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German attack raises questions about 3D printed guns

Analysis: A shooting in Germany has raised questions around the world of the threat posed by 3D printed firearms. Is New Zealand equipped to deal with this challenge?

The man accused of killing two people in Germany yesterday after failing to break into a synagogue stated in his manifesto that he had 3D printed parts for his arsenal. Although the printed guns were not used to carry out the shooting, he said he had them in his possession for use as backup weapons.

The incident has raised questions around whether gun legislation and law enforcement are equipped to deal with the threat posed by a new and rapidly-advancing technology that allows anyone to make any item in the privacy of their own home.

While Police Minister Stuart Nash indicated that the law is fit for purpose, Gun Control NZ spokesperson Hera Cook told Newsroom that stronger regulation is needed.

Laws unclear around digital files

A spokesperson for Nash said that the Arms Act sufficiently covers the potential for misuse of 3D printed parts. The Act doesn't discriminate based on the material the weapon is made of and defines a firearm as "anything that has been adapted so that it can be used to discharge a shot, bullet, missile, or other projectile by force of explosive".

A Police spokesperson told Newsroom that it was illegal to make or own a 3D printed gun without a license.

"Anyone in New Zealand in possession of a firearm must have a valid firearms licence or endorsement, or be under the immediate supervision of a licence holder. Any person found in possession of a 3D printed firearm (or manufactured firearm) without a licence or appropriate endorsements could be prosecuted."

However, Nash's office declined to comment on whether owning, sending, or receiving a blueprint or digital file of a firearm part would be a violation of the law.

A spokesperson for Chief Censor David Shanks said that "no classifications have been undertaken in relation to files that could be used to produce 3D printed guns. The status of digital files that could be used to print a gun is currently unclear."

Cook recommended strengthening the punishment for owning a 3D printed weapon in order to dissuade people from doing so. "The only real solution that I can see for people who have possession of 3D printed guns or guns without serial numbers is to have very strong penalties for them," she said.

Nicole McKee, a spokesperson for the Council of Licensed Firearm Owners, said that holders of firearms licenses had more sense than to make a dangerous plastic weapon. "I doubt we're going to see license holders with a 3D printer producing or mass  producing firearms out of plastic," she said.

"They go through a test to see if they're fit and proper and they have the experience to know the risk with these items."

New technology ever more common

In the United States last year, a federal judge issued an injunction against Defense Distributed, which designs blueprints for printing guns. The company has continued to sell instructions to print parts for AR-15s and other weapons online.

The Police spokesperson told Newsroom that the agency "continues to monitor commentary and developments around 3D firearms".

The alleged gunman in Germany, who attempted to storm a synagogue but was deterred by the building's heavy wooden doors, wrote in his manifesto that he had 3D printed gun parts to serve as backup weapons.

The accused shooter wrote that he would distribute instructions and files to make the weapons online. He wrote that one of his three objectives was to "prove the viability of improvised weapons". However, his homemade metal gun jammed and blew out one of the tires of his own vehicle.

Gavin Biggs is the business development manager at New South Wales-based Cammpro, a 3D print-on-demand company that offers services in Australia and New Zealand. He told Newsroom that he had never received a request to print gun parts.

"We haven't witnessed anyone that would ask us to do anything like that, luckily," he said. "If we thought that there was any sort of working gun [part] then we wouldn't do it."

Biggs said he thought people wouldn't use a print-on-demand service to make weapons, but would instead purchase their own printer. "I imagine if somebody was to do something like that, then they would just buy their own 3D printer. 3D printers now are getting quite cost effective to purchase themselves."

Efficacy of 3D printed guns in doubt

Newsroom understands that law enforcement in Australia and New Zealand are aware of the threat posed by 3D printed guns but don't believe they are effective weapons  - yet.

Olaf Diegel, an expert on 3D printing at the University of Auckland, agreed with this assessment. "Although these low cost desktop printers can, theoretically, be used to print a gun, it would be complete madness to fire it as these desktop printers cannot print structurally sound engineering parts," he said.

"They are designed to be relatively crude prototyping machines, and not production machines. Even the guns that [Defense Distributed founder] Cody Wilson fired in his Youtube videos were not printed on hobby level desktop printers, but were printed on commercial quality printers."

The alleged shooter acknowledged this risk in his manifesto, writing that the plastic parts could melt and that the magazines he printed were "highly unreliable/unsafe".

However, the technology is consistently improving. Moreover, people are increasingly combining 3D printed parts with metal parts, like the accused German gunman did.

"3D printing is a pretty amazing innovation," Cook said. "They're going to be everywhere as they get cheaper and as the materials as they use to create the actual objects improve."

Metal 3D printing is a new technology that will also become more common. In 2013, a Texas company 3D printed a metal replica of an M1911 pistol which successfully fired 600 rounds.

While that pistol costs nearly $20,000, as technology improves, the threat will become clearer. New Zealand has the opportunity to proactively prepare for the challenges posed by 3D printing, instead of reacting after it's too late.

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