The news that a few jokers in Texas calling themselves Defense Distributed have succeeded in creating a working handgun using 3-D printing technology has thrown the cat into the pigeon coop. The reaction from legislators in the United States has been hyperactive. Democratic Congressman Steve Israel from New York was first out of the starting stalls: he had already sponsored a bill that would outlaw "non-detectable weapons"; now, he announced, he would add regulations concerning 3-D-printed guns. "Security checkpoints, background checks and gun regulations will do little good," he told the New York Daily News, "if criminals can print their own plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser."

For their part, the gun printers lost no opportunity to hype up their achievement. "I'm seeing a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want," declared Cody Wilson, the head of Defense Distributed. "It's not up to the political players any more." This is the kind of fancy talk that leads editorial writers to cower in their bunkers, wondering about runaway technology and where it's taking us, while in another part of the forest technology evangelists were fretting that the boffins of Defense Distributed were giving 3-D printing a very bad name.

Which indeed they are. But in fact everybody's been giving 3-D printing some kind of name. It's variously seen as: a revolutionary technology that will transform manufacturing and bring jobs back to the United States; a grievous threat to intellectual property; a democratizing technology that will empower individuals; a powerful force for good in medicine; a new way of doing haute couture; and an overblown, over-hyped fad.