Making Crimes? Technology, Law, and DIY Firearms

Mark Andrew Tallman, University of Denver


Most gun control frameworks are based on industrial-era assumptions about centralized factory production. Conventional weapons trafficking presumably entails transfers from legal supplies to illicit markets and users. However, there is speculation that "post-industrial" technologic conditions will contribute to a rise in illegally-fabricated "do-it-yourself (DIY)" small arms. This may widen illegal procurement repertoires, transforming weapons trafficking into an issue of production as well as transfer. Industrial-era weapons control is not structured to combat decentralized illicit production. Using mixed qualitative methods, this research identifies conditions conducive to illegal DIY activity. It then evaluates DIY's security implications as an alternate source for illegal procurement, and evaluates policy trade-offs inherent to combating it. Evidence suggests that DIY firearms reach higher international prevalence in less-developed locales where conventional illegal trafficking conditions are also comparatively favorable. However, among developed states, illegal DIY appears more prevalent where trafficking conditions are comparatively unfavorable.

Improvements to technology will make illegal fabrication increasingly viable. This may constitute a contra-flow to traditional characterizations of transnational small arms trafficking. DIY small arms may prove less disruptive than feared, but harder to control. Implications are less about their intrinsic dangerousness, and more about the technologic and regulatory thresholds they cross. Attempting to manage illegal DIY through supply controls may introduce complex legal, technologic, policing, regulatory, and civil liberties trade-offs. Supply-side controls are unlikely to prevent illegal production by motivated actors, but some strategies may reduce harms without compromising legitimate activity. As technology improves and diffuses, widening illegal applications may require states to reevaluate some traditional "supply side" strategies. DIY small arms will not render conventional controls completely obsolete. However, increasing illegal production capacity will decrease the effectiveness of some material crime control strategies that attempt to control crime through control of physical objects, and invite greater attention to street-level enforcement and demand-reduction initiatives.