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exceeds common sense — that like the Third Amendment, it was written in a time and for a purpose that has been outdated for more than a century.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, DefenseDistributed.com: “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.
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.