Future Weapons & the 2nd Amendment


Basic firearms tech has been on a pretty flat plateau for more than a century. Fidgeting with designs, calibers, and the ergonomics of the furniture has given us new “types” of firearms, but the core concept of “what is a firearm” has remained fixed. The biggest “qualitative” advances have been in optics and, on the other side of the combat equation, personal body armor.

The plateau will come to an end, sooner or later. Advances in materials science and the painstaking efforts to perfect loadbearing exogear is going to push body armor way ahead of where it is now. This will inevitably result in major exertions to reengineer guns & ammo to defeat the advanced armor. Where this arms race between ammo and personal armor ends is impossible to know, but the military changes will flow back to the civilian markets.

In the future, how will the 2nd Amendment be construed in relation to arms that make the AR-15 as obsolete as as the Mauser 98 is today?


Great question, and I think uncertainty around this has resulted in less investment in R&D around fundamentally new small arms than we would otherwise have seen. The best constitutional smoke signal on this issue so far has been the Caetano case, which more or less struck down taser bans on 2A grounds. That bodes well, but there’s a lot still up in the air.


The Caetano case is a good one to refer to, and it heavily cites the Heller decision. However, an argument can be made that the “common use” standard developed under Heller is actually damaging to the Second Amendment.


Suppose in the near future some company (let’s call them, I dunno, Cyberdyne) manages to create a completely new type of weapon (say, a phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range). Under the common use standard, would not the federal government be able to ban them outright, since there would be no way they would be in common use? Even the stun guns that were the reason for the Caetano case have been around for at least a couple of decades. A completely brand new type of weapon could conceivably be banned as soon as it is created.


Scalia likely knew that Heller’s “in common use” test was circular reasoning when it came to cases like your example — he and his clerks would have been to smart not to realize that — but my suspicion is that he had to settle for that to get Kennedy on board. Heller left a huge amount up in the air, and since McDonald it seems like the court hasn’t wanted to touch the issue again. The next time they touch it, it’s going to get a huge amount of press no matter how they rule. So they’re probably just kicking that can down the road until it becomes unavoidable.


I agree. Its probably the reason why, with the exception of Caetano, the SC hasn’t heard a 2A case since McDonald. All that the Gorsuch nomination gave us was maintaining the status quo on the Court: 4 reliably liberal members, 3 conservative, 1 right of center (Roberts), and one who is all over the place based seemingly on whim (Kennedy).


I think the most important advances in tech that will impact firearms aren’t the gun tech itself, but the fabrication tech. I don’t think we’re far from a day when you can 3D print and/or mill a gun that’s as high-quality as a current-gen Glock or SIG in your garage with about $3K worth of equipment, from plans downloaded online.

That stuff is going to change the gun debate and 2A jurisprudence in ways that nobody can foresee.


Not just gun fabrication, since we are already almost there, but if we get to the point where ammuntion can be easily fabricated, all bets are off.

Edit: To clarify, I’m not talking about home reloading, I mean being able to actually make smokeless propellant via 3-D printer attached to basic chemical stocks.


Yeah, home fabrication of primers and powder would be huge. I’d expect to have to jailbreak my printer to get it to do that, when that day comes.


I like this idea, and I want it to be true. But I have my doubts. The internet has been pretty effectively censored abroad, and the noose is tightening in the U.S., too. Child porn file-sharing, media piracy, and Silk-Road-type drug activity has been suppressed for a while, to universal acclaim, but now the digital dragnet is being extended to “sex workers” under the rubric of “trafficking,” and nobody expects that to be the last stop on this trip. If fabrication files for firearms become illicit, some hardened criminals will keep at it, but most honest citizens will be deterred.
I’m filing this under “We Will See.”


Restricting fabrication files would be a lot harder, technically, than most people think. The fundamental construction of a firearm receiver isn’t that complex to build from paper records in Solidworks or Inventor, and there’s a ludicrous amount of those out there. To block people from designing from first principles, you’d have. Yes, the .gov tries to limit access to copyrighted files or sex trafficking, but it’s not actually that effective at them, and much of the extent it can successful go after online drug sales is because of the money aspect.

The fabrication equipment might be easier to restrict, at least partially. In addition to involving the transfer of funds, even small 3D printers necessarily still aren’t exactly the sort of thing you can hide in a book cover. But I can’t see the political willpower to do that on a significant scale, not after ten years of actively promoting them as the Next Big Thing. Maybe that’ll change as metalworking skills continue to fall out of common knowledge, though.

Smokeless powder (and even more so, primers!) are going to be a lot longer term a thing, if ever. Even the existing giant bulk production facilities with highly specialized equipment have a rough time of things, and there’s been a decades-long effort to neuter home chemistry from the grade school up. That said, there might be progress with dual-use alternative tools, or even inefficient but high-profile electric-powered ‘firearms’, though, which would resist regulation pretty readily.

The defense/offense recalculation will be tough. Type 3 and 4 plates can already stop almost all sidearms, and the extent that they haven’t already forced a change in tactics is simply that they’re woefully impractical to wear anywhere and can’t usefully protect the face. If assist motors change that, it’ll be a big deal. On the other hand, recoil considerations have already begun pushing people away from big handgun rounds, even if not to the extent of rolling back to .38 SPL –unless you’re in Hollywood on the wrong day, you’re just not that likely to run into that sort of threat.

I think one of the big areas of interest will be less-lethal weapons. There’s been some development in the mil sector, but the commercial and civilian field is strangely moribund. The basic operation of Tasers goes back forty years, and pepper sprays even older than that, and it shows. Worse, most of the attempts to evolve these tools have focused on political compliance (such as the taser “confetti”) rather than improving effectiveness, at the same time that more and more concerns have popped up about unwanted secondary effects. The less said about conventional flashbangs the better. So there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit.

Remote-operated weapons have been of concern for a while, highlighted by the Dallas use of a bomb squad robot. There are some technical reasons that I’d expect (and hope!) truly autonomous armed robots don’t enter the civilian sphere any time soon, but combined with less-lethal weapon development and I’d expect to see some interesting stuff pop up, for good and for ill.


Calfornia has a bill (AB2382) that will require all gun parts including unfinished receivers (precursor parts) to only be sold in person through dealers who have a license as a firearm precursor part vendor (all existing FFLs would gain this license).

I expect to see all sorts of creative ways manufacturers will get around the definition of an “unfinished firearm” part. The CA assault weapon ban prohibits flash hiders, so manufacturers made sure that their muzzle parts had no mention of flash hiding benefits to get around it. But it raises the question of whether legislation can realistically regulate products that can be “homemade.” Federal regulation determined that 80% unfinished delineates a product from a firearm part, and this CA bill attempts to greatly broaden the definition without giving an actual definition that a consumer or business can follow. If the bill passes, get ready to see some creative marketing to get around this.

Personally, I think the US chose the wrong approach by making the lower receiver the single “gun” part which must be serialized and regulated. The better approach would be to choose the part(s) that play the most significant role in the firearm functionality along with being the most difficult to manufacture or finish at home, such as the upper receiver and barrel.

From the big picture perspective, I suspect that an extremely small number of weapons used in crimes were made through unregulated home builds, so spending a lot of political energy to regulate this market is a poor use of resources if the goal is to reduce gun crimes.


This is right on the money…


I agree that most criminals have no interest in manufacturing their own firearm. They are too easily obtained by illicit means to make the expense and effort of setting up the tooling and getting a machinist competent enough to make the necessary parts. However, with advances in CNC and 3D printing technology and reduced prices of same, there may come a time when criminals see this as a viable alternative.


Color me cynical, but in CA political careers are made at the expense of law abiding gun owners because this is such a powerful cultural issue. Take away the cultural power of being anti-gun (and conversely, improve the image of gun ownership) and it will disincentivize this kind of approach.

I honestly wouldn’t look at CA as an accurate model for a good faith approach to dealing with gun issues. The closer you look at how the bills here are crafted, the less it makes sense from a logical perspective. It makes plenty of sense through a lens of political gamesmanship though.

The governor’s campaign will be a contest for who can come out most strongly in favor of gun control. Gavin Newsom has been on it since 2016.