During a raid this week on a house in Australia, police discovered a cache of 3-D printed weapons. The arsenal— a set of knuckle dusters and plastic parts believed to be four disassembled guns—was found with some pot, ammo, and a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle.
Officers couldn't make an arrest for possession of parts, but they still took the man in for the other illegal crap he had lying around (guns aren't illegal in Australia, but have been tightly controlled since 1996 —and sawed-offs rarely fly anywhere). In the process, they confiscated the printed parts to confirm they would have been used to create mostly plastic guns, which may result in further charges.
3-D printed guns have drawn quite a bit of attention since 2013, thanks largely to Motherboard's documentary Click, Print, Gun on Cody Wilson, a printed gun wunderkind who pioneered the technology. His Liberator pistol, a functional, one-shot, cheap-and-easy gun (plastic save for one metal plate included so it would show up on metal detectors, complying with America's Undetectable Firearms Act) ushered in a glut of innovation in multi-shot, durable, and cheap gun models, distributed widely over the internet.
At the same time, law enforcement officials have been unphased by the weapons, calling them defective, unreliable, and weak. In the Australian case, police actually talked about the printed gun parts as if they were more a risk of injury to the manufacturer than the potential victim.
To figure out whether the current printed gun scene is something we should be freaking out about, we caught up with Cody Wilson to talk about the popularity of printing lethal weapons, recent advances in home gun tech, and why he and others make the things in the first place.
VICE: What do you make of the haul in Australia? Do you see any indication of a growing concern by police about printed weapons?
Cody Wilson: This was obviously someone who has some kind of connection to the criminal world. But I don't think that I'm finding a particular skittishness on the part of the police about guns. Once they find them, however, it brings up this bigger problem, which is that they don't know who's printing them. The more terrifying thought is how many people in Australia have printed guns for the last couple years just to do it, or because they're criminals? It's probably a much larger number than we might guess.
This derringer that they found [the type of gun Wilson believes the Australian parts were intended for]—I was looking at it last night, and it looked like it was probably a PLA Reprringer derringer. It was mostly like a compound zip gun [an improvised firearm often made out of pipe and tape], not a pure 3-D printed gun. It still shoots, but really the 3-D printed parts just hold the metal assets together. It's not a gun like the Liberator is. You could still go to a hardware store and make a zip gun, which would be much more effective.
Do you have any sense of how common 3-D gun printing is these days? Over the past year or so the technology's gotten pretty accessible. It's not as hard as it was back in the time of the Liberator.
I agree with you and I disagree.
I do think that there's been a wider dissemination of 3-D printers that can do this kind of work. But at the same time the retail space has advanced a type of printing that's not good for gun printing—specifically PLA driven printers . If you really mean to do all plastic guns, you want APS, which is not a common technique in most available printers.
I believe PLA is cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and probably better for engineering reasons for a wider number of applications. MakerBot eventually went all PLA.
Same thing with the file availability. We can probably admit that the files have been more disseminated across the internet in the last couple of years, but the Pirate Bay was taken down successfully—a lot of the torrent sites have been taken down. As a result many of the more accessible files have become a bit more difficult to find. You kind of have to know where the specialized communities are to go get them there.
I think that it's kind of a wash.
Does that mean it would be easy for anyone to track down a person who's printing 3-D guns? Because the tools needed to create one are getting so niche?
You know, yeah. If certain authorities or sovereign governments have it higher up on their priority list, yeah, it would be pretty easy to map out most of the actors in this field, especially online, and then track the people visiting those communities on 4Chan and other websites and very quickly get an understanding of who the personalities are.
The Reprringer was pretty innovative when it came out, but what are we capable of now?
I'm not trying to shit on the gun at all. It's a great concept. There are all kinds of hybrid concepts floating around and we know that that derringer was tested and we know that it worked.
But the guns tested so far [beyond the tests being done at Defense Distributed, the 3-D gun printing research and schematics publisher founded by Cody] have been similar concepts in ABS and PLA—the same materials we were working with 2-3 years ago.
Defense Distributed bought a carbon fiber printer almost a year ago. The material sheets on some of these are way stronger than ABS, and we're thinking there are whole other concepts available like [home printed] extractor mechanisms and semi-automatics.
Basically there's a couple of things that I don't want to say we've done yet—but we've done them. And I don't want to release the details until we have a clear avenue to put them back on the internet. So the field definitely has advanced, it's just publicly it hasn't advanced as much as you might think.
But a lot of people don't have access to those more expensive materials.
How expensive are the kinds of advances you're creating these improved guns with?
They're not really prohibitively expensive—in fact they're comparable to what we were paying a couple of years ago [for plastic guns like the Liebrator]. We're still talking like five, six grand machines for a totally different class of materials. That seems fair to me.
And as soon as this stuff gets out there, there'll be markets for people to start producing more of the materials. Then the prices will fall. These machines are being developed for the home user.
Are 3-D printed weapons something people should worry about more than other firearms?
No. I think in the main 3-D guns are still ghosts that don't actually exist. The Liberator was the closest we've gotten to a full plastic gun that, according to police, can be snuck through metal detectors and move undetected through airports.
Most of the guns that we're seeing in the news actually rely upon a large amount of metal and are really no different from the improvised weapons that we've been dealing with for a couple of centuries. So I'm not going to say that there's nothing new here. But the more things change the more they stay the same.
Has a 3-D printed weapon been used to commit a crime up to now that you know of?
No. I know people who've gone to jail for 3-D printing guns, but not for [committing a] crime.
Why do you and Defense Distributed make 3-D printed guns? What's a maker's intention in producing them and in spreading the technology around the world for free?
Where goods can't travel across borders (Australia's a gun control nation) files can still go there.
The entire world has an antipathy to the popular access to arms and will do everything in its power to divert and frustrate the idea of the common man having access to especially military-grade weapons. And I have an ideology that says you should have access to military-grade weapons. [Defense Distributed] is going to do everything it can to put the files and the information related to the manufacture of military-grade weapons into the public domain for all people to have.
I think the rifle is a birthright and I think it's an instrument of political decision. As a last resort, you should always be able to murder your government.
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