Things We Can Learn about Big Data and the Law from the 3D Gun Printing Story

This is the first of a three-part series.   Today we consider what the 3D gun printing story can teach us about the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The law of unintended consequences is my favorite law.  Why?  Because it reminds us how important it is to think before acting.  I certainly need that reminder from time to time.

With that in mind, before we get into the substance let me say that this post (and the subsequent posts on this topic) are not intended to endorse any position about gun control.  This discussion is about Big Data and the Law, not gun control law.


For background purposes, a quick summary of some relevant facts:

1.         Cody Wilson is a law student at the University of Texas in Austin.

2.         Cody Wilson designed a gun that can be printed in plastic on a 3D printer.

3.         He did just that.

4.         The gun had just one metal part – a nail that is used as the firing pin.

5.         The gun had been test fired and proven to work.

Now on to the law of unintended consequences.  First though, the intended consequences.

Intended Consequences

Let’s consider some of what Cody Wilson’s ilk have said.  Cody Wilson is a co-founder of Defense Distributed.  Here is how Defense Distributed defines itself on its website:

Defense Distributed is a pending 501(c) (3) status nonprofit corporation in the state of Texas, organized and operated exclusively for charitable and literary purposes.

The specific purposes for which this corporation is organized are: To defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution and affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, through facilitating global access to, and the collaborative production of, information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms; and to publish and distribute, at no cost to the public, such information and knowledge in promotion of the public interest.

So there are the intended consequences.  Now consider two possible unintended consequences.

Provoking a Reduction in Freedom

This appears on the Defense Distributed blog on its website:

Speaks a nameless, hubristic praetorian:

“The only security procedure to catch [the 3D firearms] is a pat down. Is America ready for pat-downs at every event?”

This is a non-credible, generalized threat. The security state has just been asked to prove itself more than an illusion. It cannot.

A police state capable of stopping the Liberator is a greater threat than terrorism itself.

The quoted “nameless, hubristic praetorian” is someone in the Department of Homeland Security.  The quote is from a recent Department of Homeland Security internal memorandum.

What Defense Distributed appears to be saying is that (i) the only way to keep plastic guns out of the places where guns are not supposed to be is to subject everyone entering those places to a hands-on body search, and (ii) the government can’t (or won’t) do that.

Let’s be honest.  The first violent use of a plastic gun that is brought through any kind of security (at an airport, a courthouse or whatever) will bring in a whole new level of security.  Get ready for some serious patting down.

So any idea that the proliferation of make-it-yourself-at-home gun technology is a freedom thing should consider whether it’s really just an exchange of one freedom for another.

I hope that such an encroachment on our personal freedom isn’t an intended consequence of the intended proliferation of gun manufacturing technology.  However, it hasn’t escaped me that someone might intend to provoke an increase in security as a means generating anger toward the government.

Regulation Doesn’t Kill Gun Manufacturers, 3D Printers Do!

Finally, let’s consider who might be an unintended victim of the general availability of the means to produce firearms.  In a really first class piece of writing on the subject in PandoDaily, Adam L. Penenberg points out that gun manufacturers might be such an unintended victim.  He goes on to point out that, as a consequence, the National Rifle Association might find itself in a bind.  Firearms manufacturers and individual NRA members might have different views on this subject.  Imagine gun manufacturers lobbying for control over gun manufacturing technology.

What has this got to do with Big Data?

Think about some of the Big Data legal and policy issues.  For example, if we choose the greatest possible control over personal information we might lose the benefit of using that information for scientific purposes.  Finding the right balance between control and no control requires an understanding of the consequences of each.

Parts Two and Three

In the next post on this topic we’ll talk about how this gun printing issue should make Big Data people think more about export control law.

In the third post we’ll talk about the problem of not always being able to choose who we want on our side.

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