New South Wales laws that have prohibited the possession of digital firearms blueprints need to be extended nationally, Rod Broadhurst writes.
In 2013 the digital blueprint of a single shot ‘Liberator’ 3D-printed plastic pistol was posted on the Internet by its creator, self-styled crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson, founder of the US non-profit gun-rights ‘wiki-weapons’ organisation Defense Distributed. Wilson’s controversial, undetectable 3D gun seemingly brought science fiction to reality.
The Liberator quickened interest in the auto-manufacture of novel or hybrid weapons, as well as government efforts to suppress do-it-yourself gun manufacture – even in ‘gun-friendly’ United States. In 2014, Defense Distributed subsequently released the ‘Ghost Gunner’, a Computer Numerical Control milling machine that makes untraceable, unserialised metal receivers or frames for the AR-15 and AR-308 rifles and the Browning M1911 pistol.
The US Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 was consequently extended a further 10 years in 2013, however, attempts to criminalise the making of firearm frames without metal components failed.
In 2015 New South Wales amended its laws to outlaw the possession of digital blueprints for firearms and strengthen existing laws prohibiting the manufacture of weapons.
The technology has not yet advanced to allow the creation of a complete working weapon at the ‘press of a button’. However, the novelty plastic 3D-printed Liberator has served to distract from the more deadly parts-assembly hybrid models that home-made weapon tinkerers were creating.
Hybrid firearms that combine 3D-printed technologies with traditional tool-making have invigorated a new ‘cottage’ industry and crime service. For strong gun-control states such as Australia – where criminals pay a premium for difficult-to-obtain handguns and other firearms – the relative ease of importing a Ghost Gunner, or downloading 3D firearms files, provides alternative opportunities. It may also allow violent extremists disconnected from the wider criminal underworld to experiment with homemade gun-making.
Since 2015 Australian police have made a handful of seizures of 3D-printed firearms. A loaded 3D-printed handgun was seized by Queensland police in a raid on a methamphetamine lab allegedly associated with the Lone Wolf Outlaw Motorcycle Gang (OMCG). In December 2016, Victorian police seized a 3D printer, firearms, and drugs from properties raided in Melbourne. Cases have also been reported in Japan, the UK and the US where 3D-printed AR-15 rifles were used in two murder sprees reported in California.
The Liberator blueprint was downloaded over 100,000 times (and over 10,000 times by Australian IP addresses, according to Wilson) and was widely disseminated on The Pirate Bay, gunsmith websites and P2P torrent sites. The US State Department Directorate of Defense Trade Controls ordered the files to be removed from the Defence Distributed website. This was because the posting breached the Arms Export Control Act’s International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which restrict the export of defence and space-related technologies specified by the United States Munitions List.
Defence Distributed launched a crowd-funded legal challenge against the US State Department, claiming that the ITAR intervention was a breach of constitutional rights to free speech, as it sought to establish the right of anyone to have access to DIY firearms.
Wilson’s views on firearm availability were summed up in a February 2015 interview with Vice: “I think the rifle is a birthright and I think it’s an instrument of political decision. As a last resort, you should always be able to murder your government.”
In July 2018, under a Trump administration sympathetic to gun rights groups, the US Department of State settled the dispute by allowing Defense Distributed to sell digital firearms blueprints online, given that AR-15 and other semi-automatic firearms under 0.50 calibre were to be removed from the United States Munitions List.
The full re-launch of Defcad.com, Wilson’s blueprint firearms repository open to anyone to upload digital files of firearms, however, has been delayed by the state of Washington’s legal challenge on the grounds of safety and ease of access by criminals or terrorists. Wilson announced via Twitter that the files were available for sale on Defcad.com within the US from August 28, 2018, except within the 16 states that have banned them.
Wilson’s arrest in September 2018 on Texas Penal Code sexual assault charges and his subsequent resignation from Defense Distributed has had little-to-no impact on the controversial marketing and promotion of DIY firearms. Websites that support ‘de-centralised communities’ like GrabCAD and FOSSCAD have also been promoting 3D-printable gun designs via torrent files continue to operate as P2P file sharing platforms.
Criminals are often early adopters and exploiters of new technology, and crime typically follows opportunities. This means that as the costs and difficulties recede with rapid improvements in 3D printing, we can expect more criminal interest.
The handful of Australian cases already noted will steadily grow – driven not by a ‘right to bear arms’ ideology as in the US, but by the vagaries of firearm supply and the incessant demand for weapons for criminal enterprises. Theft of firearms from licensed gun dealers, residences and rural properties has rapidly increased in the past decade.
Illicit crypto-markets or Tor darknets also provide another vector for weapon supply, facilitated by crypto-currencies and stealth packaging plus the separation of parts well-adapted to circumvent postal and customs inspections.
New South Wales laws that have prohibited possession of digital firearms blueprints need to be extended nationally. Despite the apparent futility of preventing the dissemination of digital firearm blueprints, possession offences may help to deter ‘lone wolf’ extremists as well as adding to the preventative toolbox of law enforcement.