The web is all abuzz about the emergence of workable designs for the manufacture of simple guns via a 3d printer. Defense Distributed ( http://defdist.org/) is behind much of this furor as they have released CAD files that enable anyone with sufficient resources (an appropriate 3D printer, raw materials and basic mechanical skills) to print and assemble a functioning pistol. Already, various state legislatures are working on laws that seek to prohibit these activities (printing your own gun) and the US State Department has ordered Defense Distributed to take the files out of public distribution.
All of this hysteria is a wonderful example of bad risk management.
The basic logic presented by most of those that oppose the availability of 3d designs for printing guns appears to be that availability will enable (or possibly encourage) bad people to manufacture weapons that they will use to do bad things. Unfortunately, economic realities drive behavior in the opposite direction. Although I am confident that we will one day have relatively cheap 3d printers capable of printing high density plastics or even some metals, at present, the cost of the equipment and materials required to produce a functioning weapon are far in excess of the cost of a reliable, manufactured weapon from a reputable manufacturer. Even if you are willing to invest in 3d printing resources to produce a weapon, you will end up with a weapon that will probably fire less than 10 rounds before failing and that assumes that you printed it correctly, the designs were good and that you assembled correctly and tested it adequately. Along the way, you might encounter a few prototypes that fail catastrophically (who wants to take the first shot?).
So, what’s a bad guy going to do? Purchase a stack of technical gear and powders, get it all working, assemble the output, test it and then use it (until it fails after a few shots) or is the bad person going to acquire a reliable weapon online, at a gun show or on the street for a few hundred dollars? The economics are simple. The market for weapons is fairly efficient and cheap, reliable weapons are available with no requirement for upfront capital costs for manufacturing capabilities.
The actual risk presented by Defense Distributed’s designs is negligible when compared to all of the other ways that weapons can be produced and acquired. By focusing on 3d printing of weapons, legislators and regulators perpetuate the poor risk thinking that has resulted in the open derision of many TSA activities. A much greater risk is that poorly written regulations will inhibit the development and adoption of 3d printing techniques by manufacturers – both established and start-up, innovative organizations.
And how could such a regulation be enforced? Require manufacturers of 3d printers to get their machines to determine which designs are illegal and should not be printed? Would that mean that gun manufacturers would not be able to use 3d printers in their manufacturing process? Block the distribution of designs? In addition to the free speech issues this might generate, one thing we have learned in the security business is that it is nearly impossible to stop illegal material from circulating on networks.
Humans are great at imagining risks and taking steps to mitigate fictional threats. If the objective is risk management, a real risk analysis is needed to drive cost effective investment in mitigation. Flights of fancy are not part of risk management.
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