Technological solutions to social problems don't work...


Categories: GeekStuff Politics

General observation: Most of the time, a social problem can’t be effectively solved by technology.

There’s a specific form of this looming in the nearish future, which recently became relevant, again. Gun control. People get shot, there are calls for stricter gun controls. There’s a lot of interesting sub-debates. If the proposed controls were in effect, what would have changed about any given event? Frequently nothing; it’s not uncommon for violence to involve guns most people think should stay legal, for instance.

But there’s a much bigger problem: If you magically eliminated the entire category of “guns produced and sold in the US”, I don’t think that would change things for long. Heck, do that and also remove every single gun anyone currently has. It’d change things for a while.

But now stop and think about 3D printing, and other forms of localized one-off manufacturing. Right now, I don’t think you could 3D-print a gun and expect to get something of usable quality. … Right now. Have you looked at the rate of change in that field lately? In particular, note the work that’s going into making self-replicating systems, and systems that are at least very close to self-replicating, and improving those.

If I’m reasonably healthy and don’t get unlucky, I expect to live to see a point where I could decide I want a thing functionally equivalent to what’s currently considered an “assault rifle”, and have one the same day without having to leave my house or have anyone bring it to me.

Which is to say: A gun ban is a temporary solution at best. Even if we stipulate that it “works”, even if we stipulate that it somehow doesn’t produce unintended side effects… It would not work for all that long. And I think we might be better served putting our thought and effort into finding the roots of violence and trying to address those as best we can. I am pretty sure that “organisms with human-like brains” will be an issue for a while yet.

Comments [archived]

From: Jack Maney
Date: 2012-12-25 23:54:14 -0600

I’m sure we’re not too far away from being able to 3D-print guns, but I’m not sure how it would be possible to print ammunition. So, at most, the debate would be shifted from “gun control” to “ammunition control”, I suppose.

From: Amy
Date: 2012-12-30 16:02:26 -0600

“Right now, I don’t think you could 3D-print a gun and expect to get something of usable quality.”

Zip guns. People can make firearms out of arbitrary plastic devices available in a supermarket.

Hell, people have made zip guns out of CARDBOARD. Inaccurate, prone to hurting the user, but still a weapon.

Printing a higher quality zip gun would be trivial. Creating ammunition for it would also be trivial. These would actually be safer to use than things people already make because they can’t buy a legitimate gun.

From: Debra
Date: 2013-01-01 17:21:33 -0600

Hi, I found you from RO and occasionally stop by to read.

I have to disagree to an extent here. There was a lot going on when looking at the situation in CT, besides the availability of assault weapons. But the reality is that those weapons were available, and the person using them had been trained in their use.

The culture surrounding guns in our country is out of control. Have you ever seen or heard of “Sons of Guns” on Discovery? I watched it once, and I was shocked at the types of weapons that the average person can own in the United States. The assault weapons, the destructive power is ridiculous. The same could be applied to the “Doomsday Preppers” that hoard weapons in preparation for the end of the world.

The truth is that it is a social issue, but we’re not going to get any change to the social atmosphere unless we force a change. Let’s look at the civil rights movement. While there were those who voluntarily integrated, it took government and legal action to force the issue. Eventually the social climate changed (although I’d never argue it’s ideal now) but people are inherently resistant to change. They often need to be prodded into change. The same could be said for the battle for marriage equality for homosexuals today. Public opinion has changed radically in the last 10 years, but it’s the states making laws, forcing the issue, that’s causing visible change. Cases are just now making it to the Supreme Court.

The point I’m trying to make is that yes, social change is what we need. But if you don’t force people to change, they won’t. If we keep allowing people to buy weapons that serve no purpose other than to kill mass numbers of humans, and allow that culture to dominate across vast swaths of the country, there will never be any change. As we type, there are more children who are being taught by their parents that it’s their right to own high powered rifles previously only available to military personnel.

I would not begrudge people owning guns for hunting (rifles, shotguns), or even a handgun to protect themselves in their own home. But the types of weapons available (largely because the assault weapons ban expired, and was never re-upped) are bordering the insane. No one is calling for a straight up ban of all guns, but can you really argue that it is in any way unreasonable to ban assault weapons? We survived for years without them.

Regardless of whether or not we’d be able to create weapons as powerful and dangerous as the ones currently available on the market with “ease” at some nebulous time in the future, we can still make changes to the culture of guns and gun ownership. We need to have a conversation about the weapons that people are allowed to own right now. The culture of more, better, more powerful guns equates power has become an intoxicating and pervasive cloud over the country. We need to fight the cloud and the culture, but we need to start somewhere.

The argument that it would be safer for people who are unable to procure weapons to “print” their own is specious. Indeed, safer for whom, exactly? Why are these people not allowed to buy a legitimate gun? Like I previously said, no one is saying “ban guns” entirely – only those whose sole purpose is to kill mass numbers of human beings in a short period of time (assault weapons). If someone is not allowed to own a gun, chances are that it’s for a legitimate reason. I find it responsible to prevent former criminals who served time for violence or weapons use to not own weapons in a civilized society. Even in states with strict gun laws, if you pass through the hoops you can buy a gun. Yes, there are hoops, and you’ll have a decent waiting period, but they’re there to minimize the chances that people who should not own weapons (criminals) get their hands on guns. But after the waiting period, you can own a gun. There needs to be some form of regulation.

From: Matt Hajicek
Date: 2013-01-02 13:31:42 -0600

1. Eliminate all firearms in the world, and until they’re replaced those with swords and spears will rule.

2. There currently exist 3D printers in the category of Selective Laser Sintering that will produce parts with sufficient precision and strength in a wide variety of metals. At this point they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but you could theoretically get one.

3. @ Debra: The second amendment isn’t about hunting, or even personal defense. It’s about securing a FREE state from oppressive government, which means having enough firepower to make Uncle Sam think twice before further restricting rights. Also, any weapon that is good at killing deer is good for killing people, and vica versa. The primary differences between a deer rifle and an “assault rifle” are stylistic.

From: Debra
Date: 2013-01-02 17:33:39 -0600

“As passed by the Congress:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” (Wiki)

Then we should only allow people who are in well regulated militias to own weapons, right? I mean, if you start to get absolutely literal about these things, it gets silly. Why? Because this document was written over 200 years ago, and times have changed. The constitution has always been open to interpretation and we must come to terms with what was reality 200 years ago versus today. The types of weaponry we’ve created have gone beyond what the founders could have probably ever imagined.

While a gun used for hunting, like a rifle, CAN be used to harm another human being, the reality is that the difference between a hunting rifle and an assault rifle is in the destructive force and speed. It is not simply “stylistic.” It’s about power.

“Describe the max effective rates of fire for the M4 Rifle.

Semiautomatic – 45 rounds per minute
Burst – 90 rounds per minute
Sustained – 12-15 rounds per minute”

An assault rifle with a full-auto modification can spit lead faster than someone with a hunting rifle could get off one shot. This is the reality – these guns are made for murdering humans. They serve no other purpose.

Although, if you want to get down to it, you already contradicted yourself. You said in your last line “any weapon that is good at killing deer is good for killing people.” And yet you claim that we need to be “having enough firepower to make Uncle Sam think twice before further restricting rights.”

That contradiction aside, it would be absolutely insane to think of arming the American public with every form of weaponry available to military personnel to make their firepower “equivalent.” Imagine everyday citizens with machine guns, rockets, grenades, bombs. How far are we willing to take this “equivalence?”

So far as “eliminating all firearms in the world,” you are obviously subscribing to a slippery slope fallacy. As I said, it’s reasonable for people who have undergone background checks and observed a waiting period to own weapons. But it makes no sense to give people full auto M4s. Why? Because we don’t need them. Because inevitably, these guns are ending up in the hands of disturbed people and criminals.

But the fact is that some people don’t even want any form of regulation or background checks or waiting periods – at all! These are people who hear “gun control” and think “OMG the government is taking my guns!” They’ve been taught to fear just the words “gun control” because it makes them easier to manipulate. A “no holds barred everyone has a gun” country would be out of control. We’d literally all be living in fear of one another, wondering who might shoot us for a simple slight. It would create an aura of paranoia and fear that would destroy any broad sense of “community” in the country because there would no longer be a reliable form of trust, excepting close-knit reclusive communities. There would also be no way to absolutely prevent these weapons from getting into the hands of criminals. So should we let the streets become a war zone? Every man/woman for themselves? A mugger comes by with an assault rifle, but it’s okay because you and your husband have your own guns and you can shoot it out? This in itself is also a slippery slope, but it mirrors your own in that it shows what happens when we go too far in the opposite direction.

But NO ONE is calling for a BAN on ALL guns in the first place. We have to start from there. Arming everyone with machine guns, rocket launchers, etc. is no more an answer than banning all guns entirely (which NO ONE is calling for).

Jumping from one outrageous conclusion to another is just ridiculous.

From: Amy
Date: 2013-01-06 01:49:01 -0600

@Debra, when I said printing firearms would be safer, I meant it would be safer than the means available now for crafting ad-hoc firearms.

I was only providing factual information, not rendering an opinion about what is or is not appropriate, or what should or should not be.

In that vein, when you speak of “power”, ‘assault rifles’ (which is a somewhat contestable category) frequently have less stopping power than deer and other hunting rifles. This means they (the consumer weapons) are more competent at bypassing things like body armor.

Most police equipment, when properly selected, is of the form that their personal armor is sufficient to minimize lethality from their own duty weapon. This mitigates issues with accidental friendly fire (many urban situations make this likely), as well as situations where someone takes the weapon from the officer to fire on them.

Many (though not all, obviously) weapons categorized as ‘assault rifles’ fire similar caliber ammunition as the small arms used for police equipment, at similar velocities. The primary differences are in accuracy and rate of fire. The effectiveness of body armor would be comparable in that situation.

Any rifle off the shelf at walmart would cut through the same body armor like paper.

Given this, why do assault rifles get used in militaries? Maintenance and sustained effectiveness in the field.

They aren’t inherently better at killing humans, they’re better at staying relevant in various conditions over a substantial span of time.

From: Debra
Date: 2013-01-06 22:55:48 -0600


I’m not entirely sure why you started talking about what the police have or do not have. Or how various weapons compare versus the police. Most of these mass murderers that have surfaced in the last 10-15 years have targeted civilians. Why? From a pragmatic point of view, they’re easier. They panic, they have no armor, and are unlikely to be able to reasonably fight back. (Let’s not get into the slippery slope of mass armament of the populace here.)

Your argument would make sense if people who used ‘assault weapons’ were only targeting police. But they’re not. Normal people don’t wear body armor on a regular basis, and indeed, even police do not wear full body armor unless they have prior notice that they’re entering a situation where they will be needing it. Truthfully, the reality is that they may wear a bulletproof vest (though they don’t always), but they don’t wear full armor at all times.

But let’s say that the police are wearing armor, with shields, and full equipment. How does this prevent someone from killing all those squishy civilians without armor in the mall? We don’t have fully armored police in every public building and on every street corner. (And we haven’t even started talking about ammunition variation, which can affect “stopping power” and armor penetration.)

The reality is that if you want to kill a large number of people quickly, you go for the best tool out there – and an M4 that can shoot 90 rounds per minute while burst firing would do a much better job than a hunting rifle. So yes, assault weapons are better at killing humans. They are exceptional at killing humans, most especially humans that are unarmored. You only talked about battles with the police, but as I said, mass murderers are targeting civilians.

So far as the safety issue – I do not think it is the responsibility of society to make sure that stupid people do not hurt themselves in every possible instance. We put warning labels on everything we can and we do as much as possible to protect people from themselves, but there’s a limit.

“These would actually be safer to use than things people already make because they can’t buy a legitimate gun.” You haven’t listed any reason for someone to be unable to purchase a gun. So I’m going to continue to assume “criminal,” since I’m not personally aware of other reasons.

Letting criminals buy guns so they can’t make ones that might end up blowing up in their faces? Or letting them “print” their own? Let’s be reasonable here. As I said before, if you’re not a criminal, you can get a gun even in states with strict gun control laws. Why? Because those states know that it’s unconstitutional to prevent people from owning weapons entirely, so they keep a close watch on who has access to them and where those weapons are. All you have to do is wait. I live in NY, I know.

From: seebs
Date: 2013-01-09 15:33:28 -0600

I think Amy’s point is that the category “assault weapon” has nothing to do with lethality in the circumstances we’re talking about. These are not more-lethal weapons; if we are worried about lethality, there are many better things to target. It’s true that they may be better against civilians than against police, but I don’t see any evidence that the category really indicates a consistent lethality advantage even there. It’s arbitrary. In some cases, two weapons can be mechanically identical in terms of how they fire, but cosmetic changes affect their official categorization…

As to letting people print their own, or buy them, or whatever… In practice, when something is illegal, some number of people will Do It Anyway. It is in some cases rational to adjust social policy to minimize the harm done, and that can mean legalizing something sort-of-bad because the alternative is people doing something worse black-market.

e.g., look at the lethality of black-market alcohol or abortions, and compare it to legal market alcohol and abortions. We’re way better off making those things legal.

As to why people might not be able to purchase guns: Tons of reasons, “criminal” hardly unique among them. But I know a guy whose roommate brought home a huge pile of stuff, then fled town. The stuff was stolen. The guy whose roommate it was hasn’t voted or been legal to own a gun since. If he were able to find some way to get a gun, I would have no objections to that. :)

Oh, and Jack: Ammunition is arguably easier. Black powder is something anyone can make, with reasonably low risk if you’re doing smallish quantities at a time. Primer caps might be a little hard, but people used to make their own ammunition all the time, and even now hobbyists keep spent cartridges and refil them.