After the horrendous shooting deaths of dozens of concert-goers in a Las Vegas parking lot last week, one could have hoped that the country might be allowed a few days of respectful silence to lick its emotional wounds and grieve, but that was not to be. The sirens were hardly silent before our ongoing national gunfight took back the stage.
The skirmish lines are numbingly familiar. Anti-gunners clamor for more “common sense” gun control laws, while pro-gunners argue for more armed law-abiding citizens patrolling the streets. As the facts of this week’s tragedy begin to accumulate, they suggest that neither of these assertions holds much water.
The gun lobby’s favorite canard is “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” There were armed security guards near the concert stage when the shooter opened fire. What good were their handguns when he let loose from a hotel window some 400 yards away? Even seasoned SWAT teams were helpless to intervene.
On the other hand, control advocates are particularly fond of the idea of reinstating the expired ban on “assault weapons”, an indistinct descriptor generally attached to a gun’s appearance rather than its lethality. Gun deaths actually decreased in the US in the years following the expiration of the original ban, and long guns have been involved in a tick less than 3% of all mass shootings.
A flicker of agreement between the two sides has emerged, with both calling for regulating so-called “bump stocks”, the aftermarket devices that allow semi-automatics like the AR-15 to fire several hundred rounds a minute. Nobody needs that kind of fire rate except the military and adrenaline junkies for whom it evidently serves as a substitute for Viagra (and a more expensive one; gun shops that sell these accessories report that most buyers discard them soon after discovering that they can easily burn through a thousand bucks-worth of ammunition in a few minutes).
Banning a gun accessory that has been on the market for years is problematic. Thousands of bump stocks are already out there, and since they are only a gun part there is no record of ownership. But the biggest obstacle to firearm regulation may be maker tech – our fast-growing capability to envision and manufacture complex gadgetry in the anonymous comfort of our home workshops. Coming soon to a basement near you – Ghost Guns.
I received an email from a tech-savvy friend linking to a video from Wired magazine. In the video one of the editors documents how he made an AR-15 rifle from a kit. Gun parts are not regulated, and the kit is sold legally through the mail. One vital component is not included – the receiver, which is the precisely machined housing that contains the trigger and firing mechanisms, the heart of the gun. Receivers are not for sale, but maker tech to the rescue. For around $1500 anyone can buy a tabletop computer-controlled (CNC) milling machine which will turn a chunk of aluminum into an AR-15 receiver from plans available on the internet. Presto, your very own “assault rifle”. The finished firearm has no serial numbers and no record of it exists in any state or Federal database. A Ghost Gun.
Total cost for this do-it-yourself project, including the CNC mill (which is marketed under the name Ghost Gunner) is less than $3K. As these tools and 3D printers become more capable and less expensive, virtually all the parts needed to assemble ghost guns will soon be makeable by individuals in the privacy of their own garages.
There is an old saying that government regulation is always at least 5 years behind whatever it is trying to regulate. In the case of technology in general and maker tech in particular the time lag is much greater. The effectiveness of gun regulations already on the books is debatable. Imagine how much more complicated the regulatory undertaking becomes when the guns technically don’t even exist. Can (or should) buyers of machine tools and 3D printers be forced to undergo background checks? Is aircraft grade aluminum to be regulated because of what people might make from it?
For those policymakers trying to come up with “commom sense” ways to prevent gun deaths without turning half the country into de facto criminals, your job just became a lot harder.