Many people, upset at the death and injuries caused by the misuse of firearms, wish they would just go away. This is, at best, magical thinking. While most modern people are somewhat disconnected from the burly world of making things, the plain fact is that guns are not enormously sophisticated or novel technically. There is nothing about firearms that cannot be manufactured under extremely austere conditions. Small arms are also, by definition, small. The world is full of smugglers who move living persons, cases of Bibles, stolen and contraband goods of all kinds from intangible intellectual property to entire steamships, not to mention staggering tonnages of narcotics, across some of the world’s most-guarded borders. If you are moving a ton of cocaine, an 8-pound AK-47, or ten of then, is a trivial addition to your payload.
Primitive and Clandestine Manufacture
To make a firearm one needs steel, ideas, and a surprisingly small set of tools. Take, for instance, the rustic workshops of the Pathan (Pushtun) village of Darra Adam Khel in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. The bazaar gunsmiths there practice the ancient trade of their Adam Khel tribe, turning out copies of many weapons, ancient and modern, forging and filing by hand what first-world factories depend on CNC machinery to do. The “Beretta” pistol is an example of this worksmanship. Our Afghan guys relieved a Taliban of it along with most of his other mortal concerns.
In Norway, the resistance was not a major priority for the SOE, so they never had enough arms. The Resistance Museum includes a number of home-workshop arms that the Norwegian Home Army built in clandestine workshops. At the end of the European War, desperate Germany used the same cottage-industry techniques to make crude rifles and submachine guns.
In England, the shooting of Mark Duggan by police last year kicked off summer riots in the grubby Tottenham streets. Duggan brandished a gun that was clandestinely manufactured from some kind of a non-gun. It was loaded and capable of firing, but the young career criminal didn’t get a shot off. (The Guardian newspaper energized the rioters with a false, unsourced report that Duggan was unarmed when shot — so bad newspaper work isn’t uniquely American).
Even in prison, which is about as controlled as environments get, convicts who have been unable to have guns smuggled have built them, sometimes firing (if not exactly safe) “zip guns,” and sometimes mere visual replicas, like Dillinger’s famous carved-soap-bar .45.
New Manufacturing Technologies
Several new manufacturing technologies are creating an “Army of Davids” effect on arms manufacture. These are partly driven by computing technology and Moore’s Law, which makes uneconomical manual process suddenly automated — computer controlled machining and manufacturing, and partly driven by materials and manufacturing technology advances, like high-strength composites and 3D printing.
These technologies have the potential for great societal and economic benefit, but at the cost of making governments lose control of arms and ammunition manufacture. As we’ve seen with drugs, failure of a prohibition policy seems to lead to wider and more annoying (to the non-criminal majority) prohibitions.
In addition, traditional manufacturing technology including casting and machining have become more available to the general public recently, due to increased performance, smaller size, and vastly lowered cost of the tools required.
The world’s nations think their borders are sacrosanct and airtight, but in fact they’re gauzy and permeable. During the height of the Communist Iron Curtain, contraband — including people, spies, dissidents, refugees — flowed across the minefields and razor wire. If even the Berlin Wall is not 100% hermetically sealed, if even prison walls can be breached, even when natural human rights are utterly forsaken or disregarded — well, then, what trust can you put in a mere border or system of customs inspection?
The policeman whose nation or state is bedeviled by armed criminals often feels that if only other nations would crack down like his then the ineffective crackdown would work. When guest-instructing at the Jamaica Police Academu, we got exactly that argument from a number of senior officers in the very professional Jamaica Constabulary: if the US had Jamaica’s tough gun laws, Jamaican gangs wouldn’t be engaging Army and Police units in hours long firefights.
Jaaica does have brutally strict laws, including special gun courts that dispense with many civil liberties and mete out swift and sure justice to gun violators. They have gun control that would make the Governor of Massachusetts happy — only the politically connected can arm themselves, legally. They are an island nation with very few sea and air ports of entry, and they have a strong, traditional, proud, professional and corruption-resistant police force and judiciary. Almost all of the people who do travel to Jamaica do so on jetliners and cruise ships, de-facto disarmament zones, so the island state’s actual gun-smuggling perimeter extends all the way to the magnetometers at the air and sea ports of departure. De facto un bans have been in place for decades. In short, Jamaica is practically an ideal test case for gun control. And in Spanish Town, at the Police Academy, you can hear the gunfire several nights a week.
The failure of gun bans in places like Jamaica, an island,makes it hard to understand
To the extent that smuggling is interdicted, it raises the benefit curve for clandestine manufacture,
Theft & Corruption
A significant factor in the arms employed in Mexican violence is theft and corruption. One source is theft from the nation’s legitimate security ervices, and from the private guard forces of the national elite, who understandably don’t trust the corrupt security services. It appears that entire government orders of automatic weapons from US and European manufacturers were never wanted by the Army and police, but were ordered only for the purpose of being diverted to the cartels.
Corruption in the United States is a significant factor in the armament of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, also. With BATFE and DOJ stonewalling investigators, it’s anyone’s guess whether their motivation in supplying the Sinaloa Cartel and other drug-trafficking organizations with at least 3,000 and possibly as many as 20,000 semiautomatic weapons was driven by corruption driven by greed or corruption driven by power and desire to influence politics, but it’s clear that whatever they were doing it wasn’t what they swore an oath to do. One of the lower-level straw-purchase rings that ATF reluctantly rolled up after their gunwalking led to deaths of at least two American lawmen included several town-level politicians and police.
So, what’s the bottom line?
The bottom line is this: the genie of firearms manufacture cannot be put back into the bottle. The single hardest technology for the home hobbyist (or clandestine-group armorer) to master is barrel manufacture, but even it is not rocket surgery (gunsmiths made accurate rifled barrels with human-powered machinery 300 years ago). The materials are available widely. The end products can move worldwide without fear of interdiction.
Guns are here to stay. They can’t be banned. The information, the how-to tribal knowledge, is widely dispersed and can’t be gathered back up. In a free society, you can’t stop the signal. Even in an unfree society — even under Nazi occupation — government can’t monopolize the power of guns. And the greater the pressure applied trying it, the greater the incentives to violators. Well down the slippery slope you find Jamaica, where decent people are at the mercy of a tiny minority of merciless, armed criminals and the police — and even the army! — are powerless to reassert social control.
We’ve made no effort, notice, to say what policymakers or politicians should do. We only suggest what they can’t do, however much they try to. If they are rational, then, they will constrain their choices to other options.