3D Printed Weapons Target Legal Loopholes

9 Mar 2015

Australian law was not keeping up with the advent of weapons - including firearms - produced by three dimensional technology, said Dr Andreas Schloenhardt, a Professor of Criminal Law at The University of Queensland’s T.C. Beirne School of Law.

“It is a significant challenge for criminal law to keep up with new inventions and modern technology,” he said.

“The law - and not just the criminal law - often cannot anticipate innovations and new technology and cannot foresee how new technology may be used – both lawfully and also to commit crime.”

The threat of 3D-printed firearms was brought to the attention of Queensland Police in early February following a Gold Coast home raid which turned up plastic gun parts and knuckledusters made with a 3D printer in a homeowner’s workplace.

There are currently no specific regulations in Australia regarding three-dimensional printed weapons which can be constructed by downloading a blueprint to the 3D printer.

Queensland Police said the finished product lacked metal parts typical to legal plastic guns, making them invisible to metal-detecting security.

Further, the guns were dangerous to users as the plastic may not be able to withstand the friction caused by firing a bullet which could cause the firearm to explode in the hands of the user.

Police forces Australia-wide are concerned with the lack of legal awareness surrounding 3D weaponry.  A Senate inquiry into gun-related violence last year revealed there was no data on 3D weaponry ownership and production.

While the Gold Coast incident was the first 3D printer-related incident to be reported in Australia, cases of manufacturing illegal firearms are occurring worldwide.

In 2013, American Cody Wilson fired the first 3D printer-manufactured handgun and uploaded the file online. The gun’s blueprint file was downloaded 100,000 times before the US government shut his website down. 

The world’s first sentence for printing firearms was handed down in Japan last year. Yoshitomo Imura was sentenced to two years prison for manufacturing five guns, two of which could fire bullets.

Dr Schloenhardt said three-dimensional incidents were being reported around the world. Securing a legal solution would re-appear on the agenda of Australian lawmakers.

He said there were laws the Queensland government can develop to fight 3D printing offences but it would always be a challenge to keep up with rapidly advancing technology.

“The likely response by the Queensland Government may be a call for new offences,” Dr Schloenhardt said.

“One conceivable model is a new offence that criminalises the use of 3D printers with the intention to use the manufactured product in criminal activities.

“The main problem is, the offences need to be sufficiently broad and flexible to capture a range of new technologies and their use, whilst being specific enough to avoid vagueness and over breadth. 

“This isn’t a new challenge; it’s one that has plagued lawmakers around the world since penal codes as we know them today first emerged in the late 19th century.”