October 30, 2013

Authorities Worry 3-D Printers May Undermine Europe’s Gun Laws

I wrote this piece for The New York Times

The gun fired four shots into a gelatin block. Each nine-millimeter bullet punched deep into the substance, which was meant to mimic the density of a human body.
For the experts at the Austrian Interior Ministry performing the test, it was a clear sign: This was a deadly weapon.
But it was no ordinary gun. The officials had downloaded the gun’s digital blueprints from the Internet and “printed” the weapon on a type of 3-D printer that any person could buy online for about $1,360. It took the Austrian authorities 30 hours, and maybe $68 worth of plastic polymer, built up layer by layer according to the software instructions, to make the gun.
“Our interest was to see if the manufacturing of a working gun using this technology is possible,” said Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry, which performed the test in May. “The answer was a very clear ‘Yes.’ ”

Law enforcement agencies across Europe are on alert over the proliferation of gun-making software that is easily found on the Internet and can be used to make a weapon on a consumer-grade 3-D printer. So far, there are no reported episodes of violence committed with such weapons, but police officials worry it is just a matter of time.
In May, after a 25-year-old law student from Texas named Cody Wilson posted designs for a 3-D-printed handgun online, the files were downloaded more than 100,000 times in just two days before the State Department demanded they be removed. Spain led the ranking of downloads at the time, followed by the United States, Brazil, Germany and Britain. A full version of the gun, called the Liberator, went on display last month in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
No wonder that in the European Union, which has much stricter gun-control laws than the United States, officials worry that it is becoming much easier to covertly obtain and carry potentially lethal weapons.
“In Germany and in most European countries, the possession of an unregistered weapon, even if it is manufactured at home, is illegal and punishable by law,” said Michael Brzoska, a security expert and director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Studies at the University of Hamburg. “But the temptation to try, if it’s technically possible, is a great one.”
Despite the State Department’s attempt to block them, the printing instructions for Mr. Cody’s Liberator have continued to spread and are available for free download on sites like the Pirate Bay, a popular file-sharing portal.
Stoking the anxiety have been well-publicized examples in recent months of people evading airport-style security scanners with 3-D-printed plastic weapons, whose only metal components are firing pins no bigger than a short common nail. Two reporters for the British newspaper The Mail in May smuggled such a gun onto a packed Eurostar train from London to Paris. And last summer, a reporter from Channel 10 television station in Israel successfully toted a 3-D-made handgun into the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was giving an address.
“The development of 3-D-printed weapons is still in its infancy,” said Troels Oerting Joergensen, head of the European Cybercrime Centre at Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency. “But such guns can fire a bullet and they can probably kill. It is a very unwelcome development.”
The gun designs are evidently getting better by the month. Although early versions of the Liberator could be fired only a few times before the barrel needed replacing, a YouTube video emerged in August that apparently shows a 3-D-printed rifle called the Grizzly 2.0 successfully firing 10 shots.
The manufacture of weapons using 3-D printers is already banned by a European Union directive to member nations. Enforcing that rule, however, may prove a challenge.
Following the example of their Austrian colleagues, German police officials are testing the technology themselves. Europol has recently purchased a 3-D printer to manufacture its own weapon. Authorities in Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Britain said they, too, were monitoring the developments of the 3-D printing technology.
“It is very difficult to do anything about it,” said Mr. Joergensen of Europol. “Of course you can say that it is illegal, but as with everything else on the Internet, you can always get it from somewhere.”
Many active users of the printing technology are skeptical about the extent of the real threat posed by 3-D firearms. A sampling of discussion forums of 3-D enthusiasts finds widespread cynicism about the capabilities of such weapons.
“Three-D printing a gun or a knife is akin to building a car out of cheese — it’s just not going to work,” wrote someone posting as “thejollygrimreaper” on the RepRap forum, one of the biggest 3-D-printing online communities.
Another member of the same forum, who identified himself as Markus Hitter, 48, an engineering consultant from Germany, said he did not consider 3-D-printed guns to be a public threat. Still, he acknowledged in an e-mail exchange that “certainly some gun nuts will try — using the quite modest material properties of 3-D printing.”
Although the technology, also called additive manufacturing, has been around as an industrial process since the 1980s, it has only recently gained broader currency with the arrival of affordable consumer-level printers. But the actual number in use is still relatively tiny. According to Wohlers Associates, a 3-D printing research firm in Fort Collins, Colo., a total of 35,508 personal printers were sold worldwide last year, although that was up nearly 50 percent from 2011. Most of these machines were sold to hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, engineering students and educational institutions, according to Terry Wohlers, the firm’s president.
A RepRap forum member identifying himself as a 21-year-old Finnish student from Tampere said he succeeded in printing a working gun and in testing it. Since he considers his own actions to be illegal under the strict gun laws in Finland, he declined to reveal his name in a message exchange.
It was “for educational purposes and out of curiosity” that the student said he downloaded the original Liberator model in early May, shortly before the American government ordered the files taken down. He said he made the weapon on a friend’s 3-D printer and fired it. “The gun’s receiver got a crack after just one shot,” he said, referring to the firing chamber. “No sane person would fire the gun again.”
They may not need to. “Even if these guns can only fire a couple of shots, they can still have a lethal effect,” said Mr. Brzoska, the security expert in Hamburg. “And you can easily build several of them.”
The Austrian authorities, for instance, had to change the barrel after each shot. But “after the four shots, the gun itself was still working,” said Mr. Grundböck, the Interior Ministry spokesman.
A couple of deadly shots — and the ability to easily build more guns — might be enough to make this an attractive proposition for a “variety of lunatics, lone-wolf terrorists and people who want to draw attention to themselves,” said Michael Ashkenazi, a small arms analyst at the Bonn International Center for Conversion in Germany.
While the choice of 3-D gun models is currently limited, improved designs are certainly in the works, experts said. “At the moment, both the Liberator and the Grizzly are little more than technology demonstrators,” Mr. Ashkenazi said. “But better design could make the guns extremely dangerous.”
Tightening airport security might be one possible response, according to Rüdiger Holecek, spokesman of the German Police Union. “It is quite conceivable that this technical development will make full-body scanners at airports mandatory.”
A Danish company, Create it REAL, which makes 3-D printers, says it might have another possible solution. It has developed software that looks for the characteristics of weapon designs and, when detected, blocks the printer from making a firearm. “If certain features align, the software will not allow the user to view and print the model,” Create it REAL says on its Web site.
“Our software works like a computer antivirus,” said Jeremie Pierre Gay, the company’s founder. The software can be preinstalled on a 3-D printer by its manufacturer. Still, he acknowledged, “it is always possible to hack a software.”
Mr. Pierre Gay would rather, of course, emphasize the virtues of the 3-D printing technology, rather than its darker possibilities. “It is a great opportunity to boost people’s creativity and to change the world with beautiful inventions,” he said. “But, yes, it will also allow people to create dangerous things such as firearms. Threats and opportunities are often coming hand in hand.”

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