by Patrick Blanchfield
Both gun rights activists and gun control advocates see technology as a shortcut to their preferred future. But America’s love affair with firearms is messier than either camp wants to admit.
On May 2, 2013, in a dusty outdoor firing range somewhere in Texas, a lanky young man with grand ambitions fired what he hoped would be a shot heard round the world—or at least around YouTube.
With a tug of a cord from a prudent distance away, twenty-five-year old law student Cody Wilson pulled the trigger on a crude gun made of 3D-printed Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) plastic, successfully discharging a single .380 caliber bullet. The fact that the gun, which Wilson dubbed the “Liberator” (after a much-mythified World War II guerrilla pistol), misfired on a subsequent shot, and promptly exploded when loaded with a more powerful cartridge, seemed unimportant: proof of concept had been achieved.
A savvy entrepreneur and self-promoter, Wilson leveraged his test run of the Liberator to the fullest. Posting CAD files for the gun online via his nonprofit, Defense Distributed, Wilson hyped the epochal, disruptive character of his invention in the breathless profiles of him that appeared in Wired, Forbes, and The New Yorker.
Never shy about his self-styled “techno-anarchist” politics—his other ventures have included forays into crypto-currency and “Hatreon,” a Patreon alternative “absent speech policing”—Wilson articulated his vision of the future, sounding both like a Silicon Valley libertarian and a vintage American reactionary: “I think the future is openness to the point of the eradication of government. The state shouldn't have a monopoly on violence; governments should live in fear of their citizenry.” The Liberator might not be much as a weapon on it own terms, Wilson conceded, but it embodied something much bigger: an inexorable future wherein the “myth” of gun control would be “exploded.”
Lawmakers and media were quick to respond to Wilson’s prophecies with drama of their own. Senator Chuck Schumer from New York proclaimed that the advent of 3D-printed firearms meant that, “A terrorist, someone who's mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage.”
His colleague, Congressman Steve Israel, proposed legislation to ban them. “Security checkpoints will do little good if criminals can produce plastic firearms and bring those firearms through metal detectors into secure areas like airports or courthouses,” Israel told Wired. “When I started talking about the issue of completely plastic firearms, I was told the idea of a plastic gun is science fiction. That science fiction is now a dangerous reality.”
Behind all the tumultuous political rhetoric, and behind Wilson’s showmanship, there was just one problem: the “3D-printed gun” wasn’t technically all 3D-printed. It was hardly “completely plastic” either. The Liberator’s crude firing pin—a generic hardware store nail—would absolutely set off metal detectors. And even if it didn’t, the metal in the bullets certainly would.
Subsequent, more sophisticated iterations of 3D-printed firearms have yet to overcome this hurdle, and there is no compelling reason to think they will. As far as the specific threat of undetectability is concerned, the hysteria over 3D-printed weapons resembles another panic in the summer of 1990, when a Bruce Willis line in Die Hard 2 about a (nonexistent) “Glock 7,” a “porcelain gun made in Germany … [that] doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines” led to terrified public demands for a ban—and, not coincidentally, sold a lot of Glocks.
But panics over new firearms technologies are older than plastic guns or action movies. So are grandiose techno-futurist claims.
The American-born Hiram Maxim, inventor of the first real machine gun, confidently predicted that his creation would actually “make war impossible,” rather than producing more lethal conflicts. Never mind that, in more unguarded moments, Maxim would admit that his inspiration to enter the arms industry had come from a businessman friend who had told him, “'Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others' throats with greater facility.”
In full philosopher-salesman-prophet mode, Maxim insisted that his fearsome weapon would, through a kind of logic of mutually assured destruction avant la lettre, leave nations too terrified of mass casualties to ever actually go to war. Needless to say, a brutal century-and-a-half later, Maxim’s sales pitch seems either laughably naive or contemptibly cynical.
Evaluating the prophecies of gun futurists, then, the novelty (or lack thereof) of their inventions seems less important than the question of what problems, exactly, they claim to solve. And, by the same token, our collective fascination with gun futurism—our reactions, variously hopeful or hysterical, utopian or bleak—are more interesting when seen in light of what we don’t find interesting.
It’s possible that 3D-printed guns may grow more common, but such fixation on a DIY firearm that requires an $8,000 Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer to produce seems, at the very least, peculiar in a nation where reliable, durable pocket pistols can be bought for under $100. And our hysteria over the prospect that criminals might order guns via dark-web arms markets, or build assault rifles using homebrew CNC mills in black-market makerspaces, seems likewise misguided given how easily guns can be bought and sold without any paperwork or background checks at gun shows or through private sales in the vast majority of US states.
In other words: the real issue isn’t our fantasies about the future, but how focusing on them helps us ignore the legacy of our past and the realities of our present.
Guns Mean Too Much
Firearms occupy a singular place in our national mythology, our legislative landscape, and our political debates. No other object functions as such a ubiquitous icon for key moments in America’s past, its different incarnations tied evocatively to various eras—the muskets of Continental soldiers and frontiersmen, the six-shooters of cowboys and desperadoes, the Tommy guns of Chicago gangsters and D-Day paratroopers, the M16s of GIs in Vietnamese jungles, and the AR-15s of open-carry protesters in state capitol buildings.
No other object is addressed so explicitly or at such length in our Constitution, no matter what you might think of either the Second Amendment itself or the convoluted history of its competing interpretations. And no other object is quite comparable as an icon of contested cultural identities and as a flashpoint for vicious partisan disputes.
Cognitive psychologists have documented how guns appear to activate our “affect heuristics”: when a senator holds a rifle up for a photo-op on the floor of Congress, or a researcher displays a picture of a gun to a subject in a lab, most people will have some kind of immediate and intense reaction, whether positive or negative—a knee-jerk response that belies our ability to dispassionately assess arguments or statistics. Meanwhile, when it comes to the ballot box, attitudes towards gun ownership have arguably become the single biggest predictor for party affiliation and voting preference.
This surplus of meaning—what a psychoanalyst would rightly call an overdetermination—can make debates over guns and gun control both endlessly fascinating and terminally intractable. But it is precisely this overdetermination that occludes the basic realities of political economy that have produced our contemporary situation. These realities have dictated both why and how guns are present in America, and the purposes to which they are put. Partisan polemics and techno-futurist pipe dreams aside, they also represent a hard constraint on the range of possible gun futures.
It is often observed that Americans own more guns than any other nation. This is true, both per capita and in total numbers. Pinpointing precise figures can get contentious, but well-grounded assessments put the overall number of civilian-owned guns in the United States at well over 310 million, which means there are more guns than there are Americans to own them (112.6 guns for every 100 Americans).
This puts America firmly ahead of its nearest competitors, Serbia (75.6 guns for every 100 Serbians) and Yemen (54.8 guns for every 100 Yemenis). After those top three, the countries with the next highest per-capita civilian gun ownership rates are Switzerland (45.7), Finland (45.3), Cyprus (36.4), Saudi Arabia (35), Iraq (34.2), Uruguay (31.8), and Sweden (31.6). Clustered closely near Sweden, but outside of the global top ten, lie Norway, France, Germany, Canada, Austria, and Germany.
Many commentators will move immediately from these figures to discussions of crime rates and homicide data, or to heavy-handed pontifications, frequently dripping with barely disguised racist exceptionalism, about what (or rather, whom) Americans “should” be like. Bigotry aside, what this move ignores—artfully or naively—is a comparison of civilian rates of gun ownership with those of non-civilian gun ownership.
These are striking, since, once again, they reveal that America remains a leader of sorts. When compared to those of the other top fifteen highest civilian-gun-owning nations, the American military arsenal includes over twice as many firearms as its second closest competitor (France), three times as many as its third (Sweden), four times as many as the fourth (Serbia again), and seven times as many as the fifth (Iraq). When it comes to police stockpiles, America once again leads the pack: American police have 1.15 million guns, a number followed only by Iraq (690,000), France (218,000), Yemen (210,000), and Saudi Arabia (90,000).
How to make sense of this—what commonalities shape this distribution? One thing that leaps out, causing considerable offense to chauvinistic American sensibilities, is how, when it comes to being saturated with both civilian guns as well as guns in the hands of its military and police, America far exceeds variously repressive or chaotic Middle Eastern states (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq) and nations which in recent memory have seen brutal civil wars or other violence (Serbia, Cyprus).
If one expands the set of comparisons on police and military stockpiles to other OECD states, America also starts to resemble our unfortunate next-door neighbor Mexico. There, civilian rates of legal gun ownership are quite low—but Mexico is also where ongoing violence between drug cartels and security forces generates a yearly body count on par with what one would expect from an outright civil war.
But then there are our other peers, in Canada, Western Europe, and the Scandinavian countries. Much beloved as go-to benchmarks of stability and low gun crime for liberal American pundits, these states also have surprisingly large quantities of guns, civilian and otherwise. What deeper structure produces this strange set of statistical bedfellows?
The answer, simply put, is capitalism in general, and the arms trade in particular.
Global military expenditure is estimated to be around $1.6 trillion in any given year. The global trade in weapons clocks in at about $60 billion annually. The United States has dominated this landscape since the 1960s, and in the past two decades has only further cemented its position as far and away the world’s largest exporter of arms, with the world’s most profitable arms firms.
The global trade in small arms (guns) is, in dollar terms, relatively small: only around $4 billion a year. But its outsize impact is belied by the low cost of individual units—entire army divisions can be equipped with assault rifles for the equivalent cost of a single helicopter or jet—and the fact that, when it comes to casualties, small arms are the leading global killer, far more than missiles, bombs, or tanks.
The list of countries with high gun saturation reflects the dynamics of the global distribution of guns more broadly. Guns from more stable, developed, manufacturing states go to less stable, developing, consumer nations—from West to East, from Global North to Global South. The more contingent cultural features of gun ownership (for example, robust hunting traditions) are merely epiphenomenal to these broader dictates of supply and demand, flows of capital and materiel.
There are the places where guns come from, and where they are plentiful as a matter of course; and then there are the places where guns go, and where they are used to full, lethal effect. These are the two categories of countries with large gun stockpiles: producers and consumers. Supply and demand—it’s as simple as that.
Of course, America is, as so often, unique. While other countries like Germany or France manufacture weapons primarily for export, America builds them for both internal and external battlefields—and imports a great many besides. Indeed, the American model of policing unsubtly resembles American practices of foreign military intervention and occupation, and the policies and rhetoric of our security forces reflect this.
Abroad, young brown men killed by US drones are de facto labeled “enemy combatants” by virtue of their age, gender, and location; at home, young black men shot by police are almost invariably said to have a “gang affiliation” based upon similarly gross logics of geographic proximity and networks of family and friends. And there is a sense, too, in which the Bush Doctrine of “anticipatory self-defense” more than passingly resembles the shoot-first attitude of many police departments, where the recourse of “fear for one’s life” implicitly structures any encounter between police and civilians.
Homologies aside, the weapons that American troops use in the Global War on Terror have a way of winding up in the hands of domestic police, thanks to initiatives like the 1033 Program, which literally recirculates hardware from US military abroad to security forces back home.
And then there is the unique role and cultural status of the American military proper. As a way of doing business, America’s privatized, volunteer military infrastructure contrasts starkly with that of states with mandatory service models like Sweden. As a matter of ethos, the paramilitary overtones of American gun ownership are also unique. In the US, guns are often possessed by individuals as putative tools to be used against the state. In countries like Switzerland, private citizens possess guns on behalf of the state, and activities like target shooting and institutions like gun clubs receive government subsidies as part of a broader military readiness program.
Indeed, unlike other nations, which could be said to have gun cultures, the United States could more accurately be said to be a gun culture. Likewise, unlike any other country on the planet, American politics are shaped by a veritable gun culture industry.
As a nation with a heavily privatized military, and where the consumer’s ability to buy practically anything is seen as a basic human right, the singular saturation of guns in the American context should actually be fairly unsurprising. And so, too, should the clear disparities in how the toll of gun violence is distributed along uniquely American fractures of race, gender, and class.
These are the forces that have helped write the recent American history of guns. Add to this picture the fact that, like few other mass-produced consumer goods, guns are durable, easily concealed, fairly simple to operate, and retain considerable resale value, and we can see how the ubiquity of firearms has vexed pro-gun-control lawmakers from the start.
This obdurate reality goes a long way towards explaining our fascination with “new” guns and gun-related technologies. Faced with a landscape of byzantine regulations, fierce cultural debates, and legislative deadlock, both gun rights advocates and gun control supporters place their hopes in new technology, gambling that some breakthrough might produce a categorical, once-and-for-all break from our murky and ugly present, whether in the direction of absolute gun liberalization or total control.
For gun rights advocates like Cody Wilson, the future is DIY. While major firms focus on other developments—exploring new frontiers in modularity, concealability, subsonic ammunition, suppressor technology, and the legal gray area between rifles and pistols—pro-gun techno-futurists dream of reinventing the supply chain from the ground up. If consumers can make their own firearms, they argue, any gun control laws can be decisively circumvented. Never mind that America’s gun control landscape is already a loophole-ridden, contradictory mess, and that cheap, reliable guns are already abundantly available to consumers, legally or otherwise.
On the other side, gun control advocates are also regularly seduced by techno-futurist fantasy. Some hail the advent of “smart guns”—weapons that only fire when wielded by their “proper” owner. At least one such gun—the Armatix iP1, which requires the user to wear an RFID-chip bracelet when shooting—has been available for some time. But canny hackers have already circumvented its mechanism using $15 worth of magnets. And there are other, more fundamental concerns too.
Although there is indeed a market for this kind of weapon (particularly among gun-owning parents), most people who buy guns for self-defense place a premium on reliability and ease of use. A gun that requires the user to first strap on a wristwatch, or that could be susceptible to battery failure or wireless jamming, does not recommend itself as a self-defense weapon. Other putative smart-gun technologies, like fingerprint-enabled triggers and handguards, are also dubious on this front. Reaching for a gun, only to have it not fire because of sweat, rain, or blood, means the weapon is reduced to an expensive club.
More broadly, fantasies about replacing America’s massive civilian stockpiles of “dumb” guns with smart alternatives run up against the realities of politics. The political climate remains hostile: a New Jersey law from 2016 mandating that gun dealers eventually transition to smart-gun-only inventories was promptly vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, and several gun dealers who have carried the Armatix alongside their other offerings have been targeted with boycotts and threats by hard-right gun activists.
The existence of smart gun technology in and of itself means nothing absent a significant investment of political capital to change producer, consumer, and regulatory practices. Ditto for other vaunted gun innovations. Mandating that guns include laser “microstamping” technology, for instance, could allow law enforcement to link any bullet casing found at a crime scene back to that weapon’s owner—but only if civilian ownership were tracked and a database of gun IDs maintained. Meanwhile, in the real world, talk of gun owner registries is a political nonstarter, and the ATF’s National Tracing Center, which would presumably maintain such a database, is so woefully underfunded that it still operates on microfilm and index cards.
Technology is no substitute for policy. And innovation is no substitute for a cultural sea change.
Behind all the political theater, money continues to flow. Politicians who condemn weapons manufacturers out of one side of their mouths lobby to fund firearms manufacturers in their districts out of the other. Even Chuck Schumer, who has loudly called for an assault weapons ban and vigorously condemned their manufacturers, has also pushed hard to award military contracts to domestic gun makers—and has even gone so far as to celebrate the job-creating “economic powerhouse” of assault rifle manufacturers in New York.
That these manufacturers have since followed tax incentives to more gun-friendly states is beside the point, as is the likelihood that Schumer supports arms manufacturers only insofar as their products wind up in the “right” hands of respectable civilians and police at home and American troops abroad. The bottom line is that beneath the rhetoric, high moral dudgeon, and misplaced hopes for utopian breakthroughs, the realities of political economy are what matter most.
Unfortunate pun aside, there is no magic bullet to “fix” this situation, one way or another. No brilliant inventor or charismatic entrepreneur can help us disrupt our way out of American capitalist militarism, legislative and regulatory capture, or interpersonal violence. The answers lie in the least flashy interventions: in old-fashioned harm reduction, in triage, in diminishing the inequalities that accelerate violence and precipitate lethal outcomes. Chasing dubious futures, we simply mortgage the present, and, in the most unthinking way, perpetuate it.
Patrick Blanchfield is a freelance journalist and associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.