"The Exponential Age" And The End Of Gun Control As We Know It

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File

Azeem Azhar is a British writer and podcaster whose new book, The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society, came out last week, and after reading a lengthy piece by Azhar at Wired explaining the premise of the book, I’m more convinced than ever that the modern gun control movement is a political dinosaur that’s doomed to extinction.

The type of exponential growth in technology that we’re living through is not something that most of our institutions are equipped to deal with, according to Azhar.

Technological development roughly follows this shape. It starts off looking a bit humdrum. In those early days, exponential change is distinctly boring, and most people and organisations ignore it. At this point in the curve, the industry producing an exponential technology looks exciting to those in it, but like a backwater to everyone else. But at some point, the line of exponential change crosses that of linear change. And soon it reaches an inflection point. That shift in gear, which is both rapid and subtle, is hard to fathom.

Because, for all the visibility of exponential change, most of the institutions that make up our society follow a linear trajectory. Codified laws and unspoken social norms; legacy companies and NGOs; political systems and intergovernmental bodies – all have only ever known how to adapt incrementally. Stability is an important force within institutions. In fact, it’s built into them. The gap between our institutions’ capacity to change and our new technologies’ accelerating speed is the defining consequence of our shift to the Exponential Age. On the one side, you have the new behaviours, relationships and structures that are enabled by exponentially improving technologies, and the products and services built from them. On the other, you have the norms that have evolved or been designed to suit the needs of earlier configurations of technology.

The gap leads to extreme tension. In the Exponential Age this divergence is ongoing – and it is everywhere.

Azhar focuses most of his thoughts in Wired on how the Exponential Age will transform economies, but at one point he touches on something that will directly impact the future of the gun control debate.

At the turn of the 2020s, exponential technology has become systemically important. Every service we access, whether in the richest country or the poorest, is likely to be mediated by a smartphone. Every interaction with a company or our government will be handled by a machine learning algorithm. Our education and healthcare will be delivered through AI-enabled technologies. Our manufactured products, be they household conveniences or our houses, will be produced by 3D printers. Exponential technologies will increasingly be the medium through which we interact with each other, the state and the economy.

…  The process through which technologies improve and accelerate is not centrally controlled. It emerges from needs of individual firms, and is met by a coalition of players across the economy. The virologist benefits from a faster genome sequence, and so seeks out better electrochemistry, faster processors and quicker storage for genomic data. The householder wants more efficient solar cells, the farmer more precision methods to fertilise her crops. The Exponential Age is a near-inevitable consequence of human ambition.

3D-printed firearms are nothing new at this point, of course, but think about where they’ll be in five or ten years. It’s been less than a decade since The Liberator made headlines as the first widely distributed printable gun in existence. We’ve come a long way from that single-shot pistol to the FGC-9, a pistol-caliber carbine that can be assembled through printed parts and a few easy-to-find screws, nuts, and bolts (along with a DIY rifle barrel), and the world of firearms printing is still in its infancy.

How are gun control groups supposed to keep up? Oh sure, they’re trying to ban “ghost guns” and 3D-printed firearms right now, but banning something and getting rid of it are two different things. California may pass a ban on unserialized firearms or home-built guns, but there’s no way for the state to proactively enforce that law, at least not without violating the Fourth Amendment rights of residents. My prediction is that even if the state does ban “ghost guns,” the number of home-built and 3D-printed firearms that are recovered by police every year is going to continue to grow, though I doubt it will be exponential growth because I don’t expect the number of criminals to grow exponentially. Still, printed and customized guns may very well replace stolen or straw-purchased guns as the preferred sidearm for criminals, if only because there’s less risk involved in acquiring one.

The most fundamental principle of the gun control movement is that guns can be controlled; that we can have fewer guns in society as long as we pass the right set of laws and restrictions. That basic tenet of faith was challenged by the Supreme Court in the Heller decision, which upheld the right of citizens to own firearms for self-defense, but the gun control groups have plowed ahead. They’re using the courts to try to eradicate the firearms industry and to place as many barriers as possible between you and your right to keep and bear arms, because the gun control movement is still about getting rid of guns.

I believe that gun control has always rested on a false premise, but the exponential growth in 3D-printing over the next few years is going to make that absurdly obvious to even those who don’t pay much attention to the issue. Guns are going to be available to anyone who wants one, and the cost of printing and building one is likely to be less than what a lawful gun buyer would pay at a gun store or a criminal would pay on the black market. You can think that’s great or believe it’s horrible, but it’s still gonna happen, and short of a China-style crackdown on speech, there’s not much we can do to stop it.

Now, I don’t expect the gun control movement to fold up its tent and go home, but I think it will be forced to change in several respects. The gun control movement will rebrand itself as an ammunition control movement, for starters. If you can’t control the guns, control the ammo. The small, easily concealed rounds of ammunition. You know, the stuff that’s produced by the billions of rounds all over the world? Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be easy to control people illegally getting their hands on that stuff.

Of course, by the time we reach that point in the not-too-distant future, the Exponential Age may have brought down the price of a handheld railgun to what an AR-15 costs today, making bullet control a moot point unless the gun control/ammo control lobby wants to rebrand itself as a “common sense metal control” movement.

Our current fight isn’t over. In fact, as the gun control movement becomes more desperate, they’re likely to become even more dangerous. But the fundamental premise of banning our way to a gun-free (or nearly so) society is going to be obliterated by technological progress and human innovation. In fact, I’d say we’re already there. The gun control movement, and more importantly, the non-gun owning public, just haven’t recognized it yet.