How to stop a plastic gun murder

Governments must take steps to stop the spread of these printable weapons

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This month a new character walked onto the stage of 3D printed guns.  Let me introduce to you the six-barrelled Hexen pepperbox revolver. A video of the home-printed pistol was posted online a fortnight ago, demonstrating it could successfully fire a succession of live rounds. The designer even included ammunition holders for the pistol.

OK – so it might not be the most frightening gun you have ever seen, but it’s another worrying milestone in the evolution of the plastic gun. An evolution even the establishment is waking up to.  Earlier this month the Victoria & Albert museum displayed the first functional 3D printed gun - a Liberator pistol by Texan Cody Wilson.

For fear of frightening the horses, it must be made clear that 3D printers are, for the moment, pretty limited.  They can’t really work with hardened materials and metals – things guns tend to be made of. But the technology is advancing at a rapid pace: prices are dropping, designs proliferating and the materials 3D printers can work with are diversifying. And with this rapid development, so too are the types of guns being made.

Two years ago, the 3D printed gun was a theory.  Today, it’s possible to print a magazine for an AR-15 assault rifle, a lower receiver for the same weapon, an entire single-shot .380 calibre pistol, or a .22 calibre rifle. And now a six-shooter.

Sure, none of these are likely to put Smith and Wesson out of business anytime soon. They all break, have poor accuracy, are unreliable and – being plastic – still pose a considerable danger to the shooter.

So, especially in countries like the US where guns are so ubiquitous that they are given away with the opening of a new bank account or a car purchase, the printed-gun’s shortcomings need to be addressed before they’re regarded as anything but a curiosity. But these teething problems will likely be overcome sooner than later and that should worry all of us.

Unlike commercially manufactured firearms, 3D printed weapons can be made untraceable, without serial numbers or other information used for tracking them. They can also be made in contravention of existing firearm controls – magazine capacity limits or limitations on automatic firing could be a moot point to someone with intent and a 3D printer.

In fact, 3D printed firearms might actually be preferable to traditional guns for certain uses.  Plastic guns can be smuggled into areas protected by metal detectors. And the lack of serial numbers would leave the police with no usable trace to follow.

People might argue you have always had the capability to make guns at home on a lathe.  But gunsmiths require skill and knowledge. Compare this to a 3D printer costing a few hundred pounds and a would-be assassin armed with a downloaded blueprint. All they need to do is to print it out and get ammunition – something that’s not hard to come by.

The challenge for governments to all of this is great. But if child pornography has been pushed into the shadows of the Internet, why could the blueprint files for 3D guns not be similarly restricted? 

3D printers could also be required to make their printouts traceable. How to do this?  Well, 3D printers could mandatorily carry a record of every output they create – perhaps accessible only to warrant-bearing policemen. Or all 3D printers could be required to imprint unique serial numbers on their creations, allowing the product to be traced back to the creator. Such systems could potentially be hacked or overcome, of course, but they would significantly raise the barrier to entry to untraceable weapons.

It is unlikely the 3D printing of weapons can be completely stopped or controlled. But the potential problem can be contained and controlled rather than be allowed to run rampant.

Because if that happens, one day we’ll have our next milestone: a plastic gun murder.

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