The legality of using 3D printers to produce firearms has made headlines here and in the US, but what of the actual practicalities? By Royce Kurmelovs.

3D-printed weapons and the law

A 3D-printed handgun.
A 3D-printed handgun.
Credit: AP Photo / Eric Gay

Last week, Sicen Sun, an unassuming accounts manager at an advertising agency, walked into the New South Wales District Court to face sentencing, and said he was sorry.

In 2017, the 28-year-old cosplay enthusiast and 3D-printing hobbyist was arrested and charged with offences including possession of a digital blueprint for the manufacture of firearms, manufacturing a pistol without a licence permit and possession of an unauthorised pistol. All he had wanted to do was make an elaborate, true-to-life toy.

Using blueprints sourced from a website that also offered plans for keychains and doorstops, he had printed real-world replica firearms including the P90 submachine gun used by United States law enforcement officers, alongside others from computer games such as Halo.

His replica firearms were so good, he told the court, he had wanted recognition, posting one of his models to a Facebook group with an asking price of $1 million, which attracted the attention of police. While none were capable of being fired, Sun is the first Australian to face potential jail time over 3D-printed guns.

“I could not even begin to contemplate that a hobby would land me in such strife,” he said.

Sun’s case highlights a sharp contrast with the United States, where in the same week self-described “crypto-anarchist” Cody Wilson found himself in renewed legal trouble over his efforts to release plans for workable 3D-printed guns to the public.

Wilson’s fight dates back to 2013, when he stood on a gun range in Texas and pulled the trigger on the first bullet to be fired from a 3D-printed firearm. Footage from the test was uploaded to the internet and, as the clip went viral, Wilson released the plans through the website of his company, Defense Distributed. Within a week, US authorities sent him a takedown notice for exporting weapons without a licence and demanded the plans for the single-shot “Liberator” pistol be taken off the web.

By then, though, it was too late. The plans had already been downloaded some 100,000 times and were soon added to popular torrent-sharing websites, meaning people didn’t even have to access the “dark web” to find them.

Citing free speech, Wilson partnered with Defense Distributed to sue the US government over the takedown. Last month, that fight came to a head when the US Justice Department finally settled and said it would allow people to “access, discuss, use [and] reproduce” the data. Wilson quickly claimed victory in the media.

“I consider it a truly grand thing,” he told Wired. “It will be an irrevocable part of political life that guns are downloadable, and we helped to do that.”

However, Wilson may have spoken too soon. Last week, a US federal judge issued an injunction after 19 states and the District of Columbia combined forces to challenge the settlement and block the release hours before the plans were due to go online once more. The Trump administration was attacked for flip-flopping on the issue by allowing the Department of Justice to settle out of court, although the White House defended itself, saying it had not been consulted when the decision was made.

The process popularly called “3D printing” has been known since the 1980s as “additive manufacturing”. With time, it has come to be seen as the cutting edge of advanced manufacturing for its potential to, essentially, make anything.

That promise – the ability to print anything from pharmaceuticals to new structures and even human flesh – may be hopeful, but as the cases of Sicen Sun and Cody Wilson show, may also come with a dark side, particularly when legal systems have to react to these new challenges.

Richard Matthews, a PhD candidate with the University of Adelaide whose research areas include additive manufacturing, says a key issue for Australia to grapple with as 3D gun plans become more widely available is jurisdiction.

The specifics may vary from state to state but, at least in principle, Australia maintains a uniform framework for strictly regulating the ownership, possession, licensing and use of firearms. It is also illegal to manufacture a firearm without a licence.

Thanks to a technical quirk of the internet’s design, most of Australia’s internet traffic flowing from the US arrives through undersea cables to servers in New South Wales. From there, it splits off to the rest of the country – which is a problem when NSW is the only state to have express clauses outlawing the possession of plans needed to 3D print a firearm. This could potentially mean someone downloading a blueprint for a firearm with information coming from the US could be prosecuted under NSW law, even if they live elsewhere.

As yet, there has been no test case to determine this. But it’s really only a matter of time.

“I would liken it to an Anarchist Cookbook situation,” Matthews says. “Once it’s been put in the public domain, it’s in the public domain.”

In 1971, during the peak of the countercultural movements in the US, teenager William Powell wrote and distributed The Anarchist Cookbook, which became notorious for its dangerously unsafe recipes for making low-grade explosives.

In reality, the book’s how-to guides were less of a danger to the community at large and far more of a risk to anyone who actually attempted them. It was banned for sale within Australia during the 1980s. With the advent of the internet, the book made the jump to digital and continues to be circulated online.

When it comes to 3D-printed firearms, the story is a little more complex, says Raphael Garcia, a 3D-printing educator based at Flinders University. Like stem cells research or other technologies that may be met with concern, the idea of DIY-weapons at home is more a product of misinformation.

“You can fall into this trap of thinking that this is a perfect genie machine that is capable of producing anything,” Garcia says of the printers.

“Like a Star Trek replicator,” his colleague Aron Hausler adds.

Garcia, who graduated from Flinders a few years ago with a degree in mechatronic engineering and an honours degree earnt by leading a team that designed an automated taco machine, trains staff and students to use a bank of 3D printers in the university’s “innovation hub”.

On the day I visit, two university staff, one scribbling notes, the other listening intently, watch as he runs through the basics of manipulating a CAD (computer-aided design) drawing and the process of bringing a design to life. A cooling fan hums in the background, an active printer chirps.

The cheapest printer is a $200 piece of equipment Garcia bought on eBay for simple jobs. In the back corner of the open-plan office stands a solid grey block, capable of more advanced projects involving both hard and soft plastics, which retails for about $250,000. Each cartridge of plastic can cost up to $1800.

“When I first started, I was amazed about how much it money it all cost,” Garcia admits.

He shows off a few of the things he’s made in his small lab: an attachment you can clip onto a smartphone that turns the device into a cheap field microscope; a prototype test kit for doctors in North Africa looking for a way to easily and cheaply test for flesh-eating bacteria; an octagonal knick-knack made of interconnected gears printed in situ that would be impossible to make without 3D printing (Garcia calls it his “brain gear”).

When it comes to 3D-printed guns, Garcia, like Matthews, is sceptical. The current laws in place are effective, they say, and the technical barriers make a 3D-printed gun a not very attractive prospect.

As far as the Liberator pistol is concerned, the ease with which its plan can be accessed has allowed others to remix the designs. While the original pistol could only fire a single, low-velocity bullet before the barrel melted, others have since improved upon it by adding metal componentry. Defense Distributed has also gone on to release plans for 3D-printable components for the AR-15 and AK-47 rifles.

However, this need for additional parts means a person cannot just hit print and walk away with a firearm. And though the technology makes complex tasks easy, not all 3D printers are made equal. A desktop 3D printer has inherent limitations that can only be overcome with a more advanced machine, which can cost millions.

In 2016, Queensland police made headlines when they raided a property and arrested a man for, among other things, attempting to 3D-print a submachine gun. While much of the focus was on the 3D-printed components, more detailed reports noted that police also found an industrial lathe used to create additional parts that the gun could not work without. It’s been a similar story for others found in raids since.

Then there is the problem of materials. Because a plastic 3D-printed gun is constructed in layers, it is structurally weak and vulnerable to the heat generated by firing off a round.

“Plastic,” explains Matthews, simply, “tends to explode.”

The gold-standard for any 3D-printed firearm is metal. Desktop 3D-printers that can handle the material are hitting the market, but their price tag starts about $10,000 and the functions they perform are limited – meaning they are better suited to jewellers than gunsmiths. Although Cody Wilson’s Defense Distributed is again looking to change that. Since the early days of the Liberator, the company has now moved on to selling milling machines that make untraceable components out of aluminium for weapons such as the AR-15 assault rifle.

That machine can’t produce a complete gun from scratch, but Matthews says the same task can already be performed using a drill press or an industrial lathe.

“It’s far simpler to go down to your local hardware store, purchase some items off the shelf, and you can make yourself something cheaper than by using a 3D printer,” he says. “It’s still a crime.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 11, 2018 as "Trigger points".

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