Uncertain Futures – XIV – The Destabilizing Power of Technology

3D printing is going to be a universal game changer.

The above is a schematic for a weapon of the future. A gun anyone can print at home with parts printed in a 3D printer. While this is a step back in the actual technology of the gun as far as reliability, accuracy, durability, and safety for the end user, once the means to “print” a gun becomes ubiquitous, it is going to be a real democratizing force.

While I know many people are going to think about the United States when the topic of gun violence comes up, the US actually won’t be where the real story is. Here, we have a system built around the assumption that guns are readily available and have built a society around this fact that attempts to allow responsible gun use without forbidding it outright.

In other parts of the world, where guns of any sort are criminalized, they have no means to prevent the sudden appearance of massive amounts of undocumented and unregistered firearms. Where many people live under harsh government rule, and also have no rights to gun ownership, this could be a lethal combination. Consider China, where 93% of the people have no democratic representation because they do not qualify for the “high standards” of the Chinese Communist Party. At a time when 3D printing might already upset the economy there, the sudden appearance of so many weapons could plausibly result in the end of a regime. Consider also the case of the Middle East. Actually, I’m just going to let you imagine that yourselves, considering that the Arab Spring happened just because all these people had access to Twitter. Syria and Libya showed us how far some people are willing to follow that through… and those conflicts are having repercussions across the globe. Seriously consider the implications of universal access to weaponry, which if all the 3D printing evangelicals are declaring is true… is exactly what will happen.

I’m just going to be honest about this, a lot of people are going to die. The numbers are going to be so staggering that the current gun debate in the US is going to seem like a cruel joke. I don’t really know how to stop this once 3D printing technology becomes more universal, but the truth is that it is something that should be considered in any long term questions about the future of the technology. No one expected Twitter to be a force for international upheaval, but it became so. 3D printing is opening a lot of doors for amazing new things, but once weaponry via such a medium becomes commonplace, much of the world is going to change.

I will say this, as threatening as this posts appears, I am optimistic in the long run. While I think that many, many terribly undemocratic regimes are going to be challenged, some overthrown, I think that 50 years out from now, the democratic nature of a universally armed populace is going to have a massive effect towards the propagation of civil liberties among the the bottom billion. Once they are provided with the ultimate liberty, the respect of their leaders, they will be empowered like nothing we have produced for them before.

I don’t imagine a dystopian future where everyone has a gun and is murdering everyone else. There are more guns than Americans in the United States. Despite this fact and what the news reads, most of us have never experienced gun violence in spite of unknowingly passing hundreds every day with concealed carry licenses. I don’t imagine a utopia either. There will be gun violence. If mental health is not considered an important factor in gun ownership debate for the rest of the world as it currently isn’t in the United States, they will face the same staggering gun suicide rates that we do, and they will experience the same shooting sprees that dot our headlines periodically. Either way, the United States needs to lead the world in how we solve gun rights issues because soon, every single person in the world could be armed with a gun they made in their garage.


On the Future of Ammunition and the 3D printed Gun

Numerous people have made comments about a perceived failure of what I am trying to explain. The most logical of these arguments centers around the problem of ammunition, so I’ll give it special attention as I try to address some of the others.

I’ll give credit to those who thought far enough ahead to realize that ammunition is going to be a major choke point in the arming of any population, be it national militaries, or a collection of free individuals. The way we think about ammunition today would not work for a system where 3D printed guns are made illegal. Even the one pictured at the beginning of this post would not be able to work without some form of continual ammunition source. However, what many need to understand about ammunition is that it isn’t as rare as most of us think… or even, in the case of 3D printed weapons, as necessary.

I want it to be clear, we aren’t talking about making every piece of a weapon, from the barrel, trigger, and down to the ammo, from a 3D printer just for the sake of saying we did with some novel technology. That scenario is so specific that it also is impractical. The revolution in the dynamics of humanity’s relationship between itself and the gun will change because the hardest parts of weapon acquisition will be made easier through the use of these new machines and processes. We are talking about overcoming barriers and getting around the traditional, well established means by which most defense and security assumptions are made. To help illuminate this, the general populous and well established industries, and nations don’t specialize in this sort of grand thinking. This is the specialty of terrorists, insurgents, and anyone who views their survival tied to the use of unconventional warfare as a means of overcoming the grand and deeply entrenched mechanisms in place by the stabilized and powerful forces they compete with. For these people, the need to create a weapon system, from beginning to end through some novel form, isn’t necessary. What is necessary, to them, is a means to overcome an the few obstacles which exist that narrows their wider ability to compete, in this case, the banning of factory line weapons. After the logistical choke point can be overcome, in this case with the production of an untraceable weapon, then we will start to see the hidden potential of these clandestine/revolutionary/terrorist/black market actors have had available all along, but thus far ignored because they didn’t have the key resources available to act on them. One these key resources after the creation of a gun supply will be ammunition, but this can be produced via other processes, all of which are already well documented, and well known, if you only know where to look.

1) Ammunition isn’t as rare as you think.

My father-in-law was an avid shooter. Like me, he didn’t come from wealthy stock, so to support our mutual love of the sport, he introduced me to the fact that it was easy to make bullets at home. I was, at the time, under the belief that the only place to get ammo was a store, so finding out that it was possible to make it at home was a revolutionary concept for me. Not only for me, but for what that means in the way of insurgency warfare, a topic I’ve written about often given my history as a Marine deployed the Iraq War.

Guides to making bullet cartridges are available throughout the internet. While you may not be able to 3D print these, there really isn’t a need to reinvent the wheel when the means to just build it are so readily available across the internet. – How To Make Your Own Bullets Today. Usually, the only logistical choke point involved here is the creation of the metal cartridges used to store the primers and propellant. Having said that, there is an abundance of knowledge on even the homemade creation of these with none too rare supplies available to the average machinist.

I’ve even seen another video that clearly demonstrates how to create a complete working bullet, at least functionally speaking, out of everyday household items that would be economically impossible for any government to outlaw.

Granted, anyone who watched carefully will note that the weapon produced was not lethal to the extent that a modern military grade rifle is, but I’m using it as a proof of concept in the point that ammunition is not the rare commodity that many people seem to be basing their long term national security on. It is also important to know that when people are creating ammunition stores in their own homes, quality controls won’t produce the kind of reliability that one could expect from respected ammunition manufactures, such as those used by the military or major distributors of guns and ammunition. That said, these kinds of “cook houses” aren’t uncommon in any black market/insurgent enterprise. A simple house in the middle of the desert could be converted into an ammunition factory  with five guys pushing out a thousand rounds a day. I’ll use the example of Palestinian terrorists. It would be not unlike how the Qassam rocket is produced to aid Palestinian terrorists.

In the Hamas/Israel example, one of the most used rocket designs, the Qassam, can be built for as little as $800 American. Considering what that can do with it’s 9 pound warhead over a 17 mile range, that’s a pretty good deal.

Do cheap, readily available civilian drones potentially pose a new and unique threat in terms of terrorism?

These individuals have created entire missile factories inside their homes for the purposes of shelling Israeli cities. Similar sites also existed in Iraq, as well. They are able to use mostly scrap, publically available legal chemical products, and some rough designs to allow good engineers to train moderate to mediocre engineers in the art of building these projectiles. In this way, a modern missile has been in the hands of terrorists for many years in various parts of the Middle East.

That is, if you even need to produce the ammunition. Kyle Murao earned a research award for his summary of a report put out on where groups like Syria get most of their ammunition. The results were shocking by some accounts.

…here’s the short answer to the question [of where does the Islamic State get its Ammunition]: Everywhere. China. The USSR/Russia. The US. Eastern Europe. North Korea. The Sudan. Iran. All told, of 1,730 identifiable new and expended small-arms cartridges, CAR identified the markings of manufacturers in 21 different countries all over the world.

Source: Conflict Armament Research. “Analysis of small-calibre ammunition recovered from Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria”

What the report showed was there was still a healthy black market for ammunition, readily flowing across the world from any location to virtually any other location on the map. Given that premise, I don’t really see why we need to ask the question of where an insurgency force would need to look to get ammunition. As Murao put it well… everywhere.

Where is ISIL getting their ammunition?

2) Is that even a gun?

The thing that I think many people are having problems with is the lack of understanding about what 3D printing is going to mean. Some comments have said that the weapons are limited by the limitations of plastic guns, being mainly, that they aren’t durable and their fire isn’t reliable over time. This is true, but the statement comes with a belief that the printers will only work with plastic, or that they will only be basic copies of designs made today. Both of these assumptions have already been proven false.

Firstly, the limitations of material use are nowhere near being fully explored, while the current generation is mostly creating products through plastics, metals have also been used, and even biological and organic materials. That is to say, even organs made of living cells have been made through printing.

The point of explaining this is to say the 3D printed materials are going to have ridiculous properties that defy many of our common understandings of how things can be made. Most people say that with optimism, but as this post should show, that too can be a very frightening concept. To make my point even more clear, the world’s first metal 3D printed gun has already been made. The world’s first 3D printed metal gun is a beautiful .45 caliber M1911 pistol | ExtremeTech

Now, consider modern forging of weapons. The entire weapon’s metal components are cast from a single alloy and set. What, however, would be the properties of a barrel made millimeter by millimeter, from the inside to the outside? Could one not create a weapon of many varying alloys, layered to combine the properties of several metals throughout the length of the weapon in a way that traditional metal casting never could? What if a coil of copper could be set in during the curing process, producing a magnetic current as the bullet passed through the barrel, either slowing down or speeding it up before escaping the weapon? Consider pockets of a different material homogeneously interwoven throughout the weapon that had the property of absorbing the vibration of the weapon. This would have the effect of both reducing the need for a large buffer spring and completely eliminating the need for a silencer without slowing down the round as silencers do. That’s a weapon design that would be a major upgrade for both snipers and assassins.  I’m not saying that any of these particular ideas would work. I’m not a physicist, so my ideas might explode the weapon and kill the user, but once we get away from the idea of the cast-metal weapon, someone will create new designs that will fundamentally alter the way we see the material that these weapons are made of.

To complete my point on the strange properties that 3D will offer, I’d like to talk about another novel weapon system that just didn’t work out. Below is the Metal Storm system.

The Metal Storm is weird. That’s all that can be said about it. It is a weird gun. Here’s a description:

Metal Storm used the concept of superposed load; multiple projectiles loaded nose to tail in a single gun barrel with propellant packed between them. The Roman candle, a traditional firework design, employs the same basic concept, however, thepropellant continues to burn in the Roman candle’s barrel, igniting the charge behind the subsequent projectile. The process is repeated by each charge in turn, ensuring that all projectiles in the barrel are discharged sequentially from the single ignition. Various methods of separately firing each propellant package behind stacked projectiles have been proposed which would allow a “single shot” capability more suitable to firearms.[3]

What is unique about the Metal Storm is that it has no ammo magazine. Even more weird is that it has almost none of the parts we traditionally associate with a gun. The magazine and the barrel are basically the same thing. It also fires using magnetically charged rounds. Because they cut out almost everything that we believe makes a gun a gun, they were able to do something remarkable. While the average infantrymen armed with an M-4 could maybe pull off 100 rounds a minute accurately, and the most advanced machine gun in the US arsenal is capable of 6,000 rounds a minute… the Metal Storm system is capable of firing at a speed of over 1 million rounds a minute. That’s ludicrous.

Now, I want to be clear, the Metal Storm isn’t 3D printed, and the company behind it had flaws, along with the practicality behind the idea of who really needs to fire 1 million rounds a minute to the point that the company had to shut down. The Metal Storm as a case study, however, shows us one remarkable thing. Guns aren’t what we think they are. By eliminating everything but the bullet and the barrel, Metal Storm created a remarkably lethal weapon system that made people ask, “Is that even a gun?” The damage the system inflicted on practice targets made it clear that it was. 3D printers will do the same, or to be more precise, the revolutionary new ways in which 3D printers will allow people to create materials, will change the way we see everything about the gun, including the ammunition it fires.

Closing

3D printers are the future of small arms. They will be something that will empower people that currently have none. Many of these people shouldn’t have it. Of course there will be people who will use these weapons for harming other people who are good. Eventually though, this just simply won’t be something we can control.

I think that many people have a problem with idea of guns becoming so universal. They fear their country may become the Wild West that they believe the United States to be. One commentator even offered the opinion that:

For every smart, good person, good citizen that gets a gun to do good, there are hundreds of crazy, unbalanced, criminal and ill intentionned [sic.] people that will get their hands on guns. Having guns being so available will only make situations more dangerous.

While I’m not making a moral judgement here, I respond that this thinking is fundamentally, and absolutely wrong. There are over 300,000,000 guns in the United States. Assuming that a gun owner owns three, that’s still one hundred million gun owners. This means that if this idea were true (hundreds of crazy, unbalanced, criminal and ill intentioned) there would be hundreds of millions if not tens of billions of people running amok on killing sprees and committing violence. This math, and this assumption, simply do not add in the real world.

In fact, the opposite is true. For every one person who does something wrong, there are thousands who use guns responsibly. This response seems to be implying, that banning guns is the only rational way to solve the problem, but this only punishes the good while the bad won’t follow the law anyway.

Having said that, I want to talk about tyrants and oppressive regimes. Another person made the comment that a modern military, such as China, could never be threatened by plastic small arms distribution among the general populace. In fact, they said it was absurd.

“If anything, technology has swung the balance of power toward the tyrants.  Consider this; What is the larger potential factor, 3D printers, or drones?”

This imbalance of power is the reason for the American 2nd Amendment. It is an attempt to create a large and reasonably well armed populace to ensure that a nation’s government respects its citizens enough to remember that the government is in service to, not in ownership of, its people. This is the reasoning for the statement of the democratizing power of the 3D printed gun. To echo others, “God did not make men equal. Sam Colt did.” To this last point, asking which is the more important, Drones, or 3D guns, I’d like to remind readers that throughout the Iraq War, the Americans were armed with the world’s greatest technology, including drones and more powerful guns than any others in the world. The Americans were repeatedly put against the ropes not by a force equal to us in either size or armament, but by unconventional means, like a well armed populace, unconventional uses for conventional weapons, and media interference. One needs to consider what kind of force held a collation of the most modern militaries in the world at bay in Iraq (remember that I was there) and ask again what people with limited means can do against superpowers. Tech does not, as it never has, guarantee victory.

This isn’t really relevant here, though, since we aren’t arguing about the strength of 3D guns versus the power of drone warfare. The question is what is the next leap in small arms technology. Drones aren’t the future of warfare, they are happening now. They are here already. The next generation of them will be amazing to witness, but we are already aware that. That’s why I said that 3D printing was the next leap forward. However, 3D printing could open the door towards new people getting access to drones, but I digress.

Now consider the statement about a drone empowering a tyrant. Consider a tyrant who bans the use of guns and sits behind a wall of automated soldiers. Their defenses are impossibly strong against any uprising that has ever happened. They have firm control over all imports and know exactly what is coming in and going out of the country. This makes their regime feel very comfortable in their seat of power, perhaps too comfortable. Security lapses and then something terrible happens.

I stumbled on this a while back and it has always helped to give me perspective on just how fragile our security can be.

Frankly, two small bullets killed over 100,000,000 million people because tensions became too great, regimes became too oppressive and a very few people had the means to act where very powerful people became careless and too comfortable. This event changed the world in ways so profound we can’t picture what it would be like without having him killed. My concern is that a world that has framed themselves around the belief that there is one and only one right answer being that all guns should be removed from all people, will not be prepared for a time when they can’t control a time where they are universal.

This is why I say the United States needs to lead the world in how we solve gun rights issues. As I have said, we are a population that already has as many guns as people, and we aren’t a small nation. We are extremely large, but also extremely diverse. Diversity spawns new ideas, but it also causes great tension. Given this dynamic and the freedoms we do still enjoy, we are the only metric with which the world will be able to gauge themselves once firearms become universal. I’m not saying that the United States is morally superior to places like Europe. They have had a history that allowed them to live without guns for a while, but the United States is the only country that sought to find a solution that involved their existence. For that reason, we will be who the world looks to in how they will deal with that future reality, as well. This is why we need to come to work to solve it here and now, as the American solution will echo throughout the 21st century.

To be honest, I’m not saying whether this future is ethically right or wrong. I’m just saying it is going to happen, and that we need to deal with its implications, or learn at least, how to cope with them.

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