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England Wrestles With 3D-Printed Guns


A plastic gun trigger made with a 3D printer which was found by officers during a raid on suspected gang members in the Bagley area of Manchester

Photograph by Greater Manchester Police via AP Photo

A plastic gun trigger made with a 3D printer which was found by officers during a raid on suspected gang members in the Bagley area of Manchester

Police in the U.K. city of Manchester have seized a 3D printer and what they alleged were 3D-printed gun parts during a raid on alleged criminal gangs. As an eagle-eyed reader has noted, however, the parts shown off by police are actually spare parts for a 3D printer.

The first mostly viable printed gun appeared in the U.S. earlier this year, courtesy of a libertarian outfit called Defense Distributed. The U.S. State Department got Defense Distributed to take its designs offline, but not before they had been disseminated across the globe. Police agencies in Germany and Australia have been testing the concept to see how viable such weapons are—early indications suggest the user is as likely to maim or kill himself as he is his target.

The U.K. has banned private handgun ownership since the 1996 Dunblane school massacre, so the approach there seems to be more crackdown than curiosity. Greater Manchester Police said on Friday that they had carried out a series of raids in the city on the previous day. One of those operations turned up a 3D printer they reckon cost around £1,200 ($1,950), together with what they said they suspected to be a “3D plastic magazine” and a “trigger.”

The magazine seems to be part of a filament spool holder and the trigger part of a drive block.

The police said they are now examining the components to see if they can really be put together to make a “genuine device,” and someone has also been arrested on suspicion of making gunpowder. In case you’re wondering, the street price of a real gun in Manchester is around £100.

According to a statement by Detective Inspector Chris Mossop:

“If what we have seized is proven to be viable components capable of constructing a genuine firearm, then it demonstrates that organised crime groups are acquiring technology that can be bought on the high street to produce the next generation of weapons.

“In theory, the technology essentially allows offenders to produce their own guns in the privacy of their own home, which they can then supply to the criminal gangs who are causing such misery in our communities. Because they are also plastic and can avoid X-ray detection, it makes them easy to conceal and smuggle.

“These could be the next generation of firearms and a lot more work needs to be done to understand the technology and the scale of the problem.”

A second statement, released after it became clear the parts weren’t for guns, took the affair firmly into the realm of farce. After initially stressing that the Greater Manchester Police could not categorically say these were gun parts (the first statement was entitled “Component parts for UK’s first 3D gun seized”), Assistant Chief Constable Steve Heywood continued:

“Clearly the fact we have seized a 3D printer and have intelligence about the possible production of a weapon using this technology is of concern. It [is] prudent [that] we establish exactly what these parts can be used for and whether they pose any threat.

“What this has also done is open up a wider debate about the emerging threat [this] next generation of weapons might pose.

“The worrying thing is for me is that these printers can be used to make certain components of guns, while others can be legitimately ordered over the Internet without arousing suspicion. When put together, this could allow a person to construct a firearm in their own home.”

There are many ways for a technology such as 3D printing to bleed into the public consciousness. The appearance of groundbreaking products and services in local chain stores, for example, will help inform people of the manufacturing technique’s potential. Seizures of this sort (though perhaps not this particular one) serve a similar purpose, though, and are quite likely to shape upcoming regulation around the technology.

Ultimately, we’re talking about the same equipment being used for drastically different things—and don’t forget 3D printing is a market that companies such as Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) are eyeing hungrily. Let’s see whether policymakers focus on the positive or negative potential first.

Correction: As commenter “Nuno Gato” has noted, the printed parts seized by the police appear to be spare parts for 3D printers. The story was amended at 2:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time to reflect that, and again at 4.30 a.m. to reflect Greater Manchester Police’s second statement.

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Meyer is a senior writer for Gigaom.

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