"But can we make guns with it?"

3D printing needs to get away from this question.

For a particular type of entrepreneur, the first question asked about any innovation is: “Can we make weapons using it?” Self-styled crypto-anarchist and founder of Defense Distributed (DefDist) Cody Wilson, is one such individual. Recognising the potential of increasingly affordable 3D printing technology, not to mention his desire to "defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms," thus presumably spreading crypto-anarchy, the 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas made the plans for the gun available online.

Anyone familiar with Airfix kits will be familiar with the appearance of the component parts of the Liberator, minus the surplus plastic flash from popping them out of the sprue. Just 15 plastic elements make up the weapon, plus two metals ones – the firing pin and a single screw – including complex structures like springs. Designed to fire standard handgun rounds, the gun is also fitted with an interchangeable barrel to handle a broad spectrum of calibre rounds.

3D printers use a digital design to create a solid object by depositing tiny droplets of molten plastic layer upon layer until the shape is complete. They were originally the preserve of design studios and prototyping and testing laboratories, but now prices have dropped to £1,000 for a domestic model, purchasing one is no longer unattainable by the general public. DefDist distributing the gun plans meant anyone could print gun parts at home in less than an hour.

Wilson’s scheme created a stir in Europe, where gun control law in many countries makes weapon acquisition a deliberately bureaucratic process. However, the Liberator was skating on thin legal ice even in the US, where the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 makes it illegal to manufacture a firearm that is not detectable by walk-through metal detectors.

As a workaround, DefDist incorporates a 170g piece of steel into the body of its gun design, making it legal, but who is to say people who download the design to print their own would do the same? It may be argued that the gun’s inability to be detected using metal detectors is negated by the fact it uses a metal firing pin and regular ammunition, and modern airport scanners would detect the shape enclosed in clothing anyhow.

However, all arguments regarding its legal status became moot when, a week after its test firing results were made public, the US Department of State ordered DefDist to remove digital blueprints for the Liberator and to cooperate with an investigation to check whether the files comply with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

The company complied with the order, and a disclaimer on DefDist's website now reads: "This file has been removed from public access at the request of the US Department of Defense Trade Controls. Until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information."

The order is believed to have come too late as the gun specs had already been downloaded 10,000 times between going online on 6 May and the issuing of the mandate.

DefDist took on pushing the boundaries of firearms law and freedom of information and lost. Plastic guns manufactured using 3D printers are significantly inferior to the real deal, which even those aiming to acquire one for nefarious purposes can get hold of much cheaper and more easily.

For now, the only significant role 3D printers hold in the weapons industry remains creating tangible prototypes for ergonomic testing and functionality trials such as wind-tunnel experiments.

Photograph: Getty Images

Berenice Baker is Defence Editor at Strategic Defence Intelligence.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.