Development of 3D manufactured firearms
One of the most fascinating aspects of this inquiry was the issue of
In particular, this inquiry was concerned with the development of 3D manufactured
While chapter 4 discussed the current situation with regard to the
regulation of firearm parts and accessories more generally, this chapter will
look at whether the current state and territory laws sufficiently cover 3D manufactured
firearms and firearm parts.
What is 3D manufacturing?
In order to understand the impact that 3D manufacturing will have on
society, it is important to first understand the concept. The World
Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has provided a good explanation:
3-D printing, alias additive manufacturing (AM) or direct
digital manufacturing (DDM), makes it possible to create an object by creating
a digital file and printing it at home or sending it to one of a growing number
of online 3-D print services. In the 3-D printing process, this digital
blueprint, created using computer-aided design (CAD) software, is sliced into
2-dimensional representations which are fed through to a printer that starts
building up an object layer by layer from its base. Layers of material (in
liquid, powder or filament form) are deposited onto a "build area"and
fused together. This additive process, which minimizes waste because it only
uses the amount of material required to make the component (and its support),
is distinct from traditional "subtractive" manufacturing processes
where materials are cut away to produce a desired form.
WIPO noted that there are a number of techniques used to print 3D
A number of 3-D printing techniques exist. The first
commercial 3-D print technology, stereolithography, was invented in 1984 by
Charles Hull. Several other techniques have emerged since, including fused
deposition modeling (FDM), selective laser sintering (SLS) and PolyJet Matrix.
Some of these techniques involve melting or softening layers of material,
others involve binding powdered materials and yet others involve jetting or
selectively-hardening liquid materials.
The process of "growing" objects layer by layer
also means that, with 3-D printing, it is possible to create more intricate and
complex structures than can be done using traditional manufacturing techniques.
While the concept of 3D manufacturing was originally developed for rapid
prototyping purposes, developments which have improved its accuracy, speed and
quality have led to it being used for a wide range of purposes:
The technology is already widely used to make jewellery and
other bespoke fashion items, in dental laboratories to produce crowns, bridges
and implants, as well as in the production of hearing aids and prostheses,
offering patients a perfect fit. 3-D printing is particularly suited to
low–volume, short production runs offering companies a more flexible, cost–effective
and speedy alternative to traditional mass production methods.
Dr Angela Daly, from Swinburne University, spoke to the committee about
the beneficial aspects of 3D manufacturing in a number of areas including
manufacturing, industry, medicine and arts and design.
She noted that it is probably at the industrial level where societies like
Australia are benefiting the most from 3D printing.
Mr Michael de Souza, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian
3D Manufacturing Association, spoke about some of the developments that
have occurred, particularly in biomedical fields:
At the ANFF in Wollongong, we are world leaders in what we
call additive manufacturing and additive research and development. The
additives are the 'inks', as they are referred to. You are talking about
absolutely anything that you can touch, see, breathe or feel. It is already at
a molecular level, because everything base carbon, and once you break it down
to a molecular level and begin to rebuild it, you can produce anything as an
ink. They have managed to print live human cells. Prior to that, you could
print the cell—a plant cell, animal cell or human cell—but the issue has been
that the printing process kills the cells. There is now a way, developed by
Gordon Wallace at Wollongong University, to actually protect that cell in a gel
and, as the cell or cells begin to reproduce and collectively join a matrix,
that gel dissolves and away you go. So you have human, animal, and plant tissue
regenerating itself, which is of course fantastic for organs, burn victims' skin
and all sorts of things like that.
As part of its inquiry, the committee had the opportunity to visit
Objective 3D, a commercial 3D manufacturing facility in Melbourne. While
there, the committee learnt about the important role 3D manufacturing is
playing with respect to Australia's broader manufacturing industry.
Examples were given of some of the many products which can now be
printed, including prosthetic limbs for amputees and anatomical models for use
by medical students. Anatomical models have also been used for pre-operative
planning, for example, in the case of conjoined Bangladeshi twins Krishna and
Trishna, a bespoke 3D printed model was used by doctors to plan surgery to
separate their fused brain and skull tissue.
The committee toured Objective 3D's facility and viewed a number of 3D
printers, including one in action (see Figures 6.1 and 6.2). Due to
technological advancements, 3D printers have both increased in their
sophistication as well as reduced in cost (some printers are now a third of the
cost of those a decade earlier). The committee was fascinated to observe the
processes used to manufacture 3D items and would like to thank Mr Matt Minnio
of Objective 3D for his time and expertise.
Figure 6.1: Committee members
inspect a 3D printer
Figure 6.2: Viewing a 3D printer in
The development of 3D printed firearms
The invention and expansion of 3D manufacturing means that the
production of firearms in this way is now a reality. The Australian 3D
Manufacturing Association noted that 'as 3D printers and manufacturing
processes have become increasingly available worldwide, so too have 3D printed
firearms components and accessories'.
It was suggested to the committee that 3D manufactured firearms
currently do not pose a particularly high risk to the community.
Mr Nicholas Jenzen-Jones, Director of Armament Research Services (ARES) commented
that 3D manufactured firearms had started to gain significant media attention when
Defense Distributed built its fully printable, single-shot polymer "Liberator"
He emphasised that while the idea of being able to instantly print a firearm sounded
alarming, at this stage, a degree of expertise is still required:
I think it is really important for me to stress that the
state of technology, as it stands today, is not click, print and fire. You
cannot simply download a file, hit print on your printer and come out with a
functional firearm. There is a degree of hand-finishing, there is a level of
technical expertise, I understand, that is involved in producing the firearm in
the first place; and, of course, once it is complete, there is no guarantee
that it is going to function correctly unless it is correctly assembled and so
on. So, while it does perhaps remove from the watchful eye of law enforcement
some of these people and their ability to purchase or acquire firearms, it is
not distinctly different from people being able to go to the hardware store,
purchase components there and assemble them in their backyards.
He also advised the committee that manufacturing 3D firearms from metals
remained rare and was incredibly expensive:
There are functional handguns available commercially in very
small numbers in the United States that have been produced almost
overwhelmingly using the direct metal laser sintering process. It is not
economically viable. Those handguns sell for US$11,900 each, where a comparable
handgun, in terms of capability and design, can be purchased in the United
States for about US$300 or US$400. Clearly, there is a big gap there. The
biggest hurdle for a criminal organisation or a non-state armed group seeking
to produce metal 3D-printed firearms would be the cost of the printers
themselves. Currently they are not economically viable for the consumer grade.
ARES also discussed the possibility of whether criminals and armed
groups were already using 3D manufactured guns as part of their operations.
ARES found that such groups, including those operating in Australia, already 'routinely
produce a range of improvised firearms from various materials using traditional
or improvised manufacturing methods'.
ARES argued that these weapons have more advanced capabilities than 3D printed firearms
produced outside defence facilities, and that there is not yet a demand for 3D
At this stage the only benefits that an economically viable
3D printed weapon may hold for an individual or a non-state group seeking
illicit weapons lie in their untraceable nature and the polymer construction
that prevents many common screening devices from detecting them—for example, in
order to smuggle a weapon inside a secured area. When the costs of purchasing
or producing 3D printed firearms are considered, together with their
operational limitations, traditional firearms purchased on the black market and
those produced by traditional manufacturing methods illegally are likely to remain
all the more appealing to individuals and non-state armed groups for the
foreseeable future. Barring significant technological advances, advanced 3D
printed metal firearms will remain beyond the reach of those seeking illicit
weapons for many years to come.
The Australian 3D Manufacturing Association agreed with this assessment:
I think the most important thing to note is that the media
has somewhat sensationalised the gun story. The important thing is the fact
that today, in the real world, with respect to the technology that is available
for producing a gun—I am talking about outside; let us discount people like the
US military and all these people we do not even know and will probably never
know for years are doing—you would need several million dollars, several very
clever designers, employees, engineers, scientists to be able to create a
genuine weapon that would be effective. The devices that can be created
today—you have seen this in the media and the police have tested these
products—are more likely to kill you than the person you are aiming the device
at. Can they be called a gun? You put a bullet in it so, if you want to call it
a gun, okay, but where that bullet is going to go is debatable. With today's
technology, could someone do it at home? No, not really. Would it be effective?
No. Would it be accurate? No. Would I fire it? Absolutely not. I would not be
anywhere near it. With today's technology, and keeping it in the topic of
discussion, our position is that with the equipment, the machinery, the
printers that are available today it is not reasonable to say that you could
produce a gun per se that could do that sort of damage.
The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) stated that it 'has not identified
or been informed of law enforcement discoveries of 3D fabricated firearms being
used or made by criminal entities in Australia'.
While the use of 3D manufactured firearms in criminal activities appears
at present to be negligible, some witnesses identified possible challenges for
law enforcement with regards to firearms produced in this way.
The Victims of Crimes Assistance League argued that criminal groups are
already exploring the uses of 3D manufacturing technology and this is of
My concern with 3-D printing is not with responsible
manufacturers at all. My concern goes to people such as outlaw motorcycle
gangs. I am not sure whether the committee is aware, but as recently as last
week police arrested three people in the outer western Sydney region who were involved
in the manufacturing of illicit firearms, and they were using small die-cast
equipment and foundries to manufacture illegal firearms. That is my concern
with the 3-D printing. We have looked at the examples cited by Andrew Scipione,
for example, with one of the handguns where after the second shot the weapon
tended to explode in your hand, which I would have thought would have been
somewhat of a disincentive. However, as I said, criminals are not particularly
bright, so it may be they do not understand that.
This was a view shared by Victoria Police, which stated 'we have varying
organised crime groups—Middle Eastern organised crime, outlaw motorcycle
gangs—that are quite innovative and adaptive in their approaches to their
organised crime activities'
As technology is refined, and with 3D printers and other
machines like a computer numerical control (CNC) machine becoming more readily available
and affordable, it is likely that 3D printing of firearms will increase, posing
a significant risk to community safety and law enforcement agencies.
The United Nations Secretary-General has also acknowledged in a recent
report that while 'weapons theft or purchase on the illicit market may require
less effort than printing an effective, reliable weapon', this may change once
production costs decrease and the quality of 3D printed firearms improves.
The ACC predicted that advances in technology could lead to 3D manufactured
firearms posing more of a threat:
The ACC has assessed that 3D fabricated firearms will
probably pose a low threat for at least the next two years. This is because of
the current limitations of technology result in a low quality product, firing
capability is unreliable, and development is complex and costly. However,
decreased costs and advances in technology associated with machinery and
manufacturing programs sourced from the internet will likely increase the
quality of illicitly manufactured firearms and components within Australia in
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) also noted that the technology was
advancing quite quickly and at some point would 'allow the production of metal
objects similar to the way that plastic ones are currently produced'.
Queensland Police confirmed that these concerns are a reality and
described a recent property search that led to the discovery of 3D printed
The search resulted in investigators recovering a loaded sawn
off .22 calibre rifle. The firearm, previously a long arm (rifle), had been
modified to enable it to be concealed on a person. The search also resulted in
officers locating four plastic bags containing major component parts for
firearms. The component parts included the receiver, trigger assembly and
cylinder/barrel. Officers identified there were sufficient parts to construct
four concealable weapons, each constructed to hold and discharge up to six .22
calibre projectiles. The weapons parts had been manufactured through the
utilisation of a 3D printer, where the devi[c]e would 'print' the component
parts for assembly by the user. Officers also located a set of knuckle dusters
which had also been 'printed' by the device.
The 3D printed firearms parts located by Queensland Police were able to
The defendant admitted he had constructed and test fired one
of the weapons, indicating it had worked and discharged a .22 calibre round.
The defendant had however strength issue in the 'printed' model and had set
about rectifying the problem by re-enforcing the cylinder with metal tubing.
The inclusion of this metal tubing would mean the weapon could have been
reloaded and repeatedly used.
Significant concerns associated with 3D manufactured firearms and
firearm parts produced from polymer resin are their disposable nature and the
difficulty of detecting them with traditional methods. ARES spoke about these
informing the committee that not only are 3D manufactured firearms easy to
replace, they are 'comparatively easy to incinerate'.
ARES also discussed whether 3D manufactured firearms are able to be
detected using traditional means such as metal scanners, body scanners and
The polymer 3D printed firearms in particular such as the
Defence Distributed Liberator have already been successfully smuggled into a
few secure locations—primarily by journalists seeking to test the security
mechanisms. There are some technologies for which the polymer nature of the
handgun will allow the weapon to be brought into secure areas. These are
primarily metal detectors. Whilst these polymer frame handguns cannot be
detected by metal detectors, they can still be detected by X-ray machines and
backscatter X-ray body scanners.
Dr Daly commented that technological advances have allowed anyone who
has access to a 3D printer, raw material and the relevant design files to make
an undesirable object:
The problem for regulation and enforcement of the law with
regard to these objects, whether we are talking about laws relating to control
of weapons, health and safety laws or even intellectual property laws, is the
decentralised nature of 3-D printing. The whole 3-D printing process can
essentially take place in the privacy of individuals' homes. One way of
regulating the 3-D printing process might be to target entities such as the printer
manufacturers; the design repositories, which tend to be websites where people
upload 3-D printing designs and others can download them; and internet service
providers, given that a lot of this process happens online. One way of
regulating might be to ensure that they must only handle certain kinds of
Dr Goldsworthy acknowledged that 3D manufacturing highlights a number of
issues for law enforcement authorities and, given the availability of the
technology and the motivation for criminals to manufacture 3D printed firearms,
the government should be on the front foot.
The regulation of 3D printed firearms is discussed in the next section.
Regulation of 3D firearms
As with the majority of technological developments, 3D manufacturing offers
not only exciting and hugely beneficial possibilities for the community, it
also poses challenges for governments and law enforcement authorities. Before
additional measures and controls are imposed, it is important to examine the
state of the existing legislation.
Current legislative framework
There is currently no Australian legislation that goes specifically to
regulating 3D printers and associated materials. As the ACC stated:
3D printers and materials are not subject to federal
regulations as they have widespread legitimate applications. There is no
offence in possessing or using a 3D printer. The ACC notes that firearms
produced using new technologies are still subject to the licensing and
registration requirements with any other firearm. 
Internationally a number of instruments apply, as ARES explained:
Rapid advances in 3D printing technology and their increased
application in the manufacture of firearms and firearms components raises a
number of legal, normative and law enforcement questions. In general, national,
regional and international controls apply to 3D printed firearms in the same
way they apply to traditionally manufactured firearms. New technology will pose
new challenges for law enforcement, however.
It is important to note that 3D manufacturing will not render
current international and national controls on firearms obsolete. It may,
however, make applying these norms more challenging. As additive manufacturing
technologies continue to improve and become more readily available to private
individuals, the enforcement of firearm manufacturing regulations will become
increasingly difficult. Additive manufacturing techniques could be used to
produce controlled accessories or components.
Some witnesses suggested that Australia's existing firearms laws would
apply equally to 3D printed firearms. The Attorney-General's Department (AGD)
...our understanding of this area of 3D printing or creating of
firearms is that it would be treated no differently to traditionally manufactured
firearms, and that importation, manufacture or possession of a 3D printed
firearm, without a licence, would be illegal in Australia.
The Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) considered this issue carefully and found
that the manufacture of firearms by way of 3D manufacturing was likely to be
considered an offence in all Australian jurisdictions:
It appears that the current firearms statutes (and, where
relevant, weapons statutes) in combination with the Customs Act 1901 and
import regulations sufficiently covers the possession and manufacture of all
firearms, including those made with the use of 3D printers or from separately
However, the LIV also noted that due to each state and territory having
its own laws with regards to the registration of firearm parts and the
manufacture of firearm parts, it is impossible to be certain without judicial consideration
whether the legislation in all Australian jurisdictions will sufficiently cover
3D manufacturing of firearms.
Given these jurisdictional inconsistencies and the rapid changes in 3D
manufacturing, the LIV recommended 'that it would be desirable to introduce and
implement a uniform set of regulations in all Australian jurisdictions'.
Suggestions for further regulation
It was the view of some submitters that the law needs to keep pace with
technological advances. For example, the Australian 3D Manufacturing
I think the fact that we have seen over the past 20-odd years
the problems that have occurred with trying to regulate the internet and put
laws in place. I think part of that was because we started way too late. If we
can work collaboratively today and develop standards from the get-go, then we
are going to be in a much better position to be able to look at those things as
the years go by.
As noted in paragraph 6.32, a number of international instruments apply
to 3D printed firearms in the same way they do to traditionally manufactured
firearms, but the development of 3D manufacturing technology will pose new challenges
for law enforcement.
The Victims of Crimes Assistance League shared a similar view:
Until we can keep pace with that, we are going to have a
situation where someone is going to be shot and injured with the use of a 3-D
device, and we are going to have all sorts of problems getting that matter
through the courts because of the failure of the courts to keep pace with that
technology. We need to address it, and we need to address it before it becomes
a problem, not after it becomes a problem, which is traditionally what the law
Submitters were generally opposed to either banning, or introducing a
character test, for the ownership of 3D printers. The LIV noted that this was a
'drastic option' and that it 'would caution against introducing new legislation
that is so broad and encompassing that it addresses every possible scenario in
Dr Goldsworthy noted that by preventing people from engaging in illegal
activity, you would also prevent beneficial discoveries for society:
...3-D printers are multipurpose and most of them are quite
legitimate and not illicit. So therein lies the problem of how you regulate
something that is going to be used quite legitimately in most of the
opportunities versus the small amount of times it may be used inappropriately.
I think that is the real challenge we are facing here.
Dr Daly similarly cautioned against over–regulation:
...any attempt to regulate 3-D printing: that it would be
largely ineffective and disproportionate to the potential harm of dangerous
objects, such as guns. I propose that, due to some concern about guns, we
should not allow a moral panic to stifle the large benefits from 3-D printing
for society at large. There should be some hard evidence regarding the
prevalence of 3-D printed weapons and the threat of these weapons to Australia
before any new legislation is considered. There would also need to be
consideration given to whether any such regulation would be effective in
However, in her submission, Dr Daly suggested three possible ways in
which 3D printing could be more moderately regulated:
use of 'gatekeepers': place obligations on 3D printer
manufacturers and online design repositories to only allow for approved files
to be used on their machines or present in their folders through technical
private regulation: examples include Danish 3D printing firm
Create It REAL which recently announced it had developed a firearms component
detection algorithm which can give 3D printers the option to block gun parts,
and the decision of Mega to take down the Liberator gun blueprint; and
role of internet service providers: require companies to report
when users download 3D printing design files that relate to firearms.
The LIV was supportive of similar approaches,
while Dr Goldsworthy noted that recent proposed changes to Australia's
telecommunications regime could be used to regulate 3D printing.
Copyright and intellectual property
The rapid development of 3D manufacturing technology offers huge
benefits to the community in terms of industry, medicine, creativity and many
other areas of human endeavour. It is also clear that it poses challenges for
law makers and law enforcement authorities when it comes to the manufacture of
potentially dangerous items such as firearms, as has been discussed elsewhere
in this chapter. During the course of the inquiry, it also became apparent that
3D manufacturing technology will pose challenges with respect to copyright and
other intellectual property issues.
The Australian 3D Manufacturing Association explained:
Although 3D manufacturing has been around for many, many
years, it is only due to the lapse of patents and copyrights recently that has
brought the technology into the fore...It is such complex technology. As I
alluded to before, it has come to the fore because of the lapse of copyright,
patents and all of these things that were not previously in the public domain.
You would have had to pay millions, tens of millions of dollars to get hold of
the technology. All of that technology is now coming out into the public
The committee considers these issues are beyond the terms of reference
for this inquiry. On that basis, the committee believes that there is scope for
a further and more extensive inquiry into 3D manufacturing technology and the opportunities
and challenges it offers.
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