3D-printed weapons: Interpol and defense experts warn of ‘serious’ evolving threat 

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The evolution of 3D-printed weapons poses a “serious threat” if policymaking does not catch up with how fast the technology is evolving, global policing body Interpol told Al Arabiya English in a statement attributed to the General Secretariat. 

The pace of development in the 3D printing industry will likely impact the “sophistication and production” of these weapons, Interpol warned.

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Although the production of 3D-printed weapons is currently limited to small arms and light weapons (SALW), it is expected that the capabilities of this technology and the quality of printing materials will evolve and lead to more powerful and sophisticated weapons. 

“There are already some impressions of weapons of a military nature with appreciable fire potential. The evolution of printing materials will impact the increasing sophistication and production of these weapons and the threat they represent,” the Interpol spokesperson added. 

Experts are concerned about how fast 3D-printing technology is evolving, as several countries worldwide still do not have legal frameworks to prohibit or limit the creation of these weapons. 

“We are facing a serious threat if legal measures are not taken to control the production of printers and printing materials necessary for their use,” he said. 

“The software that allows for the production of these types of weapons should, as far as possible, be banned from the market,” he added, explaining that this could prove difficult because the weapons are often sold in parallel markets. It includes selling on the darknet and in closed forums that can be difficult for law enforcement to access. 

Interpol urged “necessary measures” to stop the potential use of 3D-printed weapons for “illegal means.” 

“If this does not happen, it will be natural that the threat evolves towards producing increasingly sophisticated forms of 3D weapons that are more powerful and reliable, which poses increasing challenges to preventing and controlling their use in the future.”

What are 3D-printed weapons? 

3D-Printed Glock Carbine Kit. (Twitter)
3D-Printed Glock Carbine Kit. (Twitter)

 Defense expert and Assistant Professor of Terrorism and Political Violence at Leiden University’s Institute of Security and Global Affairs, Yannick Veilleux-Lepage, told Al Arabiya English that 3D-printed weapons fall into a broad spectrum. 

“They can go from things like the Liberator, which is this single shot, entirely 3D-printed weapon that’s all plastic except for the firing pin and obviously the ammunition which might be able to shoot five to 10 times before it suffers a catastrophic failure, all the way to something called the FGC9, which, if built correctly, is essentially as lethal, as durable, as effective, and as accurate as a commercially purchased firearm.” 

According to Interpol, “3D-printed weapons” can be categorized as fully 3D-printed firearms, hybrid 3D-printed guns and firearms whose frame is produced in 3D printing. 

Entirely 3D printed firearms are weapons on which all major components are printed, in some cases with only minor non-printed parts. These weapons have a “limited capacity of use due to the absence of metallic components and their fragile structure,” the international policing body told Al Arabiya English. 

Hybrid 3D Printed Firearms are weapons with printed elements used in conjunction with non-controllable metallic parts, such as springs and metallic tubes. 

“The use of these indistinguishable and common elements makes it difficult for police and law enforcement to control. These weapons have some reliability and can, in some situations, be comparable to industrially designed weapons,” Interpol explained. 

Components of a 3D printed firearm. (Twitter)
Components of a 3D printed firearm. (Twitter)

Firearms with 3D-printed frames but with remaining essential components (barrel, firing mechanism, slide and bolt) are commercially produced. 

“These differ from Hybrids due to the reliability of their main components, which, being of industrial production, provide functionality superior to the other categories. There are even kits of such parts ready to be applied to 3D printed frames that allow the assembly of these weapons relatively easily and quickly.” 

“Our concern covers all categories of these firearms since their production and circulation are not uniformly regulated across the globe.” 

For instance, partial kits – the different parts that make up the firearm – are often sold separately in European countries but must be purchased from specialized gunsmiths and are subject to control and registration. This includes having to present serial numbers and marks of origin. 

In other countries, however, these parts are “not controlled in many cases.” 

A 3D printer is seen at the digital encounter of the orange economy Colombia 4.0 in Bogota, Colombia October 25, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)
A 3D printer is seen at the digital encounter of the orange economy Colombia 4.0 in Bogota, Colombia October 25, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)

“[These weapons parts] are not even considered parts of a firearm, but merely ‘spare parts’. As such, they do not have to be registered nor have serial numbers or product identification in most cases,” Interpol General Secretariat said, highlighting that more control is needed to avoid future threats. 

Licensing issues

3D-printed guns are illegal from the moment of creation because they lack serial numbers and are not submitted to any official test bench. 

“Not being registered or manufactured by licensed professionals, who are subject to strict quantitative and qualitative production controls, these weapons are not legal and cannot be legalized, at least according to current legislative criteria in most countries,” the Interpol spokesperson explained. 

Dimitri Karras shows a custom 3D-printed lower receiver for a Glock pistol inside Firearms Unknown, a gun store in Oceanside, California, US, April 12, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
Dimitri Karras shows a custom 3D-printed lower receiver for a Glock pistol inside Firearms Unknown, a gun store in Oceanside, California, US, April 12, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

“Because 3D-printed weapons are overwhelmingly produced illegally, we will continue to pay attention to the threat and, in collaboration with our partners and National Central Bureaus in all 195 Interpol member countries, keep searching for the sources of these types of weapons and provide the necessary support to investigations.” 

“At the same time, national legislation, as well as international firearms trade control treaties and conventions, should reflect this growing threat and draw very specific lines on what should be considered a firearm, its parts and components, and define exactly what can be produced, how and at what scale. Rules should also allow for uniformity between all legal systems, so that police and law enforcement have the necessary tools to tackle the threat posed by 3D-printed weapons effectively.” 

‘Democratization’ of 3D printing tech and information

Veilleux-Lepage said that while the emergence of 3D printing technology does not “change everything,” it highlights an even bigger issue: manufacturing homemade, illegal weapons has become more accessible. 

“I think it’s important that we look back at what we mean by 3D-printed weapons. On one aspect, craft weapons, which essentially means non-professional manufactured weapons that have existed for a very long time, and it existed before the democratization of 3D printing technology, so people for a very long period of time have been able to manufacture craft weapons or even to take illegally obtained decommissioned weapons and re-commissioned them, to reactivate them.”

“The emergence of 3D printing technology doesn’t mean it changes everything. It doesn’t mean that people couldn’t manufacture weapons before, and now they can do it. That’s not the reality of it. What it does mean is that the means to manufacture these weapons have become easier. The bar for entry and the manufacturing of craft weapon has been reduced,” Veilleux-Lepage added. 

The defense expert also said that he had seen an increase in widely available information on manufacturing 3D-printed weapons, pointing to a much more significant threat. 

“Thirty years ago, you could find materials, and you could even subscribe to magazines that will teach you how to build firearms at home. You can now find these very detailed online instruction videos, but also entire communities, where you can go and say: ‘I tried to manufacture this, and this is what’s happening…’ and these communities can help you troubleshoot. This reduces the barrier to entry.”

Hobbyists and gun enthusiasts 

Asked if this meant that anyone could buy a 3D printer and manufacture their own firearm, Veilleux-Lepage said that it, unfortunately, does not require “sophisticated skills” but “trial and error.” 

“This technology is very user-friendly and has been widely democratized. So yes, it is technically [possible], but I wouldn’t say, anyone. I would say it is within the technical realm of most.” 

Despite this, he said that a large number of people who create these weapons are often hobbyists or weapon enthusiasts. 

“There are a huge section of the people that manufacture 3D weapons who are not doing it for any nefarious purposes. They’re not going to sell it; they’re not going to use it to engage in a crime; they’re not going to use it for political violence. A lot of people are genuine, bonafide, reasonable firearm enthusiasts. And this is one way of pushing their craft and interest in firearms.” 

“The other thing that we see is other people that don’t care much about firearms.” 

“They’re passionate about 3D-printed technology. And building a firearm is a challenge. And it’s interesting, and it allows you to kind of push forward your skills, and it’s perfectly legal. So that’s one of the things to keep in mind in these conversations.” 

Lack of statistics and information on 3D-printed weapon seizures

The academic and defense expert said that governments need to inform law enforcement teams about what these weapons and their production could look like. When such weapons are produced with 3D printing technology, they could be made to look like toy guns which may confuse law enforcement officers. 

Seized plastic handguns which were created using 3D printing technology are displayed at Kanagawa police station in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, in this photo taken by Kyodo May 8, 2014. (File photo: Reuters)
Seized plastic handguns which were created using 3D printing technology are displayed at Kanagawa police station in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, in this photo taken by Kyodo May 8, 2014. (File photo: Reuters)

“We’ve had cases in Europe, for example, of there being police raids on an apartment and they think it’s a drug-making operation… a lot of people coming in and out, large electricity consumptions, kind of shady characters ... and they [police] come in and there’s no drugs, and all they see is 15 3D printers.” 

“That operation might be a large scale, kind of commercial scale, gun manufacturing operation. Police officers need to be able to register and understand what it is when they see something like this.”

“If they stop somebody on the street and he’s got this clunky looking pink plastic, gun-like thing that also looks like a water gun that kind of is funky, they need to be able to understand what that is and what they’re dealing with, so that would be like the first order of business,” Veilleux-Lepage explained. 

The expert also added that there seems to be a lack of statistics on these weapon seizures.   

“We need to be able to figure out the scale of this problem in order to decide how to tackle it. Right now, most countries, when they report an arrest with a firearm, they will just say it’s a firearm. They won’t specify the type of firearm.”

More robust legal frameworks needed 

Echoing Interpol’s sentiment, co-founder of international security consulting firm Global Securities and Innovative Strategies (GSIS) and former Chief of Staff at the US Department of Homeland security Noah Kroloff also told Al Arabiya English that “all non-metallic [weapons] are consequential threats.” 

“I don’t think 3D non-metallics is advancing more quickly than other next-gen threats. This is always the challenge for the government: to stay ahead of the next problem. At the executive level of security agencies, I believe the government is taking the threat seriously and, at least in the US, taking measures to address the threat.” 

Veilleux-Lepage said that the US needed the most reform regarding its legal frameworks to prohibit or limit the production of 3D-printed weapons. 

“The Supreme Court judge in the 1990s said that code (coding) or programming is a form of speech. Just like the written word, music, and art – these cannot be infringed upon by government and is within some confines,” Veilleux-Lepage explained, adding that the First Amendment “ostensibly covers the creation and distribution of material related to 3D-printed weapons.” 

“That makes it extremely difficult to curtail the creation, not necessarily of the weapons, but also information about how to create these weapons. We also have things like the 80 percent ruling, making it very difficult to distinguish what counts as a firearm and what doesn’t.” 

“The United States is probably where this technology is the least regulated. And it’s also where we see the biggest communities of hobbyists of 3D-printed weapons now.” 

In contrast, Kroloff said that without a “robust regulatory framework” on the matter, “a host of active countermeasures can be implemented to detect and deter such weapons.” 

“This is really where technology is on pace with technology. For example, AI-based anomaly detection can help law enforcement detect and deter the transit and carry of such weapons in public spaces, such as airports or critical infrastructure. In the absence of regulatory frameworks, these types of solutions can be fashioned for security to keep pace with the technology development,” Kroloff said. 

3D printed firearm. (Twitter)
3D printed firearm. (Twitter)

As of yet, several countries have taken measures to limit or prohibit the production of these weapons and the availability of information on how to create them. 

For instance, it is illegal in Singapore to have documentation on creating these weapons, said Veilleux-Lepage. 

“Just having access to these files that you would use [to create weapons] is illegal in Singapore.” 

“Same thing in Australia, in the state of New South Wales. It’s also illegal to have the instructions on how to do it and then the rest in most other Western countries. The United States aside, the legislation makes it illegal to create 3D printed weapons, not because they’re 3D-printed, but because the legislation makes it illegal to create your own weapon.” 

“So, in many countries like Canada, for example, you don’t need a new piece of legislation. On this, you need enforcement of exact existing legislation on why you can’t create a shotgun using a pipe and a nail, for example.” 

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