The Internet Won’t Kill Gun Control by Itself

Vladimir Palyanov/AR-15

Might makes right. That is not true in the moral sense, but then again few have ever meant it as an ethical precept. Might makes right in the sense that winning—that is, the power to defy an encroaching adversary without being squashed—is what secures the ability for a community to handle its own governance.

Consider the creation myth of the United States. A colony ruled by a distant king becomes a citizen-led democratic republic, after the new country’s founders are able to rally fighters to uphold their bold declarations. Without the force of arms deployed by guerilla fighters and later soldiers—without the dramatic ride of Paul Revere!—those grand declarations would amount to so much ink and paper.

The realpolitik of “might makes right” is not universally recognized among Americans. Its historical basis amounts to hagiographic fairy tales with a smattering of facts. In reality, persuasion and diplomacy do matter; public opinion matters. But the emotional core of the mindset is potent, enduring, and animating across a variety of American ideological lineages: independence amounts to the strength of your defense. The sovereignty of a polity depends on its army, and on the tools available to its fighters.

American history provides further examples. The outcome of the Civil War hinged on who had the most (and best) military capital. Southerners looked at their territory and slaves and said, “Let’s see you take them.” The Union Army did so. The messy, bleeding edge of 1840s Manifest Destiny depended on Colt revolvers; it is just as salient that Native Americans’ impassioned defense of their homelands with firearms was effective for some decades (although results varied by region and tribe).

The internet has had its own manifestation of frontier politics for decades. The crossover can be literal: EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow told Davos attendees in 1996, “We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies.” The same man spent several years as a Wyoming rancher.

The cypherpunk movement of techno-libertarians and crypto-anarchists has been chronicled extensively since its public entrée in 1993, when a splashy Wired cover story took the subculture mainstream. That same year, cypherpunk Eric Hughes wrote a polemic about privacy technologies to the subculture’s infamous mailing list. “We don’t much care if you don’t approve of the software we write,” Hughes declared. “We know that software can’t be destroyed and that a widely dispersed system can’t be shut down.”

Technologies like Tor, BitTorrent, and IPFS make it far less feasible to stop people from writing and distributing code, including the cryptography that used to be considered military materiel, and which underpins these systems. As with media piracy, hassle and inconvenience can be put in the way, but the fundamental capability is a cat escaped from its bag. The digital version of “might makes right” comes back to the same sentiment as its analogue predecessor: “You can’t make me!”

During the past few years, cypherpunk politics has surged in visibility again. Interest perked up with the Snowden revelations and the birth of cryptocurrencies. More recently, sweeping privacy regulation in the European Union has affected ascendant American tech companies. Media outlets of various ideological flavors have taken to barraging readers with criticisms of centralized social media platforms. Diverse factions all have their own concerns about Facebook and Google’s influence on public discourse.

There is another locus of cypherpunk rejuvenation now on the scene, one that perfectly expresses the rugged American realpolitik that I described above: 3D-printed guns.

Cypherpunk Gun Advocates’ Declaration Of Independence

Some technology can be seen as a means of self-liberation, insurance against coercion. The cypherpunks regard encryption as such. Guns are similar.

True believers’ faith in the primacy of the Second Amendment is evident throughout American history. Despite the wide broadcasting of each new mass shooting and growing sentiment for serious gun regulations, frontier activists have opened a new, orthogonal battlefront. The use of the internet, coupled with CNC milling machines, is intended to route around rhetorical and ideological battles in the public sphere.

The cypherpunk attitude that the technology of ungovernability can make these rhetorical battles obsolete, itself a descendant of American individualism and cynicism toward centralized power, is neatly applicable to the domain of firearms.

In fact, the cypherpunks’ success in the “Crypto Wars” has clearly served as inspiration for Second Amendment advocates. It suggested a novel strategy in the fight against gun control—a new way for might to make right. Gun enthusiasts have long said that the First Amendment cannot be safeguarded without the Second Amendment. Now a subset of their community is embracing the reverse belief as well, that the First Amendment is a potent tool for securing the Second.

The ability to make your own firearms and share information about the process has been present in America for its entire existence, but the public was slow to realize that you could use the internet and modern digitized manufacturing technology to do this at scale, without vetting the recipients of the information. Jurisprudence that established code as free speech, while certainly subject to further legal challenges, provided an opportunity for savvy activism.

You can’t quite download a gun, but you can download the schematics and other resources to make or modify one using a CNC milling machine or 3D printer. For many people, this is close enough. (You cannot make a worthwhile gun with a 3D printer, but “3D-printed guns” is the phrase that caught on.)

Controversial iconoclast Cody Wilson decided to invest in a two-front war on gun control. The first shot he fired was the design for a fully 3D-printed one-shot pistol, the “Liberator.” His venture Defense Distributed, with its Ghost Gunner desktop CNC mill, followed up with practical desktop manufacturing of lower receivers for more standard firearm platforms like the AR-15 rifle and Colt 1911 pistol.

Wilson’s fiery rhetoric and “propaganda of the deed” spun a mere possibility into a sensational applied dissidence. The man is media catnip. He is charming, intense, well-read and well-spoken, and often scares the respectable. Based on my conversations with him, I think he likes it that way. Wilson now faces jail time for statutory rape, but his successors at Defense Distributed and elsewhere are continuing his work, aided in their legal battles by the Second Amendment Foundation. Defense Distributed sued the State Department and won; various state attorneys general are taking their turn in the ring.

If Wilson’s ventures weren’t around, other websites would host the files, as they have quietly done so for years. CNC machines not distributed by Ghost Gunner would be able to mill the parts to finish AR-15s at home. The band plays on.

The crossover of cypherpunk politics and gun politics was inevitable. The paradigms are too similar for that to be avoided, and technologists—particularly those from the hacker community—have always exhibited anarchist and libertarian leanings. Shooting in the desert while visiting Las Vegas for DEFCON is a long-running tradition.

The point of cypherpunk politics in general, and the Second Amendment variant in particular, isn’t to convince people to respect or agree with its advocates. The point is to use technology to increase the costs of interfering with their desired autonomies. The point is to make what other people think irrelevant.

Do you have a natural or God-given right to bear arms? The question doesn’t matter if you have the means to practically defy anyone else’s claims that you don’t. There’s a hidden corollary: if someone wants to stop you from doing something that you want to do, figure out how to make it impossible or impractical for them to do so—given your adversary’s constraints.

(The Black Panthers’ quixotic efforts to exercise their Second Amendment rights demonstrate the downfalls of this strategy; it is risky when you don’t have overwhelming force or the ability to deploy it. Ironically, the Southern Confederacy learned the same lesson.)

The cypherpunk gun advocates claim that making it accessible for any dedicated hobbyist to economically manufacture usable firearms will obviate attempts at gun control. Some of the more optimistic among them see a future of radical individual autonomy, where states are no longer able to interfere in matters of personal communication, economic transaction, social networking, and the bearing of arms.

Gun Control Is Still A Legal And Political Battle

The legalistic language of using the First Amendment to safeguard the Second is telling. This issue depends on the particular laws and constitution of a particular government; it is a fundamentally legal battle.

The United States government is constrained by its own rules, but only to an extent. Whether a government action is unconstitutional is determined by the courts, which are a branch of the government itself. Some people may feel that the state’s actions are obviously illegal, but the judiciary doesn’t have to care. The government and everyone else may decide that the Second Amendment just doesn’t mean what it used to mean, and modern civilized urban life requires gun control.

Cypherpunks, and radicalized gun owners in general, boast a “come and take it” attitude towards this possibility. Why, then, would a radical anarchist like Cody Wilson, who scoffs at the idea of government, devote so much time and energy to fighting lawmakers on their own, legal, turf? Aren’t they confident in their own posture if the government and the rest of society calls their bluff?

There is a pragmatic element. Cypherpunk gun advocates will take any “how” available to them, even if it doesn’t quite match their professed principles. Following in the steps of the ACLU, organizations like Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation seek to turn the government’s own rules against gun control. Free speech protections in the United States are very strong and arguably have a greater number of defenders than gun rights.

By tying these two legal protections together, and making enforcement harder on the margin, the confrontational efforts in technology act as a forcing function on what is primarily a legal, social, and political dispute.

If the government, backed by the consensus of respectable opinion, decided to make an issue of it as a fully hostile party, as consistent with the anarchist rhetoric, a few grumpy cypherpunks with 3D-printed guns are unlikely to impede legislative change.

We all exist embedded in a system of social dependencies. The individual cannot meaningfully secede from those ties. Those dependencies then can become vectors of coercion and control, so that it matters little what you can do, and matters very much what you are allowed to do. The theoretical ability to finish a lower receiver in the privacy of one’s home would not importantly aid the law-abiding public’s practical ability to own guns, if it became not just illegal, but socially anathema, to trade the relevant files, own the relevant hardware, buy ammunition, buy all the other parts besides the receiver that you need to build a complete AR-15, or own completed “ghost guns.” To drive the point home, this would never fly in China; it depends on the cultural and legal peculiarities of America.

This mode of protest is not necessarily unique to America, but it is quintessentially American, and evinces the cypherpunk ethos. The right to use strong encryption was defended just so—both by lawsuits, and by technology that routed around state-controlled chokepoints to the point where enforcing the law would become far too much of a hassle. But the implicit question remains: Why bother struggling within the system if you claim that its approval is irrelevant?

The answer comes down to convenience, and thus economical scalability, as is often the case with controversial products. Want to buy illicit drugs online? You can, but it’s difficult. First, download Tor. Then evaluate the various darknet marketplaces, with little-to-no context on their histories or operators. Choose a vendor who seems like they won’t scam you. Are the reviews fake? Who knows. Take the risk of having Schedule Something substances shipped to your residence.

All of that is a lot to ask. Cryptocurrencies exist to solve this problem in the financial realm, and the low levels of adoption speak for themselves. Sheer hassle is a formidable barrier to broad usage, and the law can generate huge amounts of hassle.

Legal resistance to the restriction of gun-related files is a promotional strategy—since it rises to the level of press attention—a time-stalling strategy, and a bid to remain accessible to normal law-abiding people. The technological dimension of the confrontation makes it more convenient for more normal people, and harder to stop, increasing the level of political will that would be required to roll back the ability to bear arms. The consent (or dissent) of the governed is much more relevant to the extent that there are a lot of them in a coalition, and it would be difficult to stop dissenters.

Describing the development of permissionless file-sharing, my friend John Backus wrote,  “Decentralization is part of a bigger playbook of legal tactics used to keep technologies alive despite the best efforts of a hostile government.” Protocols like BitTorrent, which make comprehensive copyright control impossible, are designed around legal restrictions. Backus remarked that “you can view the technology as changing to make it a lot more work for law enforcement to damage the network.”

The original cypherpunks wanted military-grade secrecy to be distributed and individualized. The Second Amendment cypherpunks want the same for deadly force. The strategies are similar: use a technological wedge and defiant rhetoric to put force on more conservative efforts in the legal and political domain. When I last spoke to Cody Wilson, he expressed scorn for the NRA; that’s not a coincidence.

The rhetoric and strategic issues of cryptocurrency are very similar, and are similarly an ultimately legal and social effort around a technical effort. None of it would work without the tech, but persuasion, advocacy, and marketing are still tremendously important. Widespread adoption of cryptocurrencies is a race against any legal or political crackdown that might nip them in the bud; once established, some technologies and social changes are difficult or impossible to reverse.

This also recalls the business strategies of companies like Uber and Airbnb: use a technological vanguard to outrun the law and establish social and economic territory, which must ultimately be legally defended, but is much easier to defend once entrenched in legitimate existence.

I said earlier, “Independence amounts to the strength of your defense.” I said that “might makes right” is an operational concept rather than a moral one. By this logic, using a flexible diversity of tactics to entrench a technology with a particular political effect in society is a strong strategy, even if it doesn’t quite match the rhetoric used to motivate the vanguard.

It’s not realistic to remove BitTorrent from every machine, or otherwise push back a technological capability once embedded in the social fabric. Samizdat is alive and well, and samizdat technology vanguards are becoming an increasingly prominent political tactic, driving legal battles that people 50 years ago could never have imagined. As technology becomes more capable and occasionally enables new modes of decentralization, we should expect many more such cases.

Sonya Mann runs communications at the Zcash Foundation. Before that, she covered the technology industry as a reporter.