European police keep a close eye on the threat of 3D printed weapons
Paris – A growing number of seizures of firearms made at home from 3D printed parts are raising the alarm for European police in the face of an emerging threat.
For now, interest from far-right activists may be limited, analysts say – and fears of a society awash in do-it-yourself weapons remain exaggerated.
But homemade guns have gone mainstream since 2013, when an American gun enthusiast first showed off a mostly 3D-printed gun and shared its design online.
In September alone, Icelandic police said they arrested four people suspected of planning a “terrorist attack”, confiscating several 3D-printed semi-automatic weapons.
In the same month, Spanish authorities uncovered an illegal weapons workshop of a man in his 40s in the Basque Country.
This discovery followed two other such cases in the country in 2021.
Police in Spain’s Canary Islands found white supremacist literature and manuals on urban guerrilla warfare alongside two 3D printers.
And in the northwestern city of La Coruña, police discovered a man about to complete a built-from-scratch assault rifle.
“The rapid development of cutting-edge technologies could mean that this will become a bigger threat in the near future,” said Ina Mihaylova, spokeswoman for European police agency Europol.
While traditional guns are easily traceable by their serial numbers and hallmarks, these “home-printed” models are less traceable by authorities.
– Focus on the far right –
At the moment, “there is still a big difference between the quality of professionally made weapons available on the criminal market and 3D-printed/self-made weapons,” Mihaylova said.
“All-plastic 3D-printed firearms generally cannot withstand the pressure of live ammunition,” she added. They require metal barrels, chambers or firing pins.
But Christian Goblas, a ballistics expert at France’s University of Rouen, said “metal 3D printing” could become affordable over the next decade, potentially making self-made weapons more durable and more reliable.
With its 3D parts and metal firing pin, the 2013 “Liberator” pistol was introduced in 2013 by self-proclaimed “crypto-anarchist” Cody Wilson who aped a crude single-shot weapon of the same name air-dropped on fighters of the French resistance during the World Cup. Second war.
Wilson posted instructions for the weapon online, setting off alarm bells in the United States with its already lax gun control and history of mass shootings.
Since then, 3D printers have become cheaper and more and more designs have been published on the so-called Dark Web.
Rajan Basra, senior researcher at the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), nevertheless said that 3D printing weapons remains mainly a curiosity for gun fans or libertarians.
Even in countries with strict gun restrictions, there are better options for people looking for a gun: in France, you can get a Kalashnikov assault rifle on the black market between 500 and 1,500 euros ($485 – $1,460).
To a lesser extent, DIY weapons also attract “terrorists”, far-right activists and gangsters, Basra added.
Eleven of the 12 recent seizures in Europe involved far-right activists, he pointed out.
– Not ‘the future of terrorism’ –
One of the most publicized uses of weapons with 3D printed parts occurred in Germany in 2019.
A gunman killed two people in the eastern city of Halle after failing to enter a synagogue. Before the attack, he posted a racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic manifesto online.
A video the attacker made of his rampage showed him repeatedly struggling with weapon jams.
“At least I’ve demonstrated how useless improvised weapons are,” one heard at one point.
Blyth Crawford, another researcher at the ICSR, said the attack was an exceptional case.
In online discussions among some far-right extremists, “3D-printed firearms are not yet considered a serious alternative to regular firearms for mass shooting, as they are considered relatively untested. “, she said.
Jacob Ware, a counterterrorism researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that not all of these extremists were enthusiastic about the labor-intensive way of making a gun.
For some, it has “fundamentally changed the game by opening new doors for terrorists without access to firearms”.
But others derided the technology “as only relevant to those who failed to stockpile weapons for…government tyranny.”
Extremists might see other new technologies such as drones as more promising for their purposes.
“3D printing is unlikely to be the future of terrorism at this time,” Ware said.
However, “legal systems should move forward… to ensure that gun control regulations are not circumvented before it is too late,” he added.