Whenever an article or a study is published which focuses on 3D printed weapons a sort of schizophrenic mass hysteria emerges from both sides of the battlefield. The generalist media and public panic over the idea of anyone turning terrorist and 3D printing a gun in his own home; 3D printing enthusiasts and industry operators tend to downplay the issue, claiming the topic is just click-baiting. After RAND Research published a new study on the arms trade, we spoke with the author of the study, Giacomo Persi Paoli, to understand exactly if, and how much, we should fear the reaper.
The first issue is that yes, in fact 3D printed weapons are viewed in the report as a potential, yet very real, threat. This, however, must be contextualized with the actual very limited impact that 3D printing – especially home 3D printing – has on global manufacturing. At 3D Printing Business Media we are concerned primarily with the present and the near term future so it should be said that, if they are going to be a threat, easily 3D printed weapons will be one a few years from now.
“While on one hand it is true that a relatively high performance 3D printer, capable of using relatively high performance composite material for metal replacement applications, is now quite affordable,” Pier Paoli says, “it is also true that 3D printing an entire gun, if you are not familiar with the process, is very difficult. Nevertheless the technology and the materials are evolving rapidly and much has changed in terms of availability since we first published a report on this subject in 2014.”
At the same time, when it comes to large scale weapons trafficking, 3D printing technologies are not able to compete with traditional approaches. Pier Paoli agrees that a criminal organization that would potentially use 3D printing for large scale weapons requirements, would find current 3D printers to be too slow and unreliable and would be likely to continue to use its traditional illicit channels.
The report focuses on the the proliferation and illicit international movement of firearms and explosives worldwide involves a complex mix of interrelated issues. It finds that despite efforts to regulate firearms, there are multiple avenues for entrepreneurial criminals to bypass controls and traffic weapons across international borders. This issue has emerged as particularly relevant for EU security, despite the stringent firearms control measures.
One possible avenue is via the ‘dark web’, which hosts many different online black markets that facilitate the sale of firearms, weapons, explosives and banned digital materials. The role of the dark web has grown in prominence in recent years following its link to the 2016 Munich Shooting, where a lone-wolf terrorist used a weapon purchased on the dark web. These terror attacks cemented widespread public concern that the dark web is an enabler and facilitator for terrorists and organized criminals seeking firearms. However, despite these concerns, very little is known about the size and scope of the weapons trade on the dark web.
With all that considered the threat of exchanging 3D printable weapons files digitally does exist.
RAND Europe and the University of Manchester partnered to conduct the study, which was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council through the Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research. Overall, the project set out to understand the methods of buying and selling firearms and related products on the dark web, with a particular focus on the size and scope of their availability in cryptomarkets.
The dark web is increasing the availability of better performing, more recent firearms for the same, or lower, price, than what would be available on the street on the black market. The US appears to be the most common source country for arms that are for sale on the dark web. In this scenario, firearms listings (42 per cent) were the most common listings on the dark web, followed by arms-related digital products (27 per cent) and others, including ammunition (22 per cent). Pistols were the most commonly listed firearm (84 per cent), followed by rifles (10 per cent) and sub-machine guns (6 per cent).
The trade in arms-related digital products poses additional complex challenges. These products are often guides that provide tutorials for a wide range of illegal actions, ranging from the conversion of replica/alarm guns into live weapons, to the full manufacture of home-made guns and explosives, and also include models that can be turned into fully-working firearms through 3D printing.
Once again this trend follows the same dynamics as any other adoption segment for 3D printing. While entire, functional products may be decades away, 3D printers can actually be used to produce “replacement parts”. While in the aerospace industry and mobility industries – and even in the medical segment – these replacement parts offer incredible opportunities in terms of on-demand, distributed and personalized manufacturing, in the weapons industry they may offer criminals possibilities in terms of avoiding traceability of their weapons.
The irony here is that as effective as 3D printing is for personalizing a product, it appears to be just as effective at “de-personalizing” a gun.
“Legal weapon manufacturers go to extreme lengths to place items which make any weapon traceable to its legal owner,” say Pier Paoli. “If these items are replaced with functional parts it becomes very easy to make a weapon untraceable. We realize that reliable polymer-based materials may not be avilable yet but composite materials and metal replacement polymer have evolved significantly over the past three years, especially for use in 3D printing. In fact even some military grade weapons and even bullets can now be made of plastics.”
The dark web is unlikely to be the method of choice to fuel conflicts because arms are not traded at a large enough scale and due to the potential limitations on infrastructure and services in a conflict zone. Even more so for 3D printed weapons. On the other hand, the dark web has the potential to become the platform of choice for individuals (e.g. lone-wolves terrorists) or small groups (e.g. gangs) to obtain weapons and ammunition behind the anonymity curtain provided by the dark web. In addition, the dark web could be used by vulnerable and fixated individuals to purchase firearms.
“In this case the availability of home 3D printing also plays a part,” says Pier Paoli. “Today a lone wolf or even a madman who decides to acquire an illegal weapon still have to deal with an underground world which is dangerous and complicated to an outsider. While acquiring the digital 3D printable files, 3D printing the parts and assembling the weapon may also require a particular set of skills, it does not involve any specific danger to the person and could be seen as one less limitation”.
Pier Paoli also confirmed that designs for weapon parts can be found on the Dark Web do download and 3D print for just over $10.
The illegal arms trade presents further challenges for law enforcement agencies and national governments. These challenges largely derive from the anonymity of individuals that use the dark web to purchase arms.
Final Remarks and Observations
The dark web introduces a new platform enabling arms trafficking at a global scale. Despite the relatively limited value and volume of weapons traded on the dark web compared to either other products type (e.g. drugs) or to equivalent products trafficked offline, the potential impact on internal security is significant as demonstrated by recent ‘lone-wolf’ terrorist attacks in Europe.
The report also concludes that existing international instruments for combating arms trafficking should not be considered obsolete. The validity of some instruments should certainly be examined and perhaps require amendments, but the emergence of a new threat does not necessarily require the creation of new instruments. At the same time it is clear that the report does not accuse 3D printing as a technology – with the author’s fascination with the technology’s potential being one of the reasons he has conducted this study of his own initiative – however pretending that the risk does not exist may mean letting it grow to a point where it becomes too big. The web and 3D printing are democratizing and liberating technologies, and this great power inevitably comes with great responsibilities.