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Technology Could Help You Build an Untraceable Gun. Should It?

October 2, 2017

Just hours before Sunday night's horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, Texas-based Defense Distributed launched new software that allows people to mill metal handgun bodies at home. The two events are almost certainly unconnected, but it's hard not to consider them in a similar light, given the unfortunate timing. 

For those unfamiliar, Defense Distributed has been publishing open-source designs for 3-D printed guns online since 2013 (though that was a plastic part). Its stated purpose is to use 3-D printing and other technologies to render any attempts to regulate or track the possession of firearms obsolete—a move its CEO and founder, Cody Wilson, sees as fundamental to the U.S. constitution's guarantee of a right to bear arms.

While a 3-D printed plastic gun may have worked for that purpose, Wilson tells Ars Technica that with the machined metal devices “you’re making the identical item that you would otherwise handle, purchase, and fire—so it feels identical."

The newly released software allows people to use the firm’s $1,500 Ghost Gunner milling machine to create the body of an M1911 handgun, which is used in the Colt 45. Defense Distributed says “no prior CNC knowledge or experience is required to manufacture [the gun bodies] in the comfort and privacy of your home.”

Metal or plastic, the technology behind Wilson’s company probably isn’t making much of an impact on gun violence in the U.S.—mainly because guns are already so cheap and easy to come by. In fact, it's far more likely that the Las Vegas shooter performed a technically-legal modification on a weapon, which for a hundred bucks can turn an AR-15 (a gun that Defense Distributed has also worked to help anonymize) into something virtually indistiguishable from a machine gun. Building a gun from scratch at home is simply more effort than it’s worth, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

That in and of itself would be enough to make Defense Distributed's efforts look rather worthless, if not absurd. The company appears to be girding for some kind of apocalypse of gun regulation that shows no sign of materializing, despite a seemingly endless string of heartwrenching mass-shootings in recent years.

That its latest advance in its mission is now cast against the backdrop of the death of dozens more innocents in Las Vegas makes it all the more grotesque. Indeed, in a piece in Wired just yesterday Wilson said, "there is going to be universal access to arms. Even if I'm the only one working on it, it's going to happen."

In the shadow of one of the deadliest mass shootings that America has ever witnessed, that seems like a poor use of technology indeed.

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