Today, a 26 years old gunman opened fire at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, killing at least ten people and injuring seven others. President Obama, a longtime opponent of the gun industry, immediately responded by issuing a fierce speech promoting gun regulation. While I do support a certain amount of gun regulation, it seems to me that Obama is still trying to lock the barn’s doors, long after the horses have escaped. Why am I saying that? Because even today, any person with a spare $1,000 in their bank account, would be able to print a gun for themselves.
You’ve probably heard before about 3D-printing. If you haven’t, you must’ve been hiding in a very deep cave with no WI-FI. The most simple and cheapest 3D-printers basically consist of a robotic arm that injects thin layers of plastic one on top of the other, according to a schematic that you can download from the internet. In that way, any user can print famous historical statues, spare parts for your dish washer, or a functional gun.
How easy is it to use a 3D-printer to print a gun? Much easier than it should be. When I was in Israel, I used a 3D-printer that cost approximately $1,500, in an effort to print a gun. I searched for the schematics that the Defense Distributed group devised and uploaded to the internet, and downloaded the files in less than two minutes from Pirate Bay. The printing itself took some time, and it took me some effort to stitch all the parts together, but in less than 48 hours I held in my hands a functional ghost gun of my own.
Why is it called a ghost gun? Because this gun is untraceable: it’s not registered anywhere, and it has no serial number. As far as the government knows, this gun does not even exist. And I could print as many guns as I wanted, with no one being the wiser. Heck, I could stockpile them in my house for emergencies, or give them out to militias and rebel groups.
The only problem is that the printed gun I downloaded is near useless. It has a recorded tendency to explode in your hands, and is not accurate at distances of more than two meters. Obviously, it is not a fully automatic or even a semiautomatic firearm. In short, I could just as well use a metal tube with gun powder at one end, and a stone stuck at the other. So yeah, it was a pretty lousy gun, back in 2013.
But now we’re getting near the end of 2015, and things have been changing rapidly.
Consider that the original schematics for the 3D-printed gun have been downloaded more than 100,000 times in just a few days after its release to the public. Since it is open source, everyone and anyone could make changes to the schematics, leading to a wide variety of daughter-schematics, that some of them are improved versions of the first clunky gun. Combine that with the elevated capabilities of today’s printers, and the many improvements that lie in store for us, and you’ll realize that in five years from now, gun control at sales venues will be largely useless, since people will be able to print sophisticated firearms in their households.
Disarming the Future
Does that mean we should cut short any efforts for gun control in the present? Absolutely not. America is suffering from an epidemic of mass-shootings, partly because anyone can get himself or herself a deadly weapon with minimal background checks. At the same time, however, we should keep an eye out for technologies that disrupt the current gun industry, and which bring the power to manufacture firearms to the layperson.
How do we deal with such a future – which is probably a lot closer to becoming the present than most people suspect?
Here’s one answer for you: it turns out that the Oregon shooter has left a message on a social media forum this morning, warning some people not to come to school tomorrow. I’m not sure this message is the real deal, but we do know that people who commit mass-shootings leave behind evidence of their intentions in the virtual world.
Consider the following, just as anecdotes –
- Eliot Rodger killed seven people in a mass-shooting in California. His Youtube videos pretty much state in advance what he was going to do.
- Terence Tyler, an ex-marine who was suffering from depression, killed two of his co-workers and himself in a supermarket. Sometime before the incident he posted “Is it normal to want to kill your all your co-workers?” on Twitter twice.
- Jared Loughner killed six people and wounded fourteen. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he wrote “Please don’t be mad at me” in Myspace, and took photos of himself with his trusty rifle in the morning of the shooting.
These are obviously just anecdotes, but they serve to highlight the point: everyone, even mass-killers, want to be noticed, to deliver their message to the public, or to share their intimate thoughts and anguish. Their musings, writings and interactions can all be found in the virtual world, where they are recorded for eternity – and can be analyzed in advance by sophisticated algorithms that can detect potential walking disasters.
While this sentence is rapidly becoming cliché, I must say it again: “This is NOT science fiction”. Facebook is already running algorithms over every chat, and is looking for certain dangerous phrases or keywords that could indicate a criminal intent. If it discovers potential criminals, Facebook alerts the authorities. Similarly, Google is scanning images sent via Gmail to identify pedophiles.
Obviously, identifying individuals that answer to the right (or very wrong) combination of declarations, status in life and other parameters could be a complicated task, but we’re starting at it today – and in the long run, it will prove to be more effective than any gun control regulation we can pass.
And so, here’s my forecast for the day: ten years from now, the president of the United States will stand in front of the camera, and explain that he needs the public’s support in order to pass laws that will enable governmental algorithms to go automatically and constantly over everyone’s information online – and identify the criminals in advance.
The alternative is that this future president won’t even ask for permission – and that should frighten us all so much more.