Michelle Gillett: The other side of 3-D printing



‘Generations Day" at my grandchildren's school in Berkeley (it used to be "Grandparents Day" but was changed for reasons of political correctness and inclusiveness) is one of my favorite days of the year. This year, I went to seventh grade English and Science classes. In English, they are starting to read "Romeo and Juliet" and we discussed the differences between thee and thou and thine and thy. I was glad I could keep up.

In science, we learned about the class field trip to the Berkeley Lab the previous day where the children presented their projects and explored experimental systems at the Advanced Light Source. When they took turns describing what they had learned, I tried to keep up.

Then we had a tour of the classroom where there are three 3-D printers. I had never seen a 3-D printer before or given them much thought, but my granddaughter belongs to the "Makers Club," an after-school science group where they make things mostly on
3-D printers. I couldn't quite grasp the concept of making
3-D ice cream when she tried to explain it to me. I did catch on a little when the teacher showed us how to build a model one layer at a time, from the bottom up in two-dimensional cross-sectional layers. The printer deposits layers of molten plastic and fuses them with adhesive. I admired the plastic tea cup, the little plastic boat, the wheels and three-dimensional shapes the students had made. I am glad my granddaughter is keeping up because the process of 3-D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing, and is particularly effective in medicine where it has improved the production of orthopedic and other medical devices like hearing aids.


But nothing is ever perfect. Just like angry Queen Mab, who sometimes, "gallops o'er a courtier's nose, And then dreams she of smelling out a suit; And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig's tail Tickling a parson's nose as a' lies asleep, Then dreams, he of another benefice: Sometime she driveth o'er a soldier's neck, And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats, Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades, Of healths five-fathom deep," --there is a negative side to 3-D printing galloping our way.

The Undetectable Firearms Act which was due to expire yesterday, exists to detect firearms that can "slip past detectors and X-ray machines" according to an article in the New York Times last week. When the law was passed by Congress in 1988, 3-D printing was not around. Now, the technology has enabled users to print more than tea cups and toy boats and hearing aids.

Homemade plastic guns are "not an idle concern" the Times reports, and quotes former F.B.I. detector Tim Murphy. "They are so frightening because they render most standard detection useless." Because our present Congress is less than cooperative, the members have been arguing over whether to extend the law that bans guns that can go through metal detectors unnoticed, or to "amend it to include new provisions aimed specifically at 3-D printed weapons." Before Congress went on Thanksgiving recess, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, objected to extending the law not because he was concerned about "extending the law as it was written but about senators who support gun safety measures using the law as a backdoor way of attaching more provisions when it expires again." In other words, he would rather have undetected firearms than language that promotes gun safety.

Republicans want the law to be renewed exactly as it is now without any 3-D weapons provision. But as New York Senator Charles Schumer said, "It's hard to believe that anyone would oppose a piece of legislation like this, so tied into, so connected with our safety. In a world of terrorism, to say that we would make legal guns that can pass through metal detectors so people can slip them through airports, stadiums, schools?" It's also hard to believe that while your underwire bra is going to set of the metal detector at the airport, the fellow ahead of you will be able to breeze through with his gun. But as 3-D printers become less expensive and gun designs that can be downloaded are waiting to sneak onto the Internet, we are even more vulnerable to gun violence. In fact, a Texas group called "Defense Distributed" which is dedicated to defending "the civil liberty of popular access to arms as described by the United States Constitution" did post designs until Federal authorities demanded the group remove them from its website.

Democrats want to close the loophole in the current law to require that "an essential, non-detachable piece of gun be made of enough metal to be picked up in a security screening." We all need to keep up with our rapidly changing technology, but we also need to make sure our laws keep up, too so that our security is not compromised more than it already is.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.


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