So, 2 reporters from the “Mail on Sunday” bought a £1700 3D Printer, downloaded a program from the internet, and printed a crude plastic .380 calibre pistol. Then they took it on a Eurostar ride to Paris without being detected.
Horror! Disaster! The terrorists have won! Nobody is safe! We must Do Something!
Well, far be it from me to suggest I might be better informed and more, ah, “wordly-wise” than a Mail on Sunday reporter, but I’d like to point out a few things they seem to have missed…
- The gaping hole in their hypothesis… According to the article, they assembled the gun but “did not load it for safety and legal reasons”. So, if they hadn’t been worried they might get in trouble, they’d have run down the road and picked up a box of .380 ACP ammunition? Oh, wait… In Britain (unlike in the USA), you can’t buy ammo at ASDA. You’d have to go to a Registered Firearms Dealer, who would ask to see your Firearms Certificate. Modern ammunition (brass case, primer, propellant and bullet) is not something you can print on a 3D printer, or easily make at home. So in the UK, you’d have to be a licensed gun owner, or, of course, get in touch with the underworld and buy it illegally. In either case, if you’ve got £1700 to spend, you can get a far better made, far more lethal real gun.
- Yes, but they printed this at home! From a program from the internet! Yes… and I hate to burst your bubble, but I’m pretty sure that plans for making a more conventional, metal “zip gun” or other improvised firearm from commonly available materials and requiring minimal skill, have been on the internet for almost as long as the internet has existed.
- But you’re missing the whole point! This gun is plastic! Its undetectable! They can get it on a plane! Anywhere! Hmmm… again, hate to disillusion you, but if you think a moderately intelligent person doesn’t have at least a 50/50 chance of getting a disassembled “zip gun” past most airport security, you’re fooling yourself. The last time I flew, I (entirely accidentally) had 2 1 ½ inch steel screws and a lighter in my pocket… I personally know people who have (again, accidentally) flown with penknives, lighters, spent shotgun shells and in one case a live round of pistol ammunition in their pockets.
- Ok, lets discount all the above. Lets assume the 3D printed plastic pistol does massively increase the chances of someone getting one onboard a plane. What have they accomplished? They now have a crude, low powered, single shot and single use pistol (the plastic barrel can only safely fire 1 shot- to shoot again you’d have to disassemble the gun and replace the barrel). It would be useful if you want to murder someone – go into toilet, assemble gun, put in pocket, walk out, clap to targets head and shoot them. But if you want to murder someone – well, lets just say that you don’t have to be a black belt to find out 3 or 4 ways of having a good chance of quickly killing someone with your bare hands, or, say, a pencil. As a hijack weapon, though? To quote a friend of mine: “9/11 worked because no-one had done it before. Before 9/11, if your plane got hijacked you thought “oh well, I’ve never been to Cuba” After 9/11….” These days, the cockpit door is locked and reinforced. Each hijacker might, in a worst case scenario, kill one passenger. That would be tragic, but a plastic knife would be just about as effective. Frankly, I’d be more scared of a group of hijackers with plastic knives than with single use plastic pistols. And if 250+ people can be held in abject fear by a single round of .380 ammunition, then the terrorists have won already.
I’m not trying to be totally dismissive of the threat posed by 3D printed weapons. But our anti-terrorism/security efforts need to be based on rational assessments of the threats, not ill-informed fear-driven reactions. Its not just that the kind of “we have to do something”, reactive responses we have often seen in the last 12 years aren’t very effective. They are expensive and often compromise our liberty while taking attention and resources away from things that might actually work, like better intelligence and better preparation/resources onboard aircraft. The harsh fact is we will never be able to prevent the real possibility of someone getting some kind of weapon onboard a plane, unless we strip search each individual and ban any carry on luggage not in a small clear plastic bag. If we spent even half the resources we’ve spent on new complex, unpopular and dubiously effective airport security on intelligence and preparing and equipping aircrew for the possibility of dealing with onboard violence, we’d actually be safer when flying.