Unregistered and untraceable: 3D printed firearms and the gun control debate

9th April 2018

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Roderic Broadhurst is Professor of Criminology at RegNet. He is Director of the ANU Cybercrime Observatory which was established in 2012. The Observatory is a focal point for research on human factors and cybercrime.

His current research focuses on crime and development, the recidivism of homicide offenders, cybercrime and organized and transnational crime.

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As Tasmania debates changes to its compliance with the National Firearms Agreement, research into new methods of home-made weapons manufacturing raises questions about the toughness of existing gun control measures in Australia.

Recent developments in 3D printing technology have made guns considerably more attainable and less detectable. Given that Australian gun laws make criminal acquisition of firearms so expensive, this new illicit market is an important threat.

“There are a number of ways to manufacture homemade guns,” explains Roderic Broadhurst, Professor of Criminology and Director of the Cybercrime Observatory at ANU. “And all are a threat.”

Located within the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), the Centre’s role is to study crime-related trends on the internet. They explore everything from markets on the Dark Net to analysing how malware and phishing scams work.

A more recent project investigates methods of producing novel hybrid firearms. One method is via 3D printing. The printers use virtual blueprints to map out a physical copy of the image, by adding layers of polymer or alloys line by line and building the object from the bottom-up.

Although softer than metal, these replica guns are capable of firing shots. There is a concern that technological developments might lead to a rise in effective, homemade weapons ready to enter criminal markets.

Given that these weapons would be unregistered and untraceable, this trend is troubling.

“The value of non-registered traceable firearms to criminal actors is huge,” Rod says.

“And the alarm about the plastic versions is also because everybody is frightened they would be able to get them through security and detectors,” Rod says. The second method for production is via electronic milling. This involves using a milling machine to shape pieces of metal to pre-drawn templates of weapons, acquired online. 

“We think this is more of a potential threat,” Rod says. “Electronic milling machines work with metal, so the product is more durable.”

This could lead a rise in the production of guns and many other arms.

 “The cost and scale of electronic milling machines has fallen – reasonably priced table-top machines are available. Used in all sorts of manufacturing pursuits, guns would just be one available product.”

Sometimes, people combine both methods to make hybrids, where the magazine is made of printed plastic and the lower receiver is made of metal. Digital blueprints for bump stocks (a device that enables firearms to fire as automatic weapons) are also readily available.

“In Australia, we’ve had significant seizures of weapons which are hybrid in form. These are often made by home tinkers who may be associated with crime groups – guys who have got the equipment at home.”

As the technology progresses, legislation has not kept up.

In New South Wales, it is illegal to possess a digital blueprint but there are few ways of detecting when these files might be imported on otherwise technology-neutral milling machines.

And other trends are emerging, such as the use of the postal service and Dark Net markets to transport firearms, or targeted burglaries of firearms dealers and owners.

In Tasmania, the current debate centres on whether to allow access to category C firearms, such as self-loading rifles and pump-action shotguns, usually used on farms and for sport.

Yet with production technologies on the market, one has to wonder whether this focus is misplaced.

Perhaps the real threat is harder to trace.

Rod Broadhurst teaches into the new Master of Criminology, Justice and Regulation program at ANU. Find out more about the degree.

By CAP Student Correspondent Georgie Juszczyk.

Tags: cyber crime

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet