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By Mike Morrison

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely seen the incredible progress Solid Concepts made with their working, 3D printed 1911. I bet you watched all of Cody Wilson’s printing antics and the horror they elicited among the anti-gun community. But you may not have considered some of the greatest threats to the future of printing firearms. If you look in your safe, you’ll see their names printed all over your favorite firearms . . .

3D printing is set to revolutionize industrial production. It provides designs and ramps up initial production. Printers likely won’t replace mass production, but will decrease barriers to entry for new products and those who create them. Though small in scale initially, the entry of new competitors will threaten existing companies. This threat will create strange bedfellows.

Economists call this scenario the Bootleggers and the Baptists. The theory, proposed by Bruce Yandle who served as the Executive Director of the Federal Trade Commission during the Reagan administration, suggests that an unholy alliance would form between groups fundamentally opposed to each other.

For example, let’s say your town council proposed to limit the sale of liquor on Sundays. Baptists and other prohibitionists would be ecstatic to have a day away from demon rum and naturally would campaign fiercely for such a regulation. Surprisingly, the bootleggers would join them as such a regulation would shut down the legal liquor stores, leaving them as the only option in town.

Now, for the five of you who didn’t let their eyes roll to the back of your heads, let’s think about that in context of the firearms industry. The Baptists are easy to identify; it’s Piers Morgan, Mothers Against Guns and Feinstein and the rest. But the bootleggers? They’re the existing gun manufacturers.

Unconvinced? There are countless examples of other industries using regulation to shut out their competition. Even Bill Ruger supported magazine limits and possibly more during the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban battle. Many established businesses choose to compete not in the marketplace, but with lobbyists on K Street and in the halls of Congress.

Expect to see some kind of national regulation that claims to “standardize” and “modernize” gun production. Such a regulation will serve simply to entrench current producers and shut down the little guys. Anything that limits firearm production will be praised by the gun grabbers and it’s likely this kind of regulation could find support in the firearms industry, whether public or in private.

If we want to see innovation and entrepreneurship like never before in the firearm industry, shooters need to rally around 3D printers. As TTAG and others have discussed at length, we cannot allow our movement to be divided or we will surely be conquered. We’ve seen that 3D printing greatly decreases costs and allows folks who could not have broken into the industry before the chance to do so. Defending these printers from crushing regulations will stimulate innovation in firearm manufacturing and design in ways never seen before and continue to protect our right to bear arms.

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  1. As I mentioned several days ago this needs to be seen as an attacked and a violation of the First Amendment; Free Speech and Freedom of the Press, NOT as a specifically Second Amendment issue.

    Even those of us who appreciate firearms, and enjoy the consternation printed firearms cause amongst the political elites, are not particularly interested in printing a Liberator. Other components, very possibly. That makes the opposition corps rather limited. If this is addressed as a 1st Amendment violation you get a MUCH larger base of individuals on the band wagon since any restrictions put on 3D printers will not affect ONLY the production of pistols or parts in someone’s basement.

    Like the too many years of complacency in re illegal, unconstitutional infringement of the Second Amendment, ignoring the very absolute pronouncement at the start of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting…or abridging…” is the equivalent of ignoring “…shall not be infringed.”

    Once the media has allowed Congress to regulate printing presses (a 3D printer is equivalent to a printing press the way an AR-15 is equivalent to a musket) and WHAT may be printed on those presses then the First Amendment is as vulnerable to government tyranny as is the 2nd. At this point, MAYBE, the press and other media will begin to understand what the real issue is that we are fighting for.

  2. The analogy is wrong because people would just buy more booze on saturday…which is what they do. People are not dumb enough to purchase a one shot plastic gun. The concept is there. When it gets out of hand and someone does something stupid with it then the government will truly step in.

    • The analogy is hardly the point. Regulation is what the government and the grabbers are after. To them, regulation and safety are synonymous. 3D printers represent a fantastic opportunity for freedom and decentralized production. When there are more producers, it becomes virtually impossible to shut all of them down, sue them, tax them out of existence, etc. Control freaks panic at the availability of whole firearm components as well as individual parts being made (printed) outside of their meddling.

      As to the article, I wholeheartedly agree. 3D printing represents excellent opportunities, and could greatly expand freedom.

    • The baptists and bootleggers analogy is from the economist I mentioned. Here’s a another example that actually happened. A few years ago it came out that the Sierra Club was receiving money from Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas firm. The money was used to fund the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Note that at the time the Sierra Club also had a Beyond Natural Gas campaign. Chesapeake “got into bed” with the Sierra Club, knowing that they wanted to run them out of business too, just to help take out a competitor. Put more simply, you use the government’s power to run other folks out of business. The entrenched find an ally in the activists, and use them to their advantage.

  3. Proposed regulation will not be limited to firearms, it will include virtually all manufacturing industries with the exception of those who output cannot be produced on an inexpensive 3-d printer. There is already a 3-d printed car being developed. The prototype is estimated to cost about $50k. For a bespoke car, that’s chump change. Imagine what will happen to the cost if production is scaled up, or if development goes open source. GM and Toyota will not be amused. And why stop at cars? The Wright brothers built the first successful airplane in a bicycle shop with hand tools a century ago. Imagine what someone could do now with CAD and a decent-sized Rep Rap printer. Cessna and the FAA would have something to say on the matter.

    Sure, they’ll say it’s about safety, but in order for the government to care about your safety, it would have to care about you, and clearly it does not. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have things like the Tuskegee experiment, or the Waco Massacre, or the Afghan War. This is about corporations exploiting people financially, and power-hungry politicians giving themselves more authority.

  4. One tool we can use to destroy this proposed legislation is THE BULLETS. The Liberator and all the other 3D plastic guns still use standard cartridges, which are made of metal.
    The plastic guns might be “undetectable”, but the bullets definitely are detectable, and the guns are useless without bullets.

    • Lead is easy to come by, the “chemical printer” is already in the works for propellant, and you can print a plastic case, or adapt something innocuous and easy to come by to function as one, copper pipe comes to mind. Calls for ammunition control after gun control is no longer possible represent nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of the anti’s.

      • Then we should keep that little tidbit to ourselves and let them use it as a last resort. Then when they put all their eggs in that last basket, we can swat it out of their hands basically at will.

    • I’d try turning that argument back on them. Should we ban wooden crossbows because metal detectors can’t see them? Or force manufacturers to insert metal chunks so they can be detected? We can’t have undetectable assault crossbows all over. That argument is of course ridiculous and leads us back to the first question; how do we stop bad people from doing bad things? I’m sure you can take it from there.

  5. “3D printing is set to revolutionize industrial production. It provides designs and ramps up initial production. Printers likely won’t replace mass production, but will decrease barriers to entry for new products and those who create them. Though small in scale initially, the entry of new competitors will threaten existing companies.”

    Fear-mongering! This statement pretends that this revolution hasn’t been going on for the last 10+ years already, and that established gun-makers haven’t been the ones in the best positions to use these technologies. In fact its established companies that have the financial means to be early adopters of expensive, emerging, production and rapid prototyping technologies, allowing them to be financed, refined and progress at the present rates.

    • Sure, but 3D printing on the scale it’s happening now has not been done. Accessibility is higher than it has been and growing more and more. Established gun manufacturers probably are doing all the things that you mentioned, but the incentive to block others from doing so is still there. Legislation could be written in such a way that would block new entry by greatly increasing the costs to do so. Larger companies could bear the cost, but smaller companies may not be able to do so. The point remains, we need to be wary of manufacturers.

  6. It’s called mercantilism. It’s the way business has been done in America for decades. A few large corporations and contractors get together and propose laws that will stifle, slow or destroy their competition. Take the recent bills about Internet sales tax collection. Who were the biggest proponents? Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Amazon, etc. Giant online retailers that already collect tax in all 50 states. What they want to do is shut down all their smaller competition, because a small online store isn’t going to have the resources or time to collect tax from 50 different states and report to 50 different departments of revenue. They’ll fold. The market shrinks and the big boys get bigger.

  7. As I warned, this is what would happen when a self-aggrandizing child waves his pecker around and screams “na-na-na-na-na-na”. Poking bears with sticks that they didn’t even know existed is just plain foolish. Sure it got little Cody his well-undeserved 15 minutes and forwarded his business interests.

    It screwed everyone who actually matters.

    For the entire community of people who actually do something in 3D printing, for those who actually make their own guns via reductive machining and additive machining? This kid has been the bane of our existence. Dealing in a medium the DIY community has moved past, producing a cute talking point that is of absolutely no real world value, and most importantly, drawing the grabber’s attention to something that, save for his efforts, they would (still) be blissfully unaware of.

    Last week I spent a couple hours of my time giving minor pointers to a couple of rather average folks on how to do some final reductive machining on their actual scratch-built guns. That they built from scrap on less than $2K in machines and tools. One in an apartment with a tabletop mill/drill. That’s more functional guns than have ever come from Defense Distributed.

    So, 3 or 5 years down the line when all 3D printing is regulated before it got too ubiquitous to stop, please do remember the one person responsible for drawing all the attention.

    • Only California state Senator Yee proposed any regulation of 3D printers, and he quickly retracted it.

      Even the European countries are not proposing it.

      3D printers are growing in popularity at an almost logarithmic rate. If nothing happens to regulate them now, then nothing will.

      • They aren’t going to stop 3D printing, but what will happen in the next 3-5 years is that licensing and regulating will be going on at a fevered pace. I’m not sure if they will go for the machines, the software, or the raw materials, but they are coming.

        Back when almost nobody could make a gun that was able to pass through a metal detector, the ‘Undetectable Firearms Act’ was passed. There will be 3D printing regulations, incredibly insane and onerous ones just from ATF alone. Ones that won’t stop anyone from doing what they’re going to do, but it will make felons out of a whole section of formerly law-abiding folks. Not to mention the pressure that will come from manufacturers of pretty much everything – if you think they’re going to lie down and allow you to download some code and ‘roll your own’, well that ain’t gonna happen either.

        I’m not in middle-school anymore, so my hardcore Ayn Rand days are behind me. But, there is one little nugget from Atlas Shrugged that applies today more than ever…

        “Did you really think we want those laws observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them to be broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against… We’re after power and we mean it… There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Reardon, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

  8. Thank you Mike. THIS is why I love TTAG. Constant introduction of ideas of ideas and perspectives that I’d never come up with on my own is followed by reader commentary that further expands my horizons.

  9. “stimulate innovation in firearm manufacturing and design in ways never seen before ”

    I find irony in the fact that the first firearm printed in steel was a design that is 113 years old.

  10. A good visual of where us gun folks are is a scene from The Walking Dead where the zombies are about to push down the fence and the survivors are on the other side pushing it back straight so the zombies can’t get over. The survivors being us and the zombies being both the anti-gun folks and those on the fence who could go either way but most of those “in the middle” will probably go the way of more gun control because folks without guns tend to fear them rather than embrace them. 3D printing is like another hoard of zombies joining the other hoards and pushing that fence down even further and there we are in even more danger of losing everything.
    While our loved sport, hobby and lifestyle is growing expediently we in no way are a voting majority nor do people like us make up most of congress, sadly even some of those pro-gun folks in congress would betray us and the constitution. So anyone that thinks supporting, adopting, whatever you want to call taking up the cause to support 3D printing, if anyone of us thinks this won’t be the extra weak link or post in that fence, that extra hoard of zombies, that will bring that fence that we are barely keeping up down for good, think again.
    While I understand being vigilant is a must in the overall fight we still need to pick our battles. Is this a battle we need to fight? Is this new tech that spits out plastic molds of exact copies of many firearm parts really the next step in gun manufacturing? No. I’m fairly certain many custom auto, motorcycle shops along with firearms manufactures have laser cutting machines that do the same or similar jobs as a 3D printer only it’s steel, aluminum and other metal parts being made. I think the 3D printing is solely about the average Joe being able to print out their own ar lower, or mags, or a full temp working gun in plastic or similar material. Really the regulations will be aimed at the citizens, not manufactures. So our supposed fight is to allow citizens to manufacture many parts that are by federal law usually registered such as the frame/trigger assembly and receiver of almost every firearm made? So basically our fight if 3D printing didn’t exist would be to stop all registration laws and end federal involvement in the firearms industry? LOL While I would embrace this with great enthusiasm we all know that’s not going to ever happen.
    While I understand politics and economics and the theory, or conspiracy theory that is mentioned in this post, it’s been over for the little guy for a long time already. And we all know the current gun giants will openly or secretly support heavy regulation of 3D printing.
    While I will stand by my fellow gun folks and support this fight I’m not going to think and live outside of reality and reality is there is no way 3D printing won’t be heavily regulated. Again, asking this new tech not to be regulated is like asking the federal gov to keep their nose out of the firearms industry. Their nose is so far up the ass of the firearms industry they no longer hear what we have to say. Just being real.

    • It’s less of a battle we need to fight and more of an interest we need to keep in line. Manufacturers can be great allies in this battle, but we need to be realistic about the incentives they face. There will definitely be folks who know that 3D printing could hurt their bottom line but oppose regulating it out of principle. Those people should be lauded and supported for their position. What scares me is some Bill Ruger part 2, were major manufacturers claim to support “industry standards” or some nonsense. We need to punish those companies by hurting their bottom line.

      Is it the most important battle right now? Maybe not. But it’s one we need to keep an eye out for in the future.

  11. Some things that hasn’t been mentioned are copyright, patent, and trademark. Making a copy of a gun that is in part or in whole covered by patents may be illegal. It is certainly illegal if done on a large scale. The plans, converted into instructions for a 3-D printer, may be covered by copyright. Putting “Colt” on a 3-D printed 1911 is certainly a violation of Colt’s trademark. The people using 3-D printers need to be aware of these issues and not give the gun grabbers any more tricks to use against us.

  12. In economic terms this is known as a “barrier to entry”, and entrenched corporate interests (via lobbying and regulatory capture) often support regulation because it locks competitors out of the market.

    Have you ever wondered why the NRA and the NSSF never seem to bother lobbying against the 922r restrictions on the importation of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and the whole “sporting purposes” rigamarole? Because why in the world would American gun manufacturers want to invite more foreign competition?

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