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3D-printed firearms seizures on the rise

Police say they are seeing more 3D-printed firearms seized, and in some cases seen domestic printers used to manufacture illegal gun parts.

A 3D-printed firearm.

“So far, we’ve recovered 10 3D-printed firearms in New Zealand,” Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, head of the Organised Crime Group, told 1News.

The police seized their first 3D-printed firearm in June 2018, he said, and since then police had seen a “progression”.

“We’re seeing a situation now of 3D-printed firearms with magazines attached that a capable of firing live rounds – or the armourer is telling us they have fired live rounds.”

Eight of the ten cases were currently before the courts, but Williams said police were also starting to find 3D-printers used in criminal activity.

“We have another person before the court who actually had two 3D-printers running at his home that were printing machine pistol semi-automatic firearms parts.

“We find them commonly linked to gangs, gang members… some have been presented at people, that is the main concern for us.”

Police from other jurisdictions were also worried about the use of the technology in weapons making.

“We are seeing a trend in the use of 3d printed firearms,” said Ben Lawson of the Canadian Calvary police at a recent news conference.

He said out of more than 300 guns used in crimes they seized that month about 9% were 3D-printed or homemade.

Arrests have also been made in other countries including Australia and Hong Kong.

Williams said luckily 3D guns can’t be built from scratch, firearm components still need to be imported into New Zealand.

“You still need to have springs and trigger mechanisms that need to be imported into the country to actually make the gun fire,” he said.

NZ police have spent the last 18 months cracking down on illegal firearms as part of Operation Tauwhiro, with much of the effort directed towards preventing criminals from buying guns through traditional dealers.

And that means criminals may look elsewhere – such as 3D-printing – for weapons.

“We expect to see people trying to build their own guns – we are seeing evidence of this now,” said Williams.

“In the hands of gangs or organised crime, they present a major risk to police and communities.”

Olaf Diegel is an expert in 3D-printing technology at Auckland University’s Creative Design and Additive Manufacturing Lab.

He said he was “not surprised” police were finding more 3D-printed guns.

His lab is filled with 3D-printed projects – parts for racing bikes, mechanical pieces for buses, even a 3D-printed face that represented Diegel’s so realistically they had managed to break into some brands of phones with facial recognition.

When 1News visited they were printing props for Weta Workshop.

The team there had also – legally – printed metal firearm parts for the Australian military that were significantly lighter than their traditionally manufactured counterparts.

But he said most criminals were using inexpensive desktop 3D-printers and relatively cheap plastic.

“I think you’re absolutely mad if you try and shoot one of those guns – the Australians tested them and 80% exploded,” said Diegel.

“But the fear of someone pointing a gun at you, even printed on a cheap plastic printer, is a problem – and as more and more desktop printers are proliferating, we are going to see more and more people trying it.

“It’s going to become an increasing problem.”

As a technology, 3D printing has developed rapidly over the past few decades.

“Probably the biggest area is areas like medical – anything whether it’s casts or implants or splints, prosthetics, anything that needs to fit your body benefits from 3D-printing,” he said.

“With conventional manufacturing, you’ve got to make hundreds of thousands of parts all the same – with 3D printing whether you make them all different or all the same makes no difference. So why not make it custom-made to fit you.”

In terms of what to do about illegal 3D-printed firearms, Williams said firearms regulations had already tightened significantly in recent years.

“One of the other parts we are looking at now is whether the possession or downloading of the instructions on how to make these off the internet could be deemed as objectionable material,” he said.

“We’re looking at that now as another option.”

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