Chicago Sun-Times - - COMMENTARY - BY JOSHUA SAGER Joshua Sager is a blog­ger at ThePro­gres­ Salon

You might think that a new tech­nol­ogy en­abling the pro­lif­er­a­tion of guns would be a cause the National Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion would sup­port. The prob­lem? De­spite its claim to be a sports­men’s group, the NRA is funded in large part by gun man­u­fac­tur­ers, whose mo­tives and goals don’t al­ways over­lap with those of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mem­ber­ship.

Now, with the de­vel­op­ment of new 3-D tech­nol­ogy that could dra­mat­i­cally in­crease the num­ber of avail­able weapons — and com­pe­ti­tion to gun man­u­fac­tur­ers — th­ese two com­pet­ing pres­sures are at odds.

In other words, the NRA faces a test: Will it back the new tech­nol­ogy and pro­mote the rights of ev­ery­one to have un­lim­ited guns? Or, in an ef­fort to pro­tect its gen­er­ous con­trib­u­tors, chart a dif­fer­ent path?

3D-print­ers now can use com­puter-as­sisted de­sign (CAD) blue­prints, down­load­able over the In­ter­net, as a tem­plate to print solid ob­jects out of raw plas­tic poly­mers. This tech­nol­ogy al­lows for the cre­ation of a huge va­ri­ety of goods, rang­ing from lawn or­na­ments and tools, to, as of this month, fully work­ing firearms.

The first func­tional 3D-printed firearm, called “The Lib­er­a­tor,” was de­signed by De­fense Dis­trib­uted and first fired on May 1. Af­ter its suc­cess­ful test fire, De­fense Dis­trib­uted re­leased the CAD blue­prints of the gun onto the In­ter­net, turn­ing the firearm into the first open-source weapon.

The Lib­er­a­tor is al­most en­tirely plas­tic, re­quir­ing only a me­tal fir­ing pin, and is com­pletely in­vis­i­ble to me­tal de­tec­tors. It fires .380 rounds and is ca­pa­ble of fir­ing mul­ti­ple rounds with­out break­ing.

Printed guns are a new fron­tier, as they al­low in­di­vid­u­als to make their own weapons with­out any reg­u­la­tion, and to cir­cum­vent all con­ven­tional po­lice meth­ods to trace guns. A crim­i­nal can sim­ply print off a me­tal-de­tec­tor-in­vis­i­ble gun for as lit­tle as $25, use it in a crime, and de­stroy it. There are no back­ground checks to avoid, no worries about han­dling a “hot” gun, and no need to risk be­ing caught buy­ing an il­le­gal weapon.

The Lib­er­a­tor is far less lethal than a con­ven­tional firearm, but the de­vel­op­ment curve will dra­mat­i­cally ex­pand and fu­ture such guns will be much more lethal.

How could this spi­ral out of con­trol? Less than two weeks af­ter the re­lease of The Lib­er­a­tor, a new de­sign, called the “Lulz Lib­er­a­tor,” was re­leased onto the In­ter­net. It can hold nine bul­lets in­stead of The Lib­er­a­tor’s one, is cheaper (cost­ing only $25) and is less likely to mis­fire. If such im­prove­ments can be made in less than two weeks, imag­ine what could be de­vel­oped by the end of the year, or in five years.

Here is where the con­flict comes for the NRA. The group takes mil­lions of dollars a year from the largest man­u­fac­tur­ers of guns, in­clud­ing Beretta and Benelli USA, as well as com­pa­nies that make gun ac­ces­sories and com­pa­nies that re­quire easy ac­cess to weapons (in­clud­ing Xe, the com­pany oth­er­wise known as Black­wa­ter).

So how will the NRA re­spond to the printed gun in­ven­tion — and po­ten­tial pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons? Will it back gun own­ers’ rights to more weapons? Or seek to pro­tect the tra­di­tional gun man­u­fac­tur­ers, by in­ter­ven­ing? One op­tion is for the group to sup­port a crack down on the 3-D printed guns, which would have the ef­fect of “seem­ing rea­son­able” or “will­ing to com­pro­mise” on gun con­trol, while ac­tu­ally step­ping up for many of its con­trib­u­tors.

Ei­ther way, how the NRA ap­proaches the is­sue will re­veal much about its true na­ture. And with the po­ten­tial in­dus­try bur­geon­ing, this de­ci­sion point is fast ap­proach­ing.

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