New Dangers Surrounding Downloadable Guns By Jeremy Berkowitz
In a recent legal settlement, the United States Government reversed several earlier court judgments and will now allow “public release (i.e.: unlimited distribution)” of online blueprints for 3-D printable firearms.
In the coming months and years, it is likely that there will be considerable debate on the topic of “Downloadable” or “Ghost” guns, particularly as the underlying technology of 3-D printing improves. It is also likely that pro-gun and anti-gun advocates will focus on the domestic legal and political considerations behind this settlement. However, several aspects of this decision, namely the lack of serial numbers and inability to prevent cross-border downloads, present concerns that are distinctly international in nature.
Organized violent non-state actors, such as terrorist and insurgent groups, require regular supplies of weapons and ammunition to continue their violent campaigns. Since most countries do not possess extensive firearm production industries, many of these groups rely upon transnational arms trafficking to purchase needed weaponry.
This dependency provides states and international institutions with invaluable opportunities to disrupt the funding and supply of violent organizations. Smuggling is a high-cost, risky behavior, increasing the price-per-unit of trafficked weapons. By tracking weapons shipments, security forces can identify and apprehend arms smugglers, cutting off future imports of these supplies. These techniques allow governments to directly weaken the capabilities of violent non-state actors without extensive collateral damage or civilian casualties.
The advent of downloadable firearms fundamentally disrupts this security approach. Without serial numbers, the origin and manufacturer of weapons seized by security forces cannot be determined. The ability to download 3-D printed design files throughout the world removes the physical barrier to smuggling firearms, as violent organizations will be able to domestically construct their own weapons.
A probable result of this disruption is the escalation and perpetuation of violent conflicts throughout the world, as reducing arms supplies is a key way of reducing the intensity of conflicts and forcing violent non-state actors to negotiate. Governments, particularly those with poor human rights records, will likely choose to respond to firearms downloads by implementing tight controls of 3D-printing technology and persecuting citizen advocates. The intellectual freedom that U.S. 3D-printing and gun-rights advocates have won in this settlement will be mirrored by increased repression overseas.
Many of the potential future achievements of 3-D technology, such as humanitarian aid, will be threatened, as all 3-D printers, regardless of their intended purpose, can conceivably be viewed as potential weapons factories. It is distressing to consider that Yemeni 3-D printers intended to construct prosthetic limbs for victims of civil wars may be utilized to build weapons that main or kill others.
Thankfully, several solutions are available to reduce the threat posed by violent non-state actors building 3-D printed weapons, while at the same time preserving the rights of other 3-D printing users. The international community may extend existing trade agreements regulating small arms, such as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), to include downloadable guns.
Alternatively, individual states such as the U.S. may alter course as the security concerns posed by this technology become more widely acknowledged. Even simple steps, such as requiring these files to include some form of identification in the printed final product, similar to serial numbers on normal mass-produced weapons, would reduce the security risks.
The technological and societal innovations brought about by 3-D printing will undoubtedly be magnificent. However, these achievements must be considered alongside their potential to disrupt international security and harm the lives of countless living people. The United States and other government actors should take the necessary proactive steps to reduce the risks of this technology perpetuating senseless conflicts throughout the world.
Jeremy Berkowitz recently completed a Ph.D. in Political Science at Binghamton University