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Gun on grass

Will 3D printed weapons be life threatening?

In an age of fast-paced innovation, 3D weapons have become a focal point of the anxiety-inducing fear that comes with technological change. The fear is becoming increasingly warranted given a Queensland man was given a suspended sentence for attempting to make a weapon using a 3D printer.

As we’re increasingly able to make anything we like, even body parts, the threat of access to cheap deadly weapons grows faster than police and legislators can handle.

Democratisation of violence

Deakin University Professor of Industrial Design Ian Gibson is always seeking ways to use technology to enhance our day-to-day lives. However, from time to time, he’s called on to advise police about technologies that have been used for nefarious purposes. In particular, 3D printed weapons. ‘The threat goes far beyond firearms – people can 3D print designs they’ve found online for all kinds of weapons, including improvised explosive devices that can cause massive damage,’ Prof. Gibson says.

He explains 3D weapons represent a greater paradox of modern technology: the very technology that empowers users – like Facebook connecting people all around the world – is the same technology that provides a way in for threats. ‘From hacking to people posting plans for 3D weapons online, we are increasingly vulnerable in our connected world,’ Prof. Gibson suggests. His point was illustrated earlier this year when an epileptic American journalist was sent an abusive message via Twitter with a GIF featuring strobing lights – he suffered a minor seizure as a result. Intent was clear in the case, since the man who tweeted it proclaimed: ‘tweeted this at Eichenwald [the journalist], let’s see if he dies’. A jury struggled to determine whether a GIF counted as an assault weapon for months before concluding that it did.


'From hacking to people posting plans for 3D weapons online, we are increasingly vulnerable in our connected world.'

Ian Gibson, Professor of Industrial Design,
Deakin University

The new faceless criminal

Anonymity is a key enabler of crime in this new world. Those with the skills to design weapons of all kinds can share them with novices in chat forums. Prof. Gibson points to a 2015 Wired article in which the author printed and assembled the various parts necessary to make a rifle nicknamed ‘The Ghost Gun’. He took guidance from YouTube and blueprints found of Pirate Bay. ‘This author was able to assemble the whole thing at work and no one noticed,’ he says.

No easy solutions

The ease with which this 3D printed rifle was put together reinforces the challenges that legislators face. In Australia, the current laws vary from state to state. In New South Wales, the Firearms and Weapons Prohibition Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 made it illegal for people to possess digital files that are used to manufacture 3D printed firearms, but this doesn’t stop those in other states.

Currently, police and legal experts are looking at key lessons from drug and sex crime industries to focus on tackling suppliers and manufacturing, as opposed to users themselves. ‘Being able to neutralise production is a key tactic that’s been used successfully to fight sex crimes, but the law is at a significant disadvantage. Rapid innovation means that any legal frameworks of police tactics may shortly be outpaced by people in chat rooms,’ Prof. Gibson concludes.

Interested in the future of 3D printing? Consider Deakin’s range of engineering and design courses.

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Professor Ian Gibson
Professor Ian Gibson

Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, Deakin University
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