Printing Guns as Freedom of Expression

First, I’ll lay some cards on the table:  I believe, as many do, that the contemporary view of the Second Amendment exceeds common sense — that like the Third Amendment, it was written in a time and for a purpose that has been outdated for more than a century.  Yet, because it is etched into the Bill of Rights, the gun industry, the NRA, and libertarian and conservative pundits have been able to play the civil liberties card in order to fuel a vicious cycle that has made the U.S. the leader among industrialized nations in unchecked gun-related homicides.

With each new firearm technology that our musket-wielding founders could never have imagined, the lobbyists, industry representatives, and gun-rights activists assert that any move to regulate even new and stunning tools for committing mass murder would be tantamount to infringing on a foundational civil liberty.  The threat of regulation itself is then portrayed as an example of government tyranny, which becomes the justification for unfettered access to more weapons.  And the cycle continues.  As I see it, we end up condoning mayhem for the sake of an illusory principle based on an obsolete reality.  If you have similar feelings about gun proliferation and the arguments behind it, stand by because it could get much worse in the digital age.  Take people like Cody Wilson of the Wiki Weapon Project seriously, and we have to imagine a future in which the incessant diffusion of sophisticated weapons is protected not by the Second Amendment, but by the First.

Wilson, a University of Texas law student, founded the Wiki Weapon Project on a premise of  Second Amendment absolutism through technology.   With the apparent goal of one day making DIY guns as easy to produce as music is to download, Wilson’s agenda sees technology obviating any conversation about gun control. This question is posed on the Our Plan page of wilson’s site,   “How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet?”   The question, of course, is both paranoid and infantile because it skips past the fact that the U.S. government remains of and by the people; and many of us people do not hope for a future in which we are all heavily armed, least of all as a means to keep our representative government in check!  The premise is fundamentally suicidal, but it is one logical extension of the kind of free speech maximalism that entices techno-utopians toward inventive means of self-destruction.

Photo by Syntag

Photo by Syntag

To the techno-utopian, who spends perhaps a little too much time in virtual and actual ivory towers, nearly all human activity is destined to be protected by the unassailable right of free expression.  This is, after all, how the world looks to a computer — that we humans are just nodes sharing data with one another. This world view has been used to argue that media piracy is a form of free speech while ignoring the more tangible problem of counterfeiting; it’s been used to argue that child pornography should be legalized while ignoring the realities of bullying, stalking, or human trafficking; it’s been used to justify mass dumps of hacked information despite the fact that sometimes secrets actually save lives. And in Cody Wilson’s future, free expression would be used to justify access to designs and software required to have a 3D printer build you an assault rifle for pennies on the dollar and without regulation of any kind. This technology is hardly around the corner, but advancement tends to happen more quickly than we expect; and the Wiki Weapon idea raises some important social, legal, and economic questions.

If Wilson is right, for example, one thing we in the media world can assure the gun industry is that piracy of weapon design and software is inevitable. The long-standing NRA mantra “everyone should have a gun” may be on a collision course with the millennial generation sensibility that believes “information wants to be free.” Combine these two messages, and the gun industry will have a serious intellectual property problem on its hands, so much so that notions of federal regulations might suddenly look very attractive to traditional manufacturers.

I think the big question the Wiki Weapon Project really raises is whether or not we are prepared to allow technology to obviate the need for law itself, even to the extent that such absolutism just might kill more people in the very real world?  In 1996, John Perry Barlow embodied with The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace what many techno-utopians sincerely believe — that we crossed some line about twenty years ago whereby we effectively shed the rule of law for the rule of instantaneous vox populi linked through social media. At the same time, we often refer to the Internet, both positively and negatively, as “the Wild West.”  Call me crazy, but if the vision for the future is indeed the Wild West with real guns, I have a hard time calling that progress.

See Q&A with Cody Wilson on Popular Science.

© 2012 – 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Well, I realize this wasn’t your aim, but I found Barlow’s Declaration inspiring. It’s a stark contrast to your conviction that “the U.S. government remains of and by the people,” which only remains true in its most vague and ineffectual sense. Maybe you think things aren’t broken, if we’d all just follow directions.

    Barlow’s declaration clears the way for a discussion of rights, freedoms, property, and the other trappings of civilization. We get to start over without that pesky 2nd amendment. We get to imagine something better. But we’d have to acknowledge that intellectual property law — like the Second Amendment — was “written in a time and for a purpose that has been outdated.”

    • It’s not that I don’t recognize that things are broken so much as I believe “cybernetic totalism,” to borrow Lanier’s term, is far worse. I’ll go a step further and assert that the legacy of Barlow is part of the reason things are broken; it’s not that our republic is failing as an institution, so much as the people are failing to keep it, as it were. I think the bad news is that the dysfunction of government does represent the dysfunction of people, and I fail to see how connection through cyberspace is making that any better. Representatives who talk about “legitimate rape” and “intelligent design” really do echo the beliefs of your fellow citizens, and they’re on the Web, too. This “new discussion” is not living up to Barlow’s promise at all. Instead of an electorate we’re creating mobs for the simple reason that more engagement doesn’t inherently make people more enlightened, especially when it comes to complex issues that cannot be articulated in 140 characters. When in history has there truly been “wisdom in crowds?” And how does connecting people through cyberspace eradicate whatever it is in human nature that turns crowds into dangerous rabble? I truly believe this is why we will read a liberal or a conservative call Obama a Nazi. If his jackbooted thugs aren’t coming to take your guns and kill your grandmother (conservative), then they’re poised to assassinate protestors in the streets under the NDAA (liberal). The vision of Cody Wilson, the mob that attacked Anita Sarkeesian, the tone of most “chats” are proof, in my opinion, that Barlow fails. At least so far.

      As for intellectual property laws, there have been a few conservatives and libertarians, who have intimated that they are outdated in the same way you suggest, although these folks wouldn’t dream of applying the same constitutional interpretation to the 2nd Amendment. What’s interesting about the language establishing both rights, is that both contain a dependent, apparently conditional, clause; and in both cases the clauses are used by opponents to assert some degree of obsolescence. In the case of the 2nd Amendment, of course, many of us consider the statement about a well-regulated militia sufficient to render the amendment void and that the right to own some guns is protected by the same natural right to own cars or power tools. Likewise, some have argued that the clause about promoting the sciences and useful arts is a condition that nullifies or should restrict the way we’ve used IP laws. In both cases, gun rights and IP rights have expanded, but then so have many rights. Of course the expansion of gun rights depends on the absence of restrictions (i.e. the 2nd Amendment is a blank check to keep acquiring more deadly weapons), while the expansion of IP protections have to be granted by Congress on a step by step basis as technologies change the production and distribution of goods.

      I am, of course, a pragmatist, which means that I begin by comparing the profusion of guns, which are tools designed to kill people and the profusion of other works protected by copyright and patent laws, which includes lots of things we enjoy, many things we need, an not much that is designed to kill people. It also happens to be massively important to our economy. In the case of guns, we’ve tried 2nd Amendment absolutism, and we now lead the world in gun-related homicides. In the case of IP, we’ve tried expanding those laws, and we still lead the world in the production of media entertainment and other products of the creative class. For me, these contrasts are reason enough to compartmentalize the conversations. The gun thing isn’t working out so well; the IP thing has been working quite well, except in the minds of people whose business agendas are antithetical to these protections. When IP overreaches, somebody gets sued; when gun rights overreach, we get Newtown. This is a no-brainer for me.

      It’s not that I think we need to “follow directions,” but a sustainable republic requires that we agree or compromise on certain fundamental directions; and I do believe in the stately, more contemplative demands of institutions. I also believe in the wisdom of experts, not crowds. When experts fail, we get new experts. When crowds fail, we have bedlam. I think the world of Barlow is jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

  • “Call me crazy, but if the vision for the future is indeed the Wild West with real guns, I have a hard time calling that progress.”


    … just waiting for the Sheriff to come to town already…

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