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Study shows 3D printed weapons face similar issues as any AM segment

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Whenever the theme of 3D printed weapons is brought up, 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. Recently RAND Research published a new study on the arms trade, and 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 3dpbm 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 only several years from now.

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 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 percent) were the most common listings on the dark web, followed by arms-related digital products (27 percent) and others, including ammunition (22 percent). Pistols were the most commonly listed firearm (84 percent), followed by rifles (10 percent) and sub-machine guns (6 percent).

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.

It seems ironic that, as effective as 3D printing is for personalizing a product, it appears to be just as effective at “de-personalizing” a gun.

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.

Pier Paoli also confirmed that designs for weapon parts could be found on the Dark Web to download and 3D print for just over $10. This, incidentally, is true whether the files become available to be downloaded legally or they do not.

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.

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.

Study shows 3D printed weapons face similar issues as any AM segment