October 17, 2018 - Monocle Research Department
On April 20, 1999, 17-year-old Eric Harris and 18-year-old Dylan Klebold walked into their high school in Colorado armed with two sawn-off shotguns, a TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun, a 9mm Hi-Point carbine, a pair of knives, and dozens of homemade bombs of various shapes and sizes. In what was to become one of the most infamous school shootings of all time and the focal point for Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002), the Columbine High School massacre resulted in the death of twelve students and one teacher, with 21 others being severely injured. Between the moment the shooting began at 11:19am on that Tuesday morning and when the boys committed suicide in the cafeteria almost an hour later, they managed to fire off close to 200 rounds of ammunition from four different weapons. Since 1999, there have been an average of 10 school shootings per year in the United States of America, with the Parkland shooting in Florida being the 18th school shooting of 2018 – the highest in any year since Columbine. And despite the tremendous national outcry since the Parkland shooting for the government to reconsider gun regulations, the Trump administration may have just made it even easier for anyone – a child, a criminal, or the mentally ill – to acquire a firearm in the future, without screening, background-checks or an assessment of any kind.
While school shootings have, according to the Washington Post, exposed over 187 000 children to gun violence in their immediate learning environment since 1999, these shootings are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the much larger gun issue in the US. While up-to-date statistics are hard to obtain, there were at least 33 000 gun-related deaths in the US in 2015 and a similar number in 2013. And with about 90 guns for every 100 people in the population – a statistic that has nearly doubled since 1968 according to National Public Radio (NPR) – it can be safely said that the US is the most gun-crazy country in the world. This means that with a population of 325 million, there are close to 300 million guns in America at any given time. Yemen, in comparison – the country with the second highest gun-to-population ratio – has about 65 guns for every 100 people, although with a much smaller population.
Interestingly, unlike the millions of passionate and sometimes fanatical gun-owners across America who readily quote the Second Amendment in defence of their gun-toting inclinations, Defense Distributed has largely predicated its case against the State based on its First Amendment rights – and more specifically, the freedom of speech which this amendment protects. After all, as Cody Wilson has argued since the start, distributing design files is not the same as distributing weapons.
This complex legal dispute highlights the challenges that lawmakers face as the virtual and physical worlds become one at an accelerating rate. Every day, our ordinary physical lives are being more and more affected by the power of the internet and our increasingly intertwined online connected systems. And whilst the case of 3D printed guns has starkly revealed this problem in the public sphere, it is still regarded as a rather unique case at present – although it certainly will not be the last instance where the right to distribute information has the potential to result in violence, lawlessness and a reality that is wholly outside of the control of national authorities.
The issues surrounding the legality of a 3D printed gun are amplified in the rise of artificial intelligence more broadly. Whereas the history of our law-making logic lies very much in the regulation of physical actions and the control of movement of goods across national borders, arguably the most powerful resource of our modern time does not reside in a strictly physical form. The fuel for the machines of the AI revolution – perhaps even more precious today than the oil that drove our previously mechanical revolution – is data.
Data is now being gathered and sold as the most prized commodity of our time, yet this trade is still largely unregulated. World leaders are slowly starting to take notice, although possibly not entirely aware of the significance of the moment, with president Trump tweeting about the Defense Distributed case saying, “I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!” And while this statement does not immediately make clear what Trump’s position is on the issue– whether he is advocating for or against the free distribution of these 3D-printed gun schematics – the ambiguity of the statement is indicative of the impotence that now exists amongst leaders and lawmakers regarding the growing dangers present in the cyber realm.
The detrimental outcomes that can result from legislator’s indecision were exposed in the case of Defense Distributed, since before being served cease and desist orders, Cody Wilson’s company had already allowed over a million downloads of their 3D gun blueprints to users across the world. Even then with the temporary restraining order being put in place, the metaphorical genie was already out of the bottle. With potentially life-threatening developments advancing every day in the form of 3D printed guns, bombs and innumerable other weapons – and the rapid growth of artificial intelligence capabilities that are yet untested in terms of safety and stability – lawmakers must draw a hard line on what is acceptable and what is not in the digital landscape.