Everyone’s Guns: Tech, Terror, and the 2nd Amendment

In the months before 9/11, I had a chat with a pal about toting heat:

Me: “So you think everyone should have a gun?”
Him: “Yes. Everyone has the right to carry any weapon. The right to bear arms.”
Me: “What if someone wanted to tote a fully-automatic in the shopping mall?”
Him: “Even a machine gun. We’ve got the right. You should be able to have a motherfucking nuclear bomb if you want to.”

Now this was not before McVeigh’s bombing in 1995, or the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, or before the Weather Underground bombs of the early 70’s. This was in 2001, and he was suggesting that I, that he, that “anyone” had the right to own any weapon, up to and including the worst ones. Up to and including (the as yet un-buzzed) weapons of mass destruction. It’s not like terrorism had never happened before.

That stuck with me as my interest in transhumanism grew — the notion that there were Bible-thumping (this particular fella was not), red-blooded (as they say) American patriots (which we both were — and still are) who took the Second Amendment of our Constitution so seriously and fundamentally (even if they’d ignore certain court rulings that gave cooling context and legal interpretation) as to suggest that anyone should have access to even atomic weapons. And even in the context of past acts of terrorism.

This knee-jerk reactionary stance, which is based in fear of a coming totalitarian (often thought of as “liberal”) government turned out, to my great surprise, to be the key component in my cheerleading for transhuman concerns.

The folks who want wide availability of arms usually hold the position that acts of terror (from school shootings and Post Office rampages to box-cutter attacks on airline pilots) would be minimized if we all knew that the potential for deadly response to any given crime was ubiquitous and instantaneous.

Transhumanism, then, became important to me for mainly one reason: Singularity-driving technologies will be available to most everyone, or it will only be available to the elite.

Rich people get the coolest tools — and they have the time to learn how to use them. Some hand-to-mouth gangbanger may have a .22 pistol in his hip pocket, sure — but it’s the salty old regional manager of a high-end grocery chain that has the closet full of Rugers, 4-gauge shotguns, and the (shhhhh!) de-commissioned M242 Bushmaster that his buddy down at the Sheriff’s office helped him land.

So who do you think will be the first to have swarms of telepathically networked dragonfly spybots?

If an elite group are the only ones to attain and learn Singularity-drivers, then we’re all in big trouble. Corporate / government interests are not always the same as truck driver, librarian, and waitress interests. Once Boeing and Lockheed are brought in to outfit XE (hey, let one contractor help another) with pain rays, force fields, and nanite organ-repair sludge, then free people have suddenly got big trouble. It won’t be long before that stuff trickles down to local private security firms, the guard houses at gated communities, and the dude running the metal detector at your daughter’s high school. They call that “dystopia” last I checked.

Gray goo is going to go black quick, abuses will be rampant, and the non-moneyed will never be able to catch up. Making goo “green”, open source, free, or copy left? Could be illegal.

The Second Amendment argument for transhumanism is, in this light, the most important one. If regular folks “arm” themselves widely and early, there will at least be a foothold in the future for the demos.

Will insurgent or even evil non-state actors ably access these technologies and use them as weapons? It is inevitable. Does that mean that we should trust only the technocrats in board rooms and Capitol Hill to decide who gets them and how? Only to the extent that we trust our representatives to be champions of our freedom.

This is the real tension, and in an ideal world it shouldn’t be framed in binary terms — it isn’t realistic to expect that we couldn’t do things to prevent access to terrorists (incidentally, think Miller Lite and 500 rounds of “cop killas” before you think beards and minarets — most acts of domestic terrorism are carried out by fundamentalist Christians), or that we couldn’t cede ground to restrict the unready from some well defined “licensure” process.

I don’t think of myself as a “Second Amendment” dude. I don’t have a concealed carry permit. I only shoot guns with family back home in Mississippi once every year or two. But we do have a right to bear arms (even if not bombs) — and if we want to keep our rights to access advanced and powerful technologies before they get deemed weaponry and regulated out of our reach, we’d better take a minute to consider the way “gun nuts” frame their arguments.

I never asked that pal if he’d changed his mind after 9/11, but I’m sure he still stands by the principle (even if not his choice of words) — if there’d been a few well armed Bubbas on UA’s Flight 175, then we might not have The Patriot Act today.

As for me, I’d rather us all have access to the goo, weaponized or not, than for it to be only in the hands of jackbooted .biz mercenaries. I put my trust in Makers and Hackers and good old fashioned Phreaks — the many anonymous tinkerers who find ways to exploit (and therefore to patch) systems before we all have to eat a big helping of our own hubris.

Goo will be hacked for the better, even as terrorist attempt to exploit it for the worst. I think it’s just another way to say “guns should be both common, and never used in anger.” And maybe that puts me closer to “the Bubbas” than I think.

Woody Evans is a librarian living in the north Texas metroplex. He’s the author of Building Library 3.0, Information Dynamics in Virtual Worlds, and other things.

Photo courtesy Olegvolk


  1. Once again, the corporate world and the government are thrown into the same category as if they are the same.

    I would trust post-singularity weapons in the hands of a private firm over a government body easily. For one thing, governments wouldn’t want their people to be empowered against criminals and terrorists because that’s the only way they can legitimize their existence; the argument that they are the bulwark of civilization.

    Whereas a company, no matter how big or small, would want YOU TO BUY their weapons! What’s more, is they would continuously try to make them cheaper and easier to purchase to compete in the market.

    Getting back to the specific argument, I’m not a gun owner myself, but I fully support and believe in the right to self-defense. I practice various martial arts, and most involve weapon work, swords in particular. Now I wouldn’t cut a man’s hand off if he pushed me threateningly, but I would probably at least fight back if cornered.

    The right to bear arms is another extension of self-determination. It is a statement to your enemies that they cannot compel you by force, as you will return the gesture.

  2. Interesting take. I favor the right to keep and bear arms myself. As the founders noted, a well-working armed citizenry (which is what “well regulated militia” translates to in modern English) is necessary to keep the State in check.

    But regardless of what we think, it’s going to happen – so perhaps we should concentrate on how to make the armed citizens of the world our friends instead of our enemies. We must work harder to ensure the human rights of every individual – for the individual is the smallest minority. Even most of Al Qaeda is not really interested in murdering people. Most of them are just interested in a better lives for themselves and their community, and see no other way to get it. Same with religious fundamentalists, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.

    Give all people a stake in the future, and they will police themselves in order to keep that stake. Give them hopelessness and despair, and expect trouble.

  3. One late night I was able to deter an imminent mugging, by shoving my hand into jacket, feigning the 2nd amendment. The muggers, thrown off, let me pass. I’m a believer: More guns, less crime, up close and personal.

    A hundred pound beauty queen recently put down a 225 lb convict who invaded her home, with a pink pistol. Woman, roaring, etc.

    The futuristic stuff…unsure. But I suspect similar dynamics will apply. Risk/reward appears a constant, from my miniscule perspective.

  4. Posthumans = weapons.

  5. The 2nd Amendment 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.”

    A well regulate militia. It was never intended for citizen Joe Schmoe to go out and purchase high powered firearms. The law was developed for states to have the ability to start there own militia for the purposes of defense; against invading countries, rebels, or even the United States military. These means that if you owned a weapon, you were a part of the states defense plan.

    This model could have worked really well as a gun control method but fell apart due to some cleverly made loop holes. Ideally, if there was gun violence, you would be able to narrow down the list of suspects to either a hunter or a member of the militia. People are getting black market guns? Sounds like the militia is entering into illicit activities. We would be able to ferret out the ones responsible.

    As it is now, the free market is fairly well saturated with guns (i.e. you can buy them at your local super store.) I don’t believe that guns are the cause of violence but they are certainly more lethal than other weapons. At least if someone goes on a rampage with a baseball bat, there arms will get tired after a few people are maimed…and those people have a better chance of surviving the attack.

    • Likeadog,

      Respectfully, your interpretation of the 2nd Ammendment is wishful thinking. The “state’s right to a militia” interpretation is bunk for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the “natural law” theory / foundation of the US Constitution and of course the archived writing and rhetoric of the Framers themselves. Even if “the people” in the 2nd ammendment is a synonym for the states (yet “the people” in the 1st ammendment refers to individual rights?), most states define the general militia as to include every able bodied male within a certain age bracket.

      Also, I’m not entirely sure that your assertion that guns are more lethal than other weapons. In some sense, primarily the range at which one can attack others, guns are certainly more lethal than the alternatives. But our concept of the gun as a uniquely lethal weapon might be a bit of contemporary bias.

      • Good point. I concede that my interpretation of the 2nd Ammendment is grossly flawed after reading your response.

        As for the lethality of firearms compared to other weapons I am defining lethality as the rate at which a damaging wound from any particular weapon causes death multiplied by the number of victims an attacker can wound within the domain of an altercation. The problem is much more complex than the simplistic formula stated above when environmental factors are considered such as range, the possible ability to fight back, the possibility of running from an attacker, how close to vital organs an attacker can land a damaging blow, will the attacker discontinue delivering blows if the victim is not moving, police response time, EMT response time etc.

        When considering the concept of a lethal weapon, we must properly define what a weapon is. Without a specific definition, we could say that “belief” is the most dangerous weapon as it results in the most deaths over time. (Think Holy Wars and Preventative Measures.) In the context that I think you mean, I’m still saying guns are currently the most widely available tool to end life at the fastest rate.

        Thank you for your response, logical debate an is invaluable resource to me.

  6. The right to bear arms gives power to citizens.

    “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” -Thomas Jefferson

    Our forefathers were “terrorists” by today’s standards. They overthrew a corrupt government and wanted to ensure that the US remained a country where freedom, liberty, and justice prevailed.

    “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” -Thomas Jefferson

  7. Not to sully a really nice article with reference to a sub-par TV show, but parts of your future fears played out in the season finale of Doll House season 1. The special tech made for the uber rich got into the hands of evil doers.

    On the other hand, I highly recommend The Rational Optimist to make you feel better about this.

    I have never shot a gun. I’m totally afraid I would blow a toe off by accident. However, i htink gun control is impossible. I think treating the world like potential criminals makes them potential criminals. The same is true of all potentially dangerous technologies.

  8. I don’t really think that the presence or lack of guns is has as big an impact on crime as some people think. If it did why is crime so low in Switzerland where anyone can own basically any weapon that want? The cause of crime is more likely to be in my opinion because of income inequality, lack of opportunities, and hatred of people who are different then you. Places that have all three will have a lot of crime. Besides a lot more things are punishable in the US with much stiffer sentences then in Europe, and after they are released they are much more likely to be unable to find a job. People need to have weapons or the elites will be able to take their freedoms. Maybe in some counties which are homogeneous that won’t happen. The US is not one of them, too many people is this country don’t care about anyone who is not part of their own community.

    • Good point on the economics. The cops in Switzerland (i live just across the border in France from Basel) have clinics in various points in the city where crack addicts and other people that are addicted to narcotics can go and get their fix, for free.

      Their logic is that, they don’t have to rob somebody, commit acts of crime to get their fix.

      Anyways good post. Thought you might find that interesting.

  9. I think that, in a civilized society, people don’t use arms.

    Wild wild west, wasn’t exactly a civilized society, so it’s kind of pathetic to try to pretend that it was, and that we have to impose the low standard of civilization back then to a post-human future.

    One step up from USA, are several European nations in which guns are banned. For a good reason. And the crime rate is very low.

    I believe that the higher we go in civilization, the less we will need guns.

    • Eray,

      The “wild wild west” was probably far less wild that you think it was. A lot of our concept of the development of the western US was and is more myth than reality. I know people that are doing historical economic research on the construction of social capital in the undeveloped great plains, etc. By and large, living in the west was pretty dull and boring.

      Bob F beat me to the next part…which is that the distribution of weapons doesn’t really have much to do with crime, other than lowering the threshold of violence for the particularly unsavory types. I presently live an area where the people are, relative to say France, individually armed to the teeth, yet I don’t cower in my bed every night worried that my neighbor is going to go on a murder spree.

      Like Bob mentioned, European states with liberal firearms laws (Switzerland, Finland, etc.) include some very nice places to live.

      On the aspect of civilization – well….that’s a most curious question – the relationship between civilization and guns (and violence in general). The Japanese by most accounts are very decent and civilized people – very orderly and a low crime rate, too. Yet when the circumstances are just right, you get the Rape of Nanking, etc. I’m not sure that in the long run there’s much of a relationship between individually owned small arms and the amount of death and destruction unleashed by society as a whole.

      Returning to the original article – I am perhaps less optimistic than the author on the potential of DIY defense in the coming age. Hackers, Makers, and Phreaks have yet (to my knowledge at least) produced a credible counter measure to nuclear weaponry. For that matter, that same crowd has yet to produce a credible defense to the common cold. The danger lies in the extreme advantages that a first mover gets when the relevant scales are all exponential. Even massive initial strikes of ICBMs don’t have that kind of first mover advantage. Drexler, of course, discussed design ahead defenses, but even that approach, I’m sure that we can agree, has serious weakneses. There’s a LOT more to be said along such lines, but a lot more thinking needs to be done, first.

      And one last comment, the “most acts of domestic terrorism are carried out by fundamentalist Christians” is cute – but really?
      What information does that sentence actually convey? Given that the US is predominantly (overwhelmingly, even) Christian, the base rate alone would more or less guarantee that most *domestic* terrorists would be at least in some way influenced, connected with, or self-professing Christians. So…? Yeah, ummm…and in other news dog bites man, and don’t forget to be wary of those Presbyterians that just moved into the neighborhood.

    • Well, how many people get knifed in London? You can’t necessarily argue that violence is down because guns are banned. Maybe there’s a correlation but other things are influencing it as well.

      Pro-2nd Amendment people would argue that violence is down because a criminal can’t know for sure how many people in a crowd of a hundred are packing heat.

      I’m currently living in France, and while people think that Europe is progressive and what not, and people don’t have access to guns, this is not the case. Hunters still have access to rifles, there’s still a black market (and always will be). If somebody wants a gun, they’ll get a gun. It’s just a matter of how much they’ll have to pay.

      Civilized society is established with the gun. The English Empire didn’t waltz into Africa with flowers, Roman empire didn’t ask the Gauls nicely if they wanted to become part of their Empire… I’d really like to believe that the higher we go in terms of civilization that the need for firearms would be less, but something tells me this may not be the case.

      I just want to leave in one final word. I understand your viewpoint, and I respect it.

  10. Information want to be free

    GUns, WEAPONS, and power want to be free

    in long term :

    it will be

    Or how should i put it :

    In long term : the society will have no longer freedom of self, your soul will be 120% controlled

  11. Well, this could be close on the target. http://www.boingboing.net/2011/03/31/truck-driver-builds.html
    Boingboing reports of a truck driver who back engineered the atomic bombs. Is this in Second amendment zone? No it is not.

  12. Here in America I consider myself a second amendment moderate: you should have to obtain a PERMIT for your WMD’s. 😛

  13. Woody, the problem getting rational discussion on this topic is that way too many people’s thought processes stop at “this is the worst case scenario” and then assume “NOTHING WILL EVER CHANGE AFTER THIS POINT”

    Gods, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation. “Bad thing happens, then TIME STOPS”

    Doesn’t work that way, folks. So sorry.

    Get used to the idea that technology will be misused in every single possible nasty, bad, evil, totalitarian way possible. BECAUSE IT WILL BE. At the exact same time, others will be using that same technology to overcome all the nasty, bad, evil totalitarian abuses that the first guys come up with.

    And it will suck. It will suck REALLY REALLY BAD. In fact, it COULD suck SO bad, that the masses will eventually join with the groups using the technology to stop abuse and many many heads will end up on pikes.

    Study history people. It’s a repeating cycle that has ALWAYS had the exact same end. And no, there is no way that the abusers can “Keep Control” for ever and ever and ever and ever. It cannot happen. Why? Because all that suppression is self defeating. It prevents innovation in the ranks of the controllers, NOT IN THE RANKS OF THE “CONTROLLED.” Totalitarianism is anti-progress, because it’s too afraid it’s own tech will turn on it to allow it the freedom to innovate. It seeks to eradicate any change which could possible threaten it’s continued existence. And because of this, Totalitarian systems are self limiting and self eliminating. Very few of them last for even a single generation. With the advances in technology happening as fast as they are, even a totalitarianism using “Black goo” is going to be quickly out innovated by the counterforces it will create by it’s very existence. And that very innovation will make it nearly impossible for a future totalitarianism to rise again.

    You see, the greater the ability to spy, the greater the ability to be spied upon, and eventually, no-one anywhere on the surface of the Earth, under it, in it’s oceans, or even in the solar system it resides in will be able to perform any action that cannot be observed by anyone else who has an interest, regardless of social standing, wealth, or “power”. And when NO ONE can hide anything anymore, then there will be no method left by which tyranny can be established, because tyranny is only possible in a society in which secrecy exists.

    It’s going to get worse before it get’s better, but the odds of it getting as “bad” as some fear are not that high, though it is certainly going to get bad enough to make me worry about a Second American Civil War.

    • What, in your mind, prevents tyranny from operating without secrecy?
      It seems strange to me that you would assert this despite rampant historical evidence to the contrary, in light of the solid historical foundation which the rest of your comment enjoys.

  14. What a weird mash of the gun debate and transhumanism. Living in in a country with few guns, and no Second Amendment I really can not relate to this article at all.

    I agree we need to be critical of governments and there need to be ‘Makers and Hackers and good old fashioned Phreaks’, but how this relates to the gun debate is beyond me.


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