3D printed guns are not new, but it is not an area which is generally well-known or understood -- nor the possible effects that being able to print weapons at home will have on the criminal underground.
It was back in 2013 that the first blueprints of handguns appeared online for public consumption. The gun in question was the Liberator, a gun which cost only $25 to print and was able to fire eight rounds in a single barrel.
The CAD files for the weapon were released by Defense Distributed, ran by Cody Wilson, which was the first organization to make 3D printed gun blueprints open-source.
This led to a modified design called the "Lulz Liberator" being released by a third-party which could be printed through a commercially-available printer.
As with any kind of technology, time causes evolution.
Countless CAD and design files are now freely available for download which can include concept gun designs and components, adapters, cylinders, bullets, barrels, molds, and rails which all can be discovered with the click of a button through multiple websites and torrent files.
It is not always required, these days, to have much technical know-how behind you in order to print weapons at home. The Ghost Gunner, for example, is a printer specifically designed to manufacture guns, and is advertised as a way to "legally manufacture unserialized rifles and pistols in the comfort and privacy of home."
Texas-based Defense Distributed has fought for years to be able to release its blueprints to the public and there have been times in the past in which blueprints have been made available for a short time on the company website -- such as in the case of the Liberator pistol -- before being shut down.
Wilson's blueprints were originally censored under firearms export laws, namely, the US International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
Rather than bite the bullet, Wilson took the matter to court, arguing that his right to bear arms and freely share information were both being abused, resulting in a quiet settlement by the US government earlier this year.
"If code is speech, the constitutional contradictions are evident," Wilson told Wired at the time of the lawsuit. "So what if this code is a gun?"
Defense Distributed was granted permission by the US Department of State to open its design repository to the public through the DEFCAD domain.
In total, there are 10 designs, including the original Liberator, an AR-15 design, AR-10, and Beretta M9.
A number of states appealed the ruling and a federal judge in the Western District of Washington then issued a temporary restraining order on DEFCAD.
No matter which side of the fence you sit on, the Pandora's box of printable firearms has already been opened and the legal case in itself appears to ignore how widespread and freely available weapon designs already are online.
"The guns are downloadable, the files are in the public domain, you cannot take them back," Wilson says -- and he's right.
The issue, however, goes far beyond US shores. In Australia, for example, a man from Sydney is potentially facing jail time after printing replica guns at home for sale.
See also: 'Maybe I'll go to hell,' 3D printed plastic gun developer Cody Wilson admits
We are unlikely to see hordes of people touting 3D printed guns on the street anytime soon. 3D printing is expensive -- albeit the cost of home systems are slowly coming down year after year -- and both sourcing and correctly using materials suitable for weapon production is not an easy thing to accomplish.
(For an in-depth look in the technical challenges, check out ZDNet's David Gewirtz's analysis.)
Defense Distributed sees the future as such: according to Wired, "a future where milling machine and other digital fabrication tools -- such as consumer-grade aluminum-sintering 3D printers that can print objects in metal -- can make practically any digital gun component materialize in someone's garage."
In the UK, gun laws are incredibly strict. The 1997 Firearms Amendments Act was passed by the government following the shooting of school children in Dublaine in 1996.
The law effectively outlaws the ownership of pistols, and owing rifles & shotguns for recreational sports or hunting are heavily regulated and require licensing.
However, there is a constant demand for guns in the United Kingdom for criminal purposes and gang-related activities.
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In the year ending 31 March 2017, there were a total of 6,375 firearm offenses recorded in England & Wales, an increase of 23 percent in comparison to 5,182 offenses recorded in the previous year.
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Handguns remain the weapon of choice, accounting for 42 percent of non-air firearm offenses. Knife and gun offenses were "disproportionately concentrated" in London and other metropolitan areas, according to the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The ONS does not release gang-related crime or active gang figures, but violent knife and gun crimes are on the rise.
Deserialized, blank, and antique weapons from previous wars and conflicts all end up on UK streets. Some of these guns are modified to accept homemade bullets. A recent documentary on gang culture in the UK suggested that prices range from five hundred pounds for an antique pistol to many more thousands of pounds for an automatic firearm.
Where these guns are sourced is of interest. Former gang member Jason Cook told Vice:
"When I used guns, I made sure they were the real deal and not antiques, replicas, decommissioned guns that had been reactivated, or anything like that.
This depends on the criminal, though -- people will still use those kinds of guns to shoot, even though they don't always work properly and can sometimes explode in your hand.
At the end of the day, a gun's still a gun, whether it looks as if it stepped out of a Western or not."
According to Europol, "the reactivation of deactivated weapons and conversion of blank-firing firearms are among the main sources of illegal firearms trafficked in the EU."
When an archaic, battered weapon can fetch such prices in the black market, should there be an alternative, it is likely that the market will take off.
It only takes a handful of suppliers that invest in the technology to make custom 3D weaponry cheap to acquire, and while unlikely to become preferred to automatic firearms for the most serious criminals, the would-be gang members on the street could prove to be the ideal customer.
3D printing is only going to become better and cheaper over time, and it is possible that 3D printing may become another problem for law enforcement to tackle. There are only so many post-war firearms available, after all, but 3D printing could offer a limitless supply of weapons.
Cynical it may be, but when you consider the lack of police resources, the sliding numbers of police on the beat, and the lack of control over crimes already taking place across the country, it is unlikely that the force will be able to keep up should printable guns become the next big thing on the streets.
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