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Are we prepared for a world where people print guns?

Advances in 3D printing -- including a growing number of do-it-yourself gun makers -- has led to difficult issues for law and government.

There's always something new and weird to report about the emerging technology of 3D printing.

The latest: someone on a gun enthusiast web site claims to have printed a gun. Which makes for a complicated future for society.

Jonathan Zittrain is a law and computer science professor at Harvard, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society there.

Jonathan Zittrain: The thing he was able to 3D print was what's called the lower receiver, and that's the part of the gun that makes a gun a gun, that's the thing that has the bullet fly, and that's the thing typically controlled under law, so you could end up with kind of obtaining the regular parts trivially that don't need to be plastic, and then print out the piece de resistance, which is the thing that otherwise the government would want to control

Moe: What did he make it out of?

Zittrain: Resin. Resin is the toner of the modern 3D printer. No doubt 3D printers will come to be able to commonly use other raw ingredients. There's no reason they couldn't be someday in the mainstream metals and all sorts of forms of porcelain, but in this case we're talking plastic.

Plastic parts, working gun. No serial number, no registration, no waiting period. So how does the law deal with something like that? Zittrain says, "It's the kind of thing that might just be alright, we missed a spot. You could see legislators going back in and so long as it could withstand the constitutional challenge under the Second Amendment, decide to tighten up the law a little bit to say whatever you're not allowed to acquire at a store, suppose you're a convicted felon for a violent crime, and under the law you're not allowed to go into the store and buy a gun, whatever you can't do in the store, you're not allowed to do at home. The problem is how do you enforce that kind of thing."

3D printers aren't going away and eventually they won't be a novelty.  As a society, we're going to have to deal with that.

Zittrain: And you could even see some requirement, I'm just hypothesizing here, and I'm not saying it's a good idea, but you could see some requirement that 3D printers phone home for a list of definitions files of bad things that you can't print

Moe: Shapes that are forbidden.

Zittrain: Exactly. Forbidden shapes. and if you unplug your printer, it says Sorry, I can't work until I get an Internet connection, I have to update my forbidden shapes, and then once it updates it it will say I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't print that.

Zittrain tells us one of Facebook's early investors has invested in a technology to print meat.

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Listen to this. The Curiosity rover landing on Mars a few weeks ago. Curiosity was then able to zap a rock with a laser with so much power as to peer inside the rock's chemical structure.

Why am I telling you this? To preface the other story I need to tell you.

The TSA, Transportation Security Administration, airport security, now says that it has still not found an effective way of making it unnecessary to remove your shoes when you go through the gates.

The TSA spent millions of dollars testing four devices but says all four failed to adequately detect explosives.

I'm not saying that isn't a hard task. I'm sure it is. I'm just saying we're all smelling each other's feet at the airport while a robot is zapping rocks with lasers on Mars.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.
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