Opinion: Panic diverts attention from real threats

May 13, 2013


It should’ve been the shot heard around the world. Chances are, you didn’t hear it.

An ominous sort of history was made last week near Austin, Texas, but it seems to have largely escaped notice. There was some media coverage, yes, but less than, say, Lindsay Lohan’s latest stint in rehab, certainly less than you’d think for something whose ramifications will likely shadow us for years.

On May 2, you see, a group called Defense Distributed, led by law student and self-described anarchist Cody Wilson, accomplished what was apparently the first successful firing of a gun “printed” entirely by a 3-D printer. According to Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg, who witnessed the test, the gun is made almost entirely of plastic, the only metal in it being the nail that served as a firing pin and the bullet it fired.

A 3-D printer, for the benefit of those who remember when the mimeograph machine was the cutting edge of duplication technology, is a device that can download computer blueprints and use them to manufacture complex physical objects right on your desktop.

The one Defense Distributed used is said to have cost $8,000. Amazon has one listed for $1,299.

So we now have technology, largely unregulated, with the potential to turn every desktop into an armory. Forbes reports that, in just two days, 100,000 blueprints were downloaded.

Hold that thought as you ponder another recent headline. It seems one Adam Kokesh, an Iraq War veteran and activist, is organizing an armed march on Washington for Independence Day. Participants — he claims 2,500 so far — with loaded rifles slung across their backs plan to march into the nation’s capital to protest the “tyranny” of the federal government.

While D.C. residents are allowed to have registered firearms on their property, they are not allowed to carry them in public. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has said marchers will be met at the border and if they break that law, “we’ll take action.”

Kokesh, apparently delusional, promises to turn back peacefully if confronted, but says it is his hope the city will suspend the law for him and even provide his group a police escort.

You will not be surprised to learn that, by “tyranny,” Kokesh means the duly elected (not a hanging chad in sight) president of the United States going about his job. Thing is, if you don’t like the way he does his job, you get a chance every four years to make a change. People in North Korea would doubtless love to live under that kind of “tyranny.”

Because it isn’t. Kokesh’s march is just the latest product of the great American panic machine, the mechanism by which the extreme right works itself into spasms of apoplectic terror over threats that don’t exist.

“We’re going to be under sharia law!”

Except, we’re not.

“We’ve become a socialist country!”

Except we haven’t.

“There’s a War on Christmas!”

Except there isn’t.

“They’re trying to take our guns away!”

Except that it is now theoretically possible for a mental patient to manufacture his own gun in the comfort of his aluminum foil-lined basement. That’s a sobering development with far reaching implications barely considered, much less addressed, by lawmakers though this technology has existed for over a decade. Since Wilson’s test, there’s been a flurry of calls for legislation. On Friday, the federal government ordered Wilson to remove the blueprints from his website. All of which is the very epitome of locking the garage after the Hyundai has been hot-wired.

It’s a pity some of the energy that has gone into fighting imaginary tyranny did not go into pondering this real and eminently predictable threat. But, then, we are unserious people in a very serious age.

And therein lies the danger of the panic machine. We spend so much time fighting threats that do not exist, we are left ill-prepared for the ones that do.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Jason Johnson 5 years ago

They haven't confiscated the plans, per se, just trying to block it. But the plans are out there - the genie has been let out of the bottle, and it will never be stopped.

jonas_opines 5 years ago

More accurate headline would have been: "What's worthy of true panic is highly dependent upon your point of view."

Jason Johnson 5 years ago

I don't know why every is having a cow - you can build a (9mm) zip gun for less than $5 from parts bought at a hardware store...

I guess people don't like the printable ones because they're plastic? The printed one in the video had a metal firing pin, so it's still detectable.

Paying $2000 for a printer that prints a marginal gun vs $5 for a metal zip gun? I'll take the zip gun.

Now maybe technology will progress where it gets cheaper and better. But right now printable guns are still out of the realm for most people.

verity 5 years ago

Can't remember where I read this, but after this announcement a reporter set out to acquire a 3-D printed gun. Short version of a very long story, the cost was prohibitive to buy your own printer, having one printed commercially was expensive and nobody who does 3-D printing would do it for him---legal questions, etc.

And they apparently are only good for one firing.

Not going to have a panic attack about this.

jack22 5 years ago

Verity, you make some very good points. Just how much do 3-D printers cost? I'm guessing somewhere in the range of a good used car? Anyway, I think you're right, besides the high cost of the printer, no business that owns one is going to want to expose themselves to the liability of manufacturing a plastic gun unless they had a very big order to fill. And a plastic gun that's only good for one firing doesn't sound very practical to me. I can't imagine there would be a big enough market for them that we'll see a company start to make them anytime soon.

verity 5 years ago

I can't find the original article I referenced amid all the doom and damnation articles online, but I also seem to remember that the printing was going to take eight hours despite the hysterical "Downloading a gun's design plans to your computer, building it on a three-dimensional printer and firing it minutes later." That from AP.

This from the same article: " Low-end 3-D printers can now be purchased online from between $1,500-$4,000. The more high-end printers needed to make gun parts are still priced from $10,000 and up."

Another article: "printed guns will make it more difficult to distinguish what’s a real gun and what’s not. That means we’ll probably be seeing more dangerous holdups and crimes with real or realistic-looking guns, . . ."

The photo of the plastic 3-D gun I saw didn't look remotely like any gun I've ever seen and there are a lot of toy guns that look real, so that's hardly a big concern.

Just wish I could find the original article amongst all the hysteria. And this from someone who has a large aversion to guns---don't see this as a problem anytime soon.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years ago

The problem would be someone buying the printer from Amazon at two thousand and only needing it for one shot, which is all it takes to kill someone. But, I can't figure out why some one would need a plastic gun when they could buy a metal one a lot cheaper. Don't forget that you need the blueprints, the right kind of plastic and the know how to put it all together. What about the bullet it fires? Would that also be detected? In addition to the nail used to fire it?

I would think that paranoid needs to be redefined considering the reality of possible death in places never imagined as dangerous just a short time ago.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years ago

The plastic gun in question that fires a single shot is untraceable, undetectable and accessible to any felon has turned the gun debate upside down. A hard-plastic firearm called “The Liberator” is the world’s first entirely printed 3D gun. It fires standard .380-caliber bullets.

Wilson told Leitner he has been ordered to remove the gun blueprints from his website. And to take down the files for nine other 3D-printable firearm parts, which include silencers, sights and magazine.


Example of a 3-D Printer, available on Amazon.

Example of a 3-D Printer, available on Amazon. by Frankie8

Jason Johnson 5 years ago

Unless they've changed the CAD file, it's not 100% plastic. There's still a metal firing pin.

Liberty275 5 years ago

"On Friday, the federal government ordered Wilson to remove the blueprints from his website."

That is a blatant violation of Defense Distributed's first amendment rights. Worse yet it is pointless. 100,000 copies out the window, and ythey make him stop. That's just dumb.

The cat is out of the bag. What will the smart fellows in Washinngton do to protect us now? Will they have the courage to ban 3d printers? How many people will have to die before we require background checks on anyone wanting to own or use a 3d printer?

It never ends until you make it stop.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years ago

Ah, but hospitals use 3D printers to make precise copies of an individuals body part, say an heart, so that surgeons can practice on it before they do surgery. Everyone's organs are different that the ones that have been used before this to teach. This way the surgeon knows before cutting what they are going to encounter and they have a plan for it.

As you might guess these printers are extremely pricey as are the machines used to get the images used for the blueprints. We could see this used also in created replacement organs for transplants. How about artificial limbs? Lots of very good ways these printers can be used.

verity 5 years ago

I found the article written by the reporter who tried to get a 3-D gun printed, but was too late to edit my comment above.


Commenting has been disabled for this item.