Am I Right?

How to live ethically

Personal Freedom Has Its Limits

Printing a gun from a computer goes too far

What do you print from your computer? If you are like me, it is probably word documents and spread sheets you find easier to read as hard copy.

But if Cody Wilson has his way, you may soon be able to print a gun. Yes. I’ll say this again—you may soon be able to print a gun.

This isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. Already on the market are 3-D printers, which sell for under $1,000, that can create plastic, three-dimensional objects.

The 3-D printers are sure to become more commonplace as prices drop, as they inevitable will, and we find more uses for this innovative technology. Changes in the marketplace and in production could well be profound.

One use to which this advancement has already been touted is the production of handguns. Presently the cost of production is about $5 per cubic inch, making the printed gun far more expensive than a traditional pistol. So Defense Dist, Cody’s company, is seeking $20,000 to complete a project that would make guns cheap and as available as your paper printer.

Why do Cody and his cohorts want to do this? While money motivates most innovators, Defense Dist’s reason is ideological. Here is what the website says: “This project could very well change the way we think about gun control and consumption. How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet? Let’s find out.”

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I liked guns as much as any boy. And the part of the army that I enjoyed was shooting guns (at targets, in Basic and Advanced Infantry Training). So I don’t have a problem with someone who enjoys target shooting and if someone wants to hunt. That’s their business. But making handguns available from a home printer, avoiding any controls over the distribution of pistols, is a frightening prospect.

Cody sees that printing guns as easily as fliers can be a problem, but it is a risk he thinks worth taking. “This opens a lot of doors,” Cody admits. “Any advance in technology has posed these questions. And it’s not clear cut that this is just a good thing. But liberty and responsibility are scary.”

Cody seems to take personal liberty as the sole social value, one so important that he is willing to risk unraveling society and making communal space more dangerous. But venerating one right at the expense of others is a contradiction. Without a civil society there won’t be any rights to protect. When any value as taken as absolute, it brings with it its destruction.

The right to bear arms is one of several rights that need to be balanced against one another. All rights are to be protected and to be held as near sacred, but no one right is absolute, trumping all others.

The problem with Cody—and other gun advocates like him—is that he is like someone who thinks that the right to free speech extends to shouting fire in a crowded theater. Or like a demonstrator who thinks that the right to protest allows setting up megaphones in front of an adversary’s home. Or like a religious adherent who claims that the right to religion protects his duty to perform human sacrifices.

I’m not smart enough to know how to stop someone from printing out a gun, but I do know that making guns as simple and as cheap as printing out a spreadsheet won’t be an advancement for personal liberty but will be a fall backward in making life less safe.

The freedom to print out a pistol is one freedom too many.

 

 

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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