The biggest challenge for those seeking to regulate firearms isn’t the gulf between robust public support and anemic legislative support for background checks. It’s not the National Rifle Association’s lobbying machine or the hypocrisy of lawmakers who legalize guns in bars but prohibit them from the state capitol. It’s not the conservative Supreme Court majority that divined an individual right to bear arms in a constitutional penumbra.
The biggest challenge – threat, really – may just be Andy Greenberg.
Greenberg writes for Wired about the Ghost Gunner, a $1,500 computer-numerical-controlled mill marketed by Defense Distributed. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because a couple years back Defense Distributed produced “the Liberator,” a 3-D-printed pistol.
Here’s Greenberg: “I have virtually no technical understanding of firearms and a Cro-Magnon man’s mastery of power tools. Still, I made a fully metal, functional, and accurate AR-15. To be specific, I made the rifle’s lower receiver; that’s the body of the gun, the only part that US law defines and regulates as a “firearm.” All I needed for my entirely legal DIY gunsmithing project was about six hours, a 12-year-old’s understanding of computer software, an $80 chunk of aluminum, and a nearly featureless black 1-cubic-foot desktop milling machine called the Ghost Gunner.”
No technical skill. No background check. No identifying serial number. And – no problem – a brand new AR-15.
It actually wasn’t that easy. Greenberg is no gunsmith, and he ran into technical trouble (and a need for parts and assistance). But before long, the march of technology will make it that easy, and cheap too. And it will be very, very hard to regulate – even if a polarized, dysfunctional Congress bothers to try. When guns can be manufactured at home by amateurs, what will prevent a felon, a domestic abuser subject to a restraining order, a terrorist, or anyone with cash and “a 12-year-old’s understanding of computer software,” from building a gun?
Technology may well render our current gun debate moot. It will move too fast for cops or regulators or law to keep up – even if an elusive consensus should somehow emerge among conservatives and liberals. New technology, especially 3-D printing, has the potential to expand the unregulated gun market to every garage and basement in the U.S.
So, for a moment, put federal and state gun laws aside and reckon with the future of guns, which may be more influenced by technology and culture than by which party controls Congress or statehouses. Even those rare Americans, such as adolescents, who have trouble getting a gun in 2015 will have a new avenue for acquiring lethal, unregulated hardware.
If technology overwhelms barriers to illegal gun possession, cultural norms will become even more important in shaping how guns are viewed, and in policing how they’re used. That might seem an odd comment to those who subscribe to the Manichean reductions of the gun-rights movement. If the world truly consists of good guys with guns and bad guys with guns, then it’s a simple equation: Arm more good guys (provided you have a handy way of searching souls to identify them).
In the grey areas of the real world, of course, much gun violence stems not from bad guys with guns but from careless guys with guns and macho insecure guys with guns, drunks with guns, hair-trigger police guys with guns and clueless, curious children with guns. There is a cultural element to their mayhem, one rooted in casual attitudes toward firearms that are at odds with a gun’s enormous tragic potential.
The worst gun crime in recent history was a product of such an attitude. A son with obvious mental problems was encouraged to familiarize himself with guns and afforded casual access to an arsenal. Nancy Lanza broke no laws in leaving a buffet of firepower for her demented son. But her choice amounted to a lazy, lethal disregard for her community, which Adam Lanza compounded into mass murder.
The extreme gun-rights movement is vigorously trying to overturn the cultural norms of American society – to integrate guns into every facet of private and public life, and to transform gun carrying from a social anomaly to a social standard. The movement’s claims are sometimes patently ridiculous. And it’s by no means clear that its goals will ever be achieved. But in red states, at least, the movement has been making strides.
That vision of America – perpetually armed and dangerous – is quite new and, for most Americans, still strange. But technology has the capacity to break down law, and build up the every-man-for-himself ethos that girds the extreme gun-rights movement. So in addition to politics and law, supporters of gun regulation may need to place additional emphasis on culture.
In Brazil, gun regulation activists enlisted famous actresses in a playful campaign to question why men felt they needed a gun. It wasn’t a cure-all for gun violence. (Brazil still has plenty.) But it opened a discussion with the potential to influence attitudes and behavior.
The U.S. could benefit from something similar. Because a decade from now, another Adam Lanza may be able to print his own murder weapon behind his bedroom door. And if cultural norms evolve in the way the gun-rights movement would like, no one will even think it’s odd when he walks down the street to take his new AR-15 for a spin.
Frank Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.