Rise in 3D-printed gun seizures worries European officials

A growing number of seizures of homemade weapons made from 3D-printed parts are raising alarm bells for European police about an emerging threat.

For now, interest among far-right activists may be limited, analysts say — and fears of a society awash in print-it-yourself weapons remain unlikely.

But homemade guns have become more widespread since 2013, when a US gun enthusiast first showed off a 3D-printed pistol and shared his design online.

In September alone, Icelandic police said they had arrested four people suspected of planning a “terrorist attack”, confiscating several 3D-printed semi-automatic weapons.

In the same month, Spanish authorities discovered an illegal weapons workshop belonging to a forty-year-old man in the Basque Country.

This finding followed two other similar cases in the country in 2021.

Police in the Canary Islands, Spain, found white supremacist literature and manuals on urban guerrilla warfare next to two 3D printers.

And in the northwestern city of A Coruña, police discovered a man close to completing an assault rifle.

“The rapidly evolving advanced technology could make this emerge as a more significant threat in the near future,” said Ina Mihaylova, a spokeswoman for the European police agency Europol.

While traditional guns are easily traceable thanks to their serial numbers and proof marks, these “home-printed” models are less easy to trace by authorities.

‘Liberator’ pistol is clandestinely 3D printed Photo: KELLY WEST / Kelly West / AFP

Focus on the far right

At the moment, “there is still a big difference between the quality of professionally manufactured weapons available on the criminal market and 3D-printed/self-made weapons,” Mihaylova said.

“3D-printed firearms made entirely of plastic generally do not withstand the pressure of live ammunition,” he added. They require barrels, chambers or firing pins made of metal.

But Christian Goblas, a ballistics expert at the University of Rouen in France, said “3D metallic printing” could become affordable in the next decade – which could make self-made weapons more durable and reliable.

With its 3D parts and metal firing pin, the 2013 “Liberator” pistol was showcased in 2013 by self-described “crypto-anarchist” Cody Wilson mimicking a single-shot brute weapon of the same name thrown to French resistance fighters. during World War II.

Wilson posted instructions for the gun online, raising alarm in the United States with its already poor gun control and record of deadly mass shootings.

Since then, 3D printers have gotten cheaper and more designs have been posted on the so-called Dark Web.

Rajan Basra, a senior fellow at the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), said 3D gun printing remains primarily a curiosity for gun fans or libertarians.

Even in countries with strict gun restrictions, there are better options for those looking for a firearm: in France, you can buy a Kalashnikov assault rifle on the black market for between 500 and 1,500 euros ($485 to $1,460).

To a lesser extent, DIY weapons are also attractive to “terrorists,” far-right militants and gangsters, Basra added.

Eleven of the 12 recent arrests in Europe involved far-right activists, he said.

Not ‘the future of terrorism’

One of the most important uses of weapons with 3D printed parts took place in Germany in 2019.

A gunman killed two people in the eastern town of Halle after failing to break into a synagogue. Before the attack, he had posted a racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic manifesto online.

A video the attacker took of his rage showed him repeatedly struggling with weapon jams.

“At least I’ve demonstrated how useless improvised weapons are,” he could be heard saying at one point.

Blyth Crawford, another ICSR researcher, said the attack was an exceptional case.

In online discussions among some far-right extremists, “3D-printed firearms are still not considered a serious alternative to ordinary weapons for carrying out a mass shooting, as they are considered comparatively untested,” he said.

Jacob Ware, a counterterrorism researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that not all of these extremists were thrilled with the painstaking way to make a weapon.

For some, it was “fundamentally revolutionary in opening new doors for terrorists without access to firearms.”

But others scoffed at the technology “as only relevant to those who have failed to stockpile weaponry in preparation for … government tyranny.”

Extremists may see other new technologies, such as drones, as more promising for their purposes.

“3D printing is unlikely to be the future of terrorism for now,” Ware said.

However, “legal systems must be moving forward … to ensure gun control regulations are not circumvented before it is too late,” he added.

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