Earlier this year, a report by the Dutch police revealed signs that 3D printed guns were on the rise; then, the first International Conference on 3D Printed Firearms took place in the Hague, and sufficient 3D gun-related arrests drew media attention worldwide. Although 3D printed weapons haven’t played a massive role in actual criminal violence, every month, law enforcement agencies increasingly seize 3D printed firearms during investigations.
New police records indicate that this trend is going to continue. In August, two Canadian men were charged with 3D printing and trafficking firearms, while Spanish police arrested a man who assembled an AR9 submachine gun with 3D printed parts. In Texas, a soldier was indicted for 3D printing and selling parts that can turn commercially available firearms into automatic weapons. Finally, the Western Australian police announced the creation of the first database to combat the threat of 3D printed weapons.
Canada Won’t Back Down on 3D Printed Gun Arrests
On August 16, 2022, two men in their twenties were arrested after Calgary police disrupted a 3D printed firearms manufacturing and trafficking operation and are now facing 66 charges, including firearms manufacturing and possession. Detectives from the Firearms Investigative Unit seized three Ender 3D printers; five complete 3D printed Glock-style handguns with magazines, five 3D printed Glock-style lower receivers, additional firearm parts, including trigger parts, slides, and barrels, 3D printing filament, and other firearm assembly tools at two Calgary residences.
During a press conference, Staff Sergeant Ben Lawson of the Firearms Investigative Unit pointed out that in the last two years, they have detected an increase in 3D printed, homemade, and smuggled firearms. Created in February 2020, the specialized unit has been tracking all firearms and has identified a trend in 3D printed gun manufacturing. When they first started following the trend, they only seized two guns in one year, but in 2022, that number has gone up to more than 15.
“Since 2020, the increase [of 3D printed guns] has gone from 1 percent to 9 percent of all crime guns seized in the city since,” indicated Lawson, who also reminded the public that it is illegal to make guns or gun frames without a firearms manufacturing license in Canada. “3D printed firearms are a growing trend that we are working to address through targeted enforcement. 3D printed guns function just like any other firearm and have the potential to cause real danger to our community.”
3D Printed Submachine Gun in Spain
Spanish police officers arrested a man for allegedly assembling an AR9 submachine gun with 3D printed parts. The practically finished firearm, along with other 3D printed gun parts, fully assembled weapons, and three printers, were seized by police as part of Operation Saguaro.
According to the police, during the raids, they found many 3D printed components, such as a frame and a slider built using the thermoplastic polyester PETG (or polyethylene terephthalate glycol). The detainee also had significant amounts of PETG filament and firearm CAD models that were intended for printing new parts to manufacture weapons.
U.S. Soldier Sells 3D Printed Weapons Parts
A Fort Bliss soldier was indicted in Texas federal court for allegedly selling 3D printed automatic weapon converters. 25-year-old Grant Lee Mosley was manufacturing 3D printed auto sears, which would convert semi-automatic AR-15 rifles into fully automatic guns. In addition, Mosley advertised and sold handgun machine gun conversion devices (commonly referred to as switches) and auto sears across the U.S on social media, in violation of specific laws.
Agents from the FBI El Paso field office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) in El Paso, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID), and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) worked collaboratively on the case, which began in May when federal law enforcement came across a channel on an unspecified online messaging platform advertising the 3D printed AR-15 auto sears and Glock auto switches. A month later, an undercover officer bought red plastic auto sear and a metal Glock switch from the seller, which were used to identify Mosley.
Commenting on the case, FBI El Paso Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey R. Downey said, “Reducing violent crime in our community and throughout our country is a priority of the FBI. The collaborative work from multiple FBI Field Offices, ATF, USPIS, and Army CID, to disrupt the manufacturing and selling of these devices will ensure these illegal parts do not get into the hands of individuals who want to commit violent acts in our communities.”
Data-driven Gun Control
With the help of Murdoch University forensic scientist James Speers, the Western Australia police have set up a database that can identify particular components of a weapon, including 3D printed firearm parts. As reported by The West Australian, this “world-first database” could help law enforcement agencies investigate and arrest individuals with 3D printed firearms.
Associate Professor Speers is renowned in the forensic field, having extensive experience as a senior forensic scientist-practitioner in the investigation and management of serious crimes and terrorist offenses. Speers participated in missions to identify missing people from the Kosovo war and was consulted during the Omagh bombing trial in Northern Ireland.
The expert explained that the main concern is that “criminal organizations are going to manufacture weapons, and therefore, the police agencies and forensic agencies are not set up to make comparisons with evidentiary value to take them to court.”
Instead, an avenue for identifying and comparing 3D printed firearms can help officers trace them back to a supplier of those weapons. “So the police can then direct their investigation to find who supplied those,” he suggested.
According to data collected by 3DPrint.com, Australian police have been tracking illegal 3D printing of weapons since 2015. Back then, Queensland police officers seized a haul of 3D printed weapons and gun parts in what they considered the first arrest and seizure of its kind in that state. Since then, law enforcement found 3D printed guns in at least 20 criminal cases, most of them between 2020 and 2022.
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