If it becomes easy for average people to 3D print firearms, then what does that mean for gun manufacturers and the gun lobby? Should they fear suffering the fate of independent bookstores and film cameras?  The Center’s chief strategy officer explains.


By Brad Berens

Whatever your politics and however you feel about private gun ownership, the “ghost gun” debate that has emerged over the last few weeks has implications for every kind of business in the digital age.

What is a ghost gun?

In brief, activist Cody Wilson won a round in his long-running legal action against the Federal Government to allow him to post designs for 3D printable guns on his website. Eight attorneys general sued. They convinced a Seattle district judge to block Wilson from posting these designs on the grounds that these homemade “ghost guns” have no serial numbers, enable people to evade background checks, and render pointless other laws that exist to control guns and gun violence.

The restraining order has taken effect despite the fact that it is legal in the USA to make your own firearm, although it is not legal to make your own gun if it can’t be detected by X-Ray machines or metal detectors.

Vox has a thorough, if partisan, summary of the issue here.

Pro-gun groups, including the NRA, celebrated Wilson’s brief victory, condemned the judge’s restraining order, and argued that this is really a first amendment (freedom of speech) issue rather than a second amendment (gun rights) issue. Anti-gun groups celebrated the restraining order, although they worry that it’s too little, too late.

Unusually, both sides are right in this case: it is a first amendment issue and it is too late to stop the designs from circulating. The designs have already been downloaded thousands of times, and since the cost of duplicating and privately distributing those designs is zero, the genie will never crawl back into the bottle.

What people aren’t realizing is that — in the likely event that Wilson will one day get the restraining order dismissed — the groups most likely to suffer because of 3D printable guns are gun manufacturers, gun sellers, and the gun lobby.

Longtime digital trend watchers have seen this story before. Industries think that customers care about their products when instead most customers only care about the actions that the products enable.

The paradigmatic, “let’s all say it together” example is Kodak, which thought that people loved film cameras when they only cared about taking pictures (first with digital cameras and later with smartphones).

There are more examples.

CDs and newspapers and books, oh my!

In the early days of the public internet (1999), Napster created a free online MP3 exchange. After “ripping” a CD, members would share MP3 versions of every song, collecting MP3s they didn’t have– free music for everybody!

Despite a plague of angry lawsuits filed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and although Napster itself was driven out of business, the primary revenue model of the music industry evaporated like a drop of water on a hot skillet. Eventually, services like iTunes and Spotify brought recorded music back to life, although in a much different shape.


To see the future of the NRA, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Beretta, and the like, all you have to do is look at the history of the film camera, the newspaper, the bookstore, the music store, and the CD, not to mention the flashlight, the VCR, the paper address book, and the physical calendar.


For newspapers, the one-two punch of 1) Craigslist (1996) absorbing the cash cow of classified ads, and 2) repackaging websites like Huffington Post (2005) and blogs (2009) becoming the first place many Americans went to for news, destroyed that revenue model. Newspapers have been struggling ever since, unless the paper is lucky enough to be acquired by a benevolent billionaire.

Amazon started to annihilate independent bookstores shortly after it was founded (1994) and then transformed many physical books into e-books when it launched the Kindle in 2007.

In each case, analog products dematerialized and concrete distribution became digital.

In each case, the analog industry was caught flat-footed because it did not realize that many customers simply did not care about the physical shape of the tool (the CD, the paper, the book). Those folks were fine with a good enough alternative that was cheaper to buy, faster to get, better, or some combination.

Why should guns be any different?

Guns aren’t going away — just like music, news, and pictures are thriving in vastly different forms than 30 years ago — but gun manufacturers may soon start losing sleep.

People who relish the design and power of individual guns — or savor the history behind particular models — will continue to love guns, and there are a lot of them. Avid hunters will still want traditional guns made of metal that last forever and are sturdier than plastic.

However, once the default option changes with any technology, the industry around that technology should not count on the majority of customers sticking with the old container.

In addition to cameras, CDs, newspapers and books, our work in the Center’s Future of Transportation project suggests that increasing percentages of Americans will opt out of car ownership as get-a-ride services proliferate and as self-driving cars become everyday reality rather than science fiction.

Today, the default option for gun ownership is buying a gun at a store, submitting to a background check (unless you’re buying at a gun show), and then heading home. With the arrival of 3D printed firearms there are new options: suddenly going to the store and having a background check aren’t necessary.

Some people who want a gun in case of a break in will embrace a no-fuss, no-background check 3D printed model. Likewise, some passionate defenders of the Second Amendment will retire because with 3D printing no government will ever be able to take their guns away.

To see the future of the NRA, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Beretta and the like, all you have to do is look at the history of the film camera, the newspaper, the bookstore, the music store, and the CD, not to mention the flashlight, the VCR, the paper address book, and the physical calendar.

Ironically, the fiercest defenders of the Second Amendment may wind up being the most-injured victims of the collision between firearms and the digital revolution.


Brad Berens is the Center’s Chief Strategy Officer.




See all columns from the Center.

August 8, 2018