firearm into the first open-source weapon.
The Liberator is almost entirely plastic, only requiring a metal firing pin, and is completely invisible to metal detectors (the design has a non-vital metal piece to make it legal, but this piece can easily be taken out). It fires .380 rounds and is capable of firing multiple rounds without breaking.
Printed guns are a new frontier, as they allow individuals to make their own weapons without any reporting or regulation, and to circumvent all conventional police methods to trace guns. In this new frontier of guns, a criminal can simply print off a metal-detector-invisible gun for as little as $25, use it in a crime and destroy it, only to make another one. There are no background checks to avoid, no worries about handling a “hot” gun, and no need to risk being caught buying an illegal weapon — they simply need a 3-D printer and an Internet connection to obtain an untraceable weapon, or even to start their own arms factory. In addition to being untraceable, printed guns are made to be identical and there are no distinguishing marks to prove that a bullet came out of a specific gun (e.g., all Liberators are exactly the same and there is no way to link a bullet used in a murder to a specific Liberator pistol).
Ultimately, the Liberator is far less lethal than a conventional firearm, but it is simply the proof of concept for a very dangerous new gun market; after the first designs for 3-D-printed guns are successful, the development curve will dramatically expand and the new guns will be much more lethal.
To put the potential for this situation to spiral out of control into perspective: Less than two weeks after the release of the Liberator, a new design, called the “Lulz Liberator,” was released onto the Internet. This design can hold nine bullets instead of the Liberator’s one, is cheaper (costing only $25) and is more resilient and less likely to misfire. If such improvements can be made in less than two weeks, imagine what could be developed by the end of the year, or in five years.
Here is where the conflict comes for the NRA. Despite its efforts to present itself as a sportsmen’s organization, it hasn’t been one since the manufacturers took it over after 1977 and transformed it from a group that supported responsible gun ownership and regulation into one that primarily cares for the interests of corporate donors.
While the full NRA donor list is a very closely held secret of the organization, the public does have access to the “Ring of Freedom” tier information for corporate donors — this list is a set of contribution tiers and donors that allows people to see a variety of big-money contributors to the NRA. The information that we currently have on its funding shows that the NRA takes millions of dollars a year directly from the largest manufacturers of guns, including Beretta and Benelli USA, as well as companies that make gun accessories and companies that require easy access to weapons (including Xe, the company otherwise known as Blackwater).
So how will the group respond to the printed gun invention – and potential proliferation of weapons? Will it back gun owners' rights to more weapons? Or seek to protect the traditional gun manufacturers, by intervening? One option is for the group to support a crackdown on the 3-D-printed guns, which would have the effect of "seeming reasonable" or "willing to compromise" on gun control, while actually stepping up for many of its contributors.
Either way, how the organization approaches the issue will reveal much about its true nature. And with the potential industry burgeoning, this decision point is fast approaching.