This morning, Manchester police eagerly announced the discovery of 3D printed gun components. This afternoon, the internet pointed out that they were actually spare parts for a MakerBot. Is the police’s enthusiasm understandable? And, regardless of what else was found, is the mere presence of a 3D printer at a possible crime scene a concern?
In our guide to the criminal potential of 3D printing, published back in August, we pointed out that the most pressing danger of the Liberator 3D printed pistol was not posed in its native U.S.A. Stateside, where a workable firearm can be snapped up at a gun fair for a cool 50 bucks, the ability to print off a difficult-to-aim, potentially backfiring plastic pistol on a $2,000 device does not really have a practical use. In a country with stringent gun laws like the U.K., however, the Liberator carries a far larger threat.
The Liberator and you
As its inventor, crypto-anarchist Texan Cody Wilson has stated, The Liberator is about ideology. With the gun control debate raging as bitterly as ever in America, he wanted to show that technology moves faster than legislation and the government does not fully understand what they are attempting to curtail.
Yet on this side of the Atlantic, Wilson’s statement could have a troublesome knock-on effect. The U.K. enjoys one of the lowest homicide-by-gun rates in Europe. You might like to think that’s down to the famously calm British temperament but, in truth, it is about legislation: the UK’s gun control laws are some of the strictest in the world.
British criminals do not fire bullets at each other with the same regularity as, say, German, Spanish or Italian criminals but only because they do not have the same access to the required tools. Though it has steadily decreased since the 1990s, Britain’s intentional homicide rate is still higher than all three of those nations. If the U.K.’s criminal fraternity had the means to make their own serviceable firearms, those enviable gun statistics may drastically change for the worse. Those concerned about such a possibility got plenty of fuel for their fear this week.
The Manchester Raid
On Thursday morning, police raided a building in the Baguley area of Manchester. Amongst the items seized was a MakerBot Replicator 2, along with two printed, plastic component parts that police believed could be fitted together to form a ‘viable gun.’ The parts, thought to be a magazine and a trigger, are currently being examined by forensic experts. A man was also arrested at the scene on suspicion of illegally manufacturing gun powder. He remains in custody.
The raid was part of Operation Challenger, the largest multi-agency operation in Manchester history. A city-wide crack down on Manchester’s estimated 160 organised gangs, Challenger has netted 50 arrests this week and a huge seizure of drugs, guns, tasers, cars and counterfeit goods.
Yet the headline grabber is the MakerBot. Even without the two possible gun parts, the mere presence of a 3D printer in a building allegedly used for criminal activity is enough to set alarm bells ringing. And, indeed, those bells have rung.
Challenger’s Detective Inspector Chris Mossop proclaimed the find “a really significant discovery”, adding that 3D printed guns are “the next generation of weapons” before explaining that plastic weaponry’s ability to pass-through X-rays makes it doubly dangerous.
The reaction is understandable. In a city where gang activity is estimated to cost the local economy between £850 million and £1.7 billion per year, any development that could make life easier for the perpetrators is a cause for distress. Yet many tech journalists quickly dismissed the panic that bubbled around the news.
Is that even a gun?
As the New Statesman’s technology writer Ian Steadman points out, the images of the plastic parts found in Baguley do not look much like components of a Liberator. In fact, they look very like replacement parts for a MakerBot. He also points out the following:
The list of other items seized in the raid includes some actual firearms, made of metal, thus raising the question of why these people would even bother going to the effort of trying to make the comparatively rubbish Liberator.
He concludes that there is little danger posed by “criminals wandering the streets with rubbish plastic guns.”
As this article is published, Steadman looks to be bang on the money about the component parts found at the scene. The police themselves have backed off slightly from their earlier enthusiasm, with Assistant Chief Constable Steve Heywood stating “We cannot categorically say we have recovered parts for a 3D gun.”
Yet a central questions remains unanswered. Considering there was, allegedly, evidence found at the scene to suggest the building was being used for criminal purposes, what, exactly, was a MakerBot doing there?
3D guns might be unreliable compared to the metal equivalent but they are also 100% untraceable and easy to dispose of. Therefore, even a gang with a stock of metal firearms may still find the Liberator valuable. Also, the fact that a 3D printed gun is faulty and hard to aim does not necessarily mean it is not dangerous. In fact, it could make it more of a danger if used in a public place.
Should we all be pulling our hair out in hysteria over the great 3D printed gun apocalypse? No, we should not.
Yet it is understandable how eager the Manchester police are to show they are staying ahead of or, at least, keeping pace with the criminals’ ingenuity. Remember Cody Wilson’s assertion that technology was ahead of legislation? In order to prove that’s not the case, the police all over the UK have to stay keen to how criminals may utilise new technology, including 3D printing.
Announcing the find, Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police Sir Peter Fahy said this morning “It is not that these people are cleverer than us, it is just that they are more violent.” Whether or not the Baguley raid did or did not unearth the UK’s first 3D printed gun factory, expect plenty more stories like this one to hit the headlines as the police attempt to prove Sir Fahy’s statement correct.