Gun control is officially dead, and it was killed in Myanmar. This may seem a highly unlikely place for a broadly-pursued government policy of legislated civilian disarmament to meet its end, but that is exactly what has occurred. The current situation in Myanmar has irrefutably proven that gun control legislation, regardless of how vigorously applied or tyrannically enforced, is wholly incapable of keeping arms and ammunition out of the hands of ordinary citizens.
In order to explain this I need to expand on the ongoing civil war in Myanmar. The conflict officially erupted on the 5th of May 2021 following a coup d’état by the Myanmar military which took place on the 1st of February that same year. The junta then proceeded to crack down on anti-coup protests. In reality Myanmar has had long-running insurgencies since 1948, and the present civil war can more simply be viewed as an intensification of these.
As things presently stand there are two groups of belligerents: the State Administration Council and the National Unity Government. The former is composed of the military junta and its allies, while the latter consists of the deposed government and a motley collection of numerous organisations and political movements – spanning everyone from federalists, to nationalists, to communists. The only thing they have in common is that they oppose the military junta and are reasonably well-armed, which is where things get quite interesting.
Myanmar Rebels are 3D Printing their Guns at Industrial Scale
On the 9th of December 2021, just over seven months after the start of the civil war, British journalist and founder of Popular Front Jake Hanrahan reported that the People’s Defence Force (the armed wing of the National Unity Government) were using 3D printed firearms in their fight against the junta. Specifically, they were and still are using the FGC-9 – a short and lightweight pistol-calibre rifle. The story was subsequently picked up by the international news media in January 2022 where it received fairly widespread coverage.
The FGC-9 itself has a very interesting background. The design dates back to early 2020 and is the product of a German-Kurdish man known as JStark1809, who was interviewed by Hanrahan in a fascinating documentary titled Plastic Defence: Secret 3D Printed Guns in Europe. Its upper and lower receivers are fully 3D printed, and the barrel is a hydraulic pipe of which the chamber and polygonal rifling are cut via a simple process of electrochemical machining. Building the FGC-9 requires no factory-made firearm parts or advanced fabrication skills, and guides of how to do it are readily available on numerous websites.
This holds abundant obvious advantages for individuals and groups who seek to arm themselves in non-permissive environments, and it is in practice impossible to stop them from doing so. It is therefore unsurprising that a rebel group engaged in combat with a well-equipped and repressive military dictatorship would make use of 3D printed firearms as a force equaliser.
According to Mathias Katsuya of Foreign Affairs Review, “the FGC-9 is a logical choice for groups such as the People’s Defence Force (PDF). It is reliable, requires ammunition and parts…which are commonly found in the existing small arms arsenal of the PDF, and…leverages a burgeoning 3D-printing infrastructure within the country. Myanmar has already made extensive use of 3D printers, particularly in its agricultural sector, as a means of overcoming deficiencies in manufacturing brought on as a result of sanctions and isolationism under the military junta…few obstacles exist to simply repurposing this increasingly prevalent technology to produce the FGC-9 in mass quantities and provide groups like the PDF’s a standardized small arm with which to violently engage the military regime.”
So here you have a 9mm carbine that is cheap and easy to self-manufacture, and which functions with sufficient reliability and accuracy in order to fight a war. Even if the FGC-9s are only utilised as short-use weapons, that is until the PDF obtain superior firearms via external support or those looted from dead or captured enemy soldiers, their presence and usage is undeniably a game-changer in the Myanmar conflict.
On the 10th of April this year a television report showed PDF members displaying and firing numerous FGC-9 carbines of the new and improved long barrel “Stingray” variant. This indicates that not only has the FGC-9 remained in use by the rebel forces, but that manufacturing has been scaled-up and kept up-to-date with the latest improvements and additions to the original design. Add to this that conflict zone 3D printing hasn’t stayed confined to only guns alone. 3D printed bomblets dropped from drones have been used by both rebel groups in Myanmar and Ukrainian government forces.
You cannot stop the 3D printing signal – and neither can the government
We now live in a world where any person can go online and choose from tens of thousands of 3D printable firearm designs, download the relevant files, and with very limited technical skill manufacture a fully-functioning firearm in less than two weeks. The total tooling cost of this is under R6000 ($330) and the process utilises no restricted, controlled, or factory-manufactured firearm parts. Furthermore there is absolutely nothing anyone, including a tyrannical military government, can do to stop them.
Sure, some may argue that all government has to do is regulate 3D printers. But that is an exercise in itself doomed to miserable failure, not in the least because there are millions upon millions of these devices already in free circulation worldwide. Since its advent 3D printing has become a highly-refined and prolific activity. It has wide application in numerous industries from medicine, to architecture, to engineering, to agriculture, to communication, to computers, and plentiful others.
3D printing is literally at the bleeding edge of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, and it is safe to say that the genie isn’t going back into its bottle. Therefore regulating 3D printers is like regulating television sets or kitchen appliances. And we did try it with TVs. It is quite obvious that advances in technology have far and rapidly outpaced the speed at which legislation can even try to keep up with it. So perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in legislation at all.
The Wits Report predicted that the FCA cannot control 3D printed guns
This was, in fact, the recommendation of the Wits School of Governance in their 2015 report (commissioned by the Civilian Secretariat for Police) that analysed the effect of the Firearms Control Act (FCA) on crime between 2000 and 2014. The 178-page document is the single most thorough and significant analysis of the efficacy of gun control legislation in South Africa. The report is a subject worthy of its own article, but I highly recommend you take the time to at least read its conclusions.
On the topic of 3D printed firearms, it had this to say:
“A primary purpose of the FCA is to control legal firearms so that they are not stolen and become illegal weapons to be used in crime. Anti-firearm proponents such as Gun Free SA advocate for increasingly strict legislation and controls over firearms. However, the option of 3D printing a fully functioning firearm already exists, and this option will become increasingly sophisticated and available in the near future.
3D printed guns could become a primary source of firearms used in crime, and the FCA would be powerless over them. Clearly, policing would be the better answer to controlling these firearms.
Conclusion: As 3D printing technology improves, printing firearms is likely to evolve at an increasing pace and level of sophistication and would be an uncontrolled source of firearms ripe for illegal crimes. The FCA would be incapable of controlling them; however strong or more technologically skilled policing could address the problem.”
Tying in with this, it is vitally important to note that the Wits Report clearly states in its conclusion that our authorities “need to shift their misplaced, unconditional faith in the ability of the FCA to solve crime to policing.”
Gun control legislation is obsolete in the 21st Century
The South African government has certainly been obsessed with gun control legislation as the panacea for our high and increasing violent crime problem for many decades. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, neither our politicians nor our civil society has been able or willing to make the intellectual leap required to admit it is all a colossal waste of time and resources. As far back as 2015, knowledgeable people were aware of the potential impact 3D printed firearms could have on the world, and they knew that the answers to crime and violence, whether perpetrated by use of conventional or 3D printed arms, would ultimately lie in the strength and capability of policing. This was not then nor is it now a new nor controversial revelation.
Yet many keep clinging to the ridiculous idea that gun control legislation has somehow kept firearms out of the hands of criminals. Judging by our violent crime rates, the numerous scandals pertaining to corrupt police officers selling guns to gangs and criminals, and the proliferation of fully-automatic machine guns in the hands of Zama Zamas, this is a laughably absurd position. 3D printing of firearms merely adds another flooded compartment to the titanic list of gun control legislation failures.
What gun control legislation has achieved, though, is to make it expensive and incredibly difficult for law-abiding citizens to reasonably arm themselves in what is due to become the most violent country on Earth. Given the fact that the firearms are already out there, and that extensive state failure and its associated security vacuum will only intensify, perhaps the discussion we should be having is how to make it easier for good people to arm themselves. As desperation regarding crime and violence increases, it won’t take much for citizens to begin exploring new possibilities, such as illegally 3D printing their chosen solution. After all, if it can work for rebels in Myanmar, it can essentially work for anybody.
Written by Gideon Joubert – originally published on The Overton Press.