7:34 a.m. May 22, 2013

Distributing Paranoia

Hey you! Don't you want to be free? Don't you want to be liberated? Liberated from cloying government gun control regulations? Liberated from background checks and mandatory waiting lists? Liberated from the burden of having fingers, perhaps? You, my friend, need The Liberator.

Emerging from the bowels of the internet, the Liberator, plans for which have been made available online by Defense Distributed, is a Fisher Price-lookalike plastic firearm, designed to be made at home using a high-end 3D printer. It is intended as a solution to America's gun control problem – if you believe that the problem is that America has any gun control whatsoever, that is. LULZ!

As with everything that comes out of the tech subculture we're told that This Changes Everything. Except, like so many other things, it doesn't.

But still… imagine the opportunities for disruption afforded by the Liberator. First government regulations will be disrupted, quickly followed by banks, shops and post offices and, finally, people's ability to pump blood around their bodies. Wired, always known for measured consideration, excitably described Cody Wilson, the gun's designer, not merely as a nerdy law student, but one of the fifteen most dangerous people in the world.

But before we exchange the tech utopia for a dystopia, let's back up a little bit and ask a more fundamental question: does this gun actually matter at all? The answer is: yes and no. As a proof of concept it's interesting enough, but as an actual firearm? Not so much.

Naturally the Liberator has proved divisive. Many gun control advocates are terrified that the device heralds a terrifying new world of geeks packing guns, while gun nuts, constitutionalists, libertarians and other advocates of 3D capitalism think they've finally printed the roadmap to liberty. As usual, both sides are wrong.

For a start, home-made guns are nothing new. Pro-British loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland manufactured their own guns in the 1970s, starting with simple shotguns but quickly moving up to Sten semi-automatic assault rifles – a damn sight more effective than the Liberator. Constructed out of stamped metal, it's perhaps overstating things to describe the Sten as "manufactured". Cobbled-together is more like it. Once the weapon of choice for all manner of insurgents, the gawky-looking Sten was inferior to, and eventually gave way to, the current terrorists' choice, the Kalashnikov AK series. The point, however, is that that they fired pointy lead projectiles at high velocity and could be made by anyone with a vise and ten fingers. (That's owners of The Liberator out, then). If "Ulster Loyalists" instead had access to Liberators it's likely the death toll in the Irish conflict would have been a might lower.

The dirty secret about guns is that, as a technology, they're not terribly complicated. The reason the Middle East is awash in AK-74s is that Romanian and Chinese-made knock-off Kalashnikovs have been doing the rounds for decades: small factories can bang them out in, frankly, alarming numbers, and at extremely low cost. At its most basic, a gun is not much more than a tube (preferably metal, if you please) connected to a chamber, into which a projectile can be placed. Some gun powder is struck by a little hammer, creating a high pressure gas in the chamber and firing the projectile out the end of the tube.

This relative simplicity is why loyalists were able to make the damn things in garages and shed in the kitchen houses of Belfast long before anyone ever thought we could replace all industry with laminating machines. In the end though, as soon as they could get guns elsewhere – such as from Apartheid South Africa – Northern Ireland's loyalists did. What they realized is what we all realize in the end: making your own artisanal cupcakes might be fun, but it's not terribly efficient.

Though they will doubtlessly improve, 3D printed guns aren't even much good. Hold it up to someone's head and you can probably kill someone with the Liberator – assuming it doesn't blow-up in your hand – but it's not much of a gun. With the Liberator the wibbly-wobbly bullet doesn't emerge from the barrel with much in the way of velocity or force. In a normal gun, the high-pressure forces the bullet down the rifled barrel, causing spin and therefore tremendous speed. The Liberator's bullet just sort of plops out.

You see, what's true of tasty little cutesey cakes is also true of manufactured goods. You can, quite legally, build your own car. It's not even particularly hard and kits are readily available. The only reason to do so, though, is if you want a really unusual vehicle. The rest of us are better off putting our hands in our pockets and buying a car manufactured by people who make them in tens of thousands.

Even with the seriously reduced labor costs of 3D printing, artisanal hipster guns are no more viable than any other knit-your-own item. One of the big advantages of industrial manufacturing processes – the one thing Silicon Valley types hate more than anything – is the simple matter of quality control. Supposedly old-fashioned production lines do the job better than craft workers. Despite the branding, tasty craft beers beloved of hipsters aren't actually homebrew made in wooden buckets and the only reason to drink bathtub gin is if you can't get anything else. If your goal is to mass produce identical items of consistent quality, be it houses, cars, guns or any other manufactured item, you just can't beat the old Henry Ford technique. Doing it yourself introduces a lot of variables into the process, and, with it, uncertainty, so why make something when you can just buy it? Despite the NRA's shrieking, guns are far from unavailable in America.

There's also the small matter of cost. Buying a gun, whether from a store or your friendly, local street-corner criminal, is quite a bit cheaper than manufacturing your own. The release of a Youtube video purporting to show a Liberator made on an el-cheapo consumer grade 3D printer – the Lulzbot A0-101, really – has set alarm bells ringing in some quarters. Unlike the original Liberator, which required a $30,000 3D printer, this yoke can be lashed-together for under two grand. Even if authentic, the video doesn't Change Everything. Note, for instance, that the trigger is not pulled by its maker's finger, but by someone yanking on a string from a safe distance. Wherefore could that be?

More importantly, if you really want to shoot someone there are much easier ways to get a gun than manufacturing one. Such as buying one. Even if the Republican right is somehow correct and Obama is personally going to come around to people's houses and take their guns away, the US is awash in cheap, stolen guns. In fact, if you really want to pop a cap in someone's ass, an untraceable stolen gun with its serial number filed off is a better bet than a gun bought at Walmart anyway.

Some critics of the Liberator have said it will cause major problems in countries with strict gun control regulations. Perhaps, but I suspect even this is overstating matters. Ireland has extremely strict gun control laws, and yet we somehow managed to have 30 years of rat-a-tat-tat. The IRA wasn't using spud guns, I assure you.

Likewise, the gun rights argument hinges almost entirely on the fact that guns exist and therefore should not be subject to controls. This is a bizarre argument, and rarely made about anything other than guns, prostitution and drugs. The realm of possibility isn't the only calculation made by society when deciding whether or not to pursue a policy. For those unfamiliar with it, we call this discursive and deliberative process politics. The failure to understand this, preferring We-Can-Build-It instrumentalism, is one of tech culture's longest standing fallacies.

Whatever America's gun problem is, and I'm no expert, it's not merely a problem of hardware. The stuff that goes on between people's ears, and indeed between people, is far more important.

It's here too, in the realm of human imagination, that we discover the real truth of what the Liberator is all about.

Advocates of the libertarian plastic fantastic firearm counter criticism by saying the gun is untraceable, meaning gun control is now null and void. Maybe so, but so are stolen guns and they have the advantage of, you know, actually working. The Liberator is a material reality, yes, but it is also a fantasy. More than an actual gun, the Liberator is the embodiment of a paranoid vision of insurrection against the supposedly dark forces of government with its fans imagining raising a V for Vendetta-like army around their 3D printers while wearing Guy Fawkes smug-masks. The whole thing is a mind-crunchingly naive Fight Club revenge fantasy for people who were bullied at school.

Anarchists like the Liberator designer are undoubtedly motivated by a sincere desire to change the world, but they should try winning an argument before they reach for the deus ex machina.

The very name Defense Distributed gives the game away: defense from whom or what, precisely? And distributed? The Liberator isn't a gun, it's peer-to-peer paranoia. You want to talk about guns? Great, let's talk about guns. Just don't pretend that technology is the only thing at stake. In the meantime, nylon is still better suited to making stockings than guns.