Last week, US Congressman Steve Israel made some unsettling comments about 3D printers, and how they can be used to make guns. Fearing another luddite legislator, I decided to do something crazy: actually talk to him. Turns out, we don’t have that much to be afraid of.
Some background: the congressman was speaking at an airport security terminal, discussing the threat of 3D-printed plastic guns that wouldn’t set off a metal detector. He was using this to drum up support for a renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans any kind of gun that won’t make the security devices go bleep-bleep if you bring them into an airport. Now, this is a fairly silly law; as far as I know there’s no evidence that a working gun without any metallic parts has ever been built, nor has a feasible design been proposed. But at least it’s a benign dumb law.
My concern was that the next step would be a crackdown on 3D printers themselves, using some sort of DRM-like method to try and prevent them from printing gun parts. It wouldn’t, of course, and only succeed at causing a whole lot of other problems (as DRM is wont to do).
Conveniently, I live in Steve Israel’s district, giving me priority access to discuss the issues with him. In the end, I was only able to schedule a talk with one of his advisors — not the man himself — but talking to congressional staffers tends to be equivalent to speaking with the legislator whom they serve. The goal of my talk: convince the congressman that the threat of more guns was not worth crippling 3D printers with a Digital Restriction Mechanism.
Luckily, I seemed to mostly be preaching to the choir. Turns out his staff has read a great deal of the backlash on the Internet, and they’re aware that restricting 3D printers themselves would cripple innovation. The congressman doesn’t want to DRM printers, and it doesn’t look like he’d be for it in the future. All he wants to do is make it illegal to build a working firearm from home-printed parts.
Now, this isn’t a particularly good idea either. Criminals won’t listen. The law will only inconvenience law-abiding gun owners who want to make their own firearms instead of buying from a manufacturer. Banning 3D-printed guns will do less to protect the public than it will to protect Smith & Wesson from competition. So that would suck. But at least it wouldn’t cripple the entire technology.
What the congressman’s staff hadn’t considered was the future possibility of literally every large company that manufactures anything at all lobbying for DRM to kill competition. I predicted a future scenario of home 3D printers restricted to only print things from, say, the Apple Object Store — with a cumbersome approval process that favored established manufacturers. It would be illegal to get around this restriction because, well, guns! I dropped a reference to the copyright industry’s history of scapegoating child porn to make DRM and censorship seem palatable; if they’d exploit child abuse, I argued, why wouldn’t the manufacturing industry exploit gun violence?
Hopefully, Congressman Israel is now prepared to take this crap with a grain of salt, when it inevitably comes up. Assuming the congressman and his staffers are on the same wavelength, we now have an ally in the US House of Representatives who’ll fight against crippling DRM on 3D printers. And maybe someone with a more realistic approach to gun control too; the staffer seemed receptive to the idea that gun control won’t be possible in a decade or two.
Unfortunately, this means I just lobbied Congress. That makes me me a lobbyist. I need to go take a shower now.