3D Printed Weapons: A Threat to National and International Security?


Chesspieces, automotive parts, chairs, geometrical objects, food, medical protheses, toys, paperweights and jewelry are a few of the examples of the items that can be made with a 3D printer. There are many types of 3D printers, ranging from a simple 3D printer for home use to a very big industrial type with which large objects can be created. The machines can use any substance in liquid or powder form.

Chesspieces, automotive parts, chairs, geometrical  objects, food, medical protheses, toys, paperweights and jewelry are a few of the examples of the items that can be made with a 3D printer. There are many types of 3D printers, ranging from a simple 3D printer for home use to a very big industrial type with which large objects can be created. The machines can use any substance in liquid or powder form.

In addition to the trendy gadgets, designer jewelry, industrial, medical and other practical objects that have been created with the 3D printing technology, components for lethal firearms have now also been successfully made with a 3D printer. By using CAD blueprints which can be downloaded from the internet, anyone with a 3D printing device can now make a gun at home. A scary development. The 3D printing of gun parts may still be in its infancy, but the gun parts that can be created with a 3D printer can definitely be lethal. Components of guns that have been created by using a 3D printer are untraceable on a security metal detector. In other words, people can smuggle a plastic gun through a metal detector without being detected. The gun can be used and discarded in an easy way since plastic 3D gun parts do not have serial numbers and can not easily be traced back to its manufacturer.

Cody Wilson, a 24-year-old law student from Texas and a small group of friends who call themselves "Defense Distributed",  launched an initiative in 2012 called the "Wiki Weapon Project". The plastic handgun designed by Defense Distributed is called the Liberator. It was Wilson's dream to design a gun and upload the software on the internet so people can build it with the help of a 3D printer: "We want to show this principle: that a handgun is printable".

After "Defense Distributed" posted the Liberator's CAD blueprint design which could be used on 3D printers, it had been downloaded more than a 100,000 times in just 2 days. The State Department demanded that the files would be removed. However, the instructions to create this plastic handgun are still available on file-sharing portals like Pirate Bay. Cody Wilson: "People all over the world are downloading this stuff all the time - way more people than actually have 3D printers [...] This is hot stuff on the Internet right now".

Plastic 3D-printed guns like the Liberator are untraceable. These guns do not have a serial number and are not registered. This makes it attractive for organised crime, terrorists, lone wolves and others to print their weapons on a large scale. One can print the gun at home without the need to go through all appropriate legal and administrative channels to obtain a gun. 

The 3D printing of handguns is still in development. After the Liberator, other types of plastic 3D printed handguns have been designed, for example the Grizzly. But also metal guns have been created with the help of a 3D printer (see picture). However, the production of guns with 3D printers is not without danger.

According to Wilson the Wiki Weapon Project is legal. 3D Printing a gun is allowed when the weapon is created solely for personal use. A 3D printed gun is considered illegal when it is manufactured for commercial purposes.  As stated in the US Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 it is illegal to manufacture, own, transport, buy or sell firearms that can not be detected by a metal detector. Therefore, plastic guns should at least contain 3.7 ounces of metal. For example, the Liberator was designed with metal parts so its design would meet these legal requirements. However, the metal part of the Liberator plays no functional role; it is not needed in order to shoot with the gun. When the metal part is removed, the gun can easily pass a metal detector without being detected.

Functional 3D-printed guns can fire a bullet and probably kill people. This is a very unwelcome development according to Troels Oerting Joergensen, head of the European Cybercrime Centre of Europol. When criminals and others who wish to cause harm choose to use this technology to make untraceable and or easily discardable handguns, it would pose a serious threat to national and international security. This raises many questions. For example, how can security be maintained and improved? Is the current legislation able to cope with these technological developments? Can the use of 3D printers to create handguns be prohibited? Could new technological devices and software be developed to easily detect non-metal gun parts?

According to the Undetectable Firearms Act  which was about to expire on 9 December 2013, it is not required for guns to have a unremovable metal parts inside. A minimum amount of metal is needed for guns to be detected by x-ray machines and metal detectors. This is a loophole in current US legislation.

In order to close this loophole, US Senator Chuck Schumer wanted to extend ban on 'undetectable' 3D-printed guns and proposed a ban on detachable metal parts, like the metal part that was designed for the Liberator 3D printable handgun. Congressman Steve Israel proposed a similar bill to close the loophole in current law. According to his proposal, metal components of a plastic gun must be permanent and unremovable. In other words: according to this proposal it should be impossible to shoot the gun without the metal parts.

He warned that if the Undetectable Firearms Act would not be renewed "individuals will be able to easily carry a 3D plastic gun through a metal detector and gain access to the airplane, school, sporting event, courthouse or other government buildings". Schumer believes in the usefulness of the technology of 3D printers but that one should make sure that its use for harmful purposes is restricted by the necessary legislation: "3D printers are a miraculous technology that have the potential to revolutionise manufacturing, but we need to make sure they are not being used to make deadly, undetectable weapons." 

On 9 December 2013 the Senate approved a 10-year extension of the Undetectable Firearms Act in order to restrict the ability to create 3D-printed guns. Unfortunately, the bills proposed by Senator Mark Schumer and Steve Israels to ban detachable metal parts were rejected by the Federal government. Philadelpia showed a more preventive approach by officially banning the manufacturing of 3D-printed guns. It is the first US city to do so.

The European Union has much stricter laws to control the use of guns than the United States of America. The legislative framework on firearms of the European Union is mainly based on the UN Firearms Protocol (UNFP)Unlike US law, EU legislation does not contain a right for EU citizens to freely bear arms.  Directive 91/477/EEC and Directive 2008/51/EC deal with the control of acquisition, the possession of weapons and the facilitation of the flow of guns in the European Union. Regulation 258/2012 is concerned with trade and transfers with countries outside the EU.  The manufacturing of 3D-printed guns is banned by EU legislation. Even though many EU countries have well-functioning legislation to control the use of firearms, differences between national legislation facilitate the exploitation of gaps in the law by terrorists and organised crime groups. In order to deal with the threat of 3D-printed guns and ammunition, the Commission aims to create a manual to combat the danger of illegal internet-based firearms trafficking. Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, will investigate the threat posed by 3D-printed weapons and ammunition.

In case national, regional and international firearms legislation would not be properly and effectively updated and enforced, this could lead to an explosive growth of the production of undetectable, untraceable  and unregistered (parts of ) 3D-printed firearms. This would pose a serious threat to security.