ABC Radio National – Life Matters: He 3D printed a gun – what happened next?
In November 2015 I was on the ABC Radio National program, Life Matters talking about 3D printing and product safety. The host was journalist Natasha Mitchell.
Gail Greatorex at the ABC Brisbane studios
Transcript (with minor edits)
Natasha: It’s probably fair to say that most of us sleep a lot easier knowing that access to firearms in this country is very tightly restricted, especially when we look across to the US and what’s happening there with gun ownership and the implications of that. Now though, here there’s a concern that it may become a whole lot easier to lay your hands on a gun, and here’s how: simply by heading to one of the 3D printing shops now around the place, a blueprint from the internet in hand, and you just simply get a gun printed using a 3D printer. That’s exactly what Alex Dick did recently in Melbourne as something of an experiment for a piece he was writing for online magazine ‘Junkie’. Alex joins us this morning from Melbourne. Good to have you with us.
And if Alex had been conducting his experiment in the state of New South Wales he could have been breaking the law under changes recently to the state’s Weapons and Firearms Act. And joining us is criminologist Professor Roderic Broadhurst. He’s concerned that the laws here in Australia are not keeping pace with the technology. And also with us is Gail Greatorex, she’s Director of Product Safety Solutions and formerly Director of Product Safety Compliance at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. And Gail is concerned that people 3D printing bits and pieces of technology for use around the home, well, those products are not necessarily going to meet safety standards.
Getting a gun 3D printed
Nathasha: Good to have you all with us. So Alex, just how easy was it to walk into a 3D printing shop and pay for a gun to be printed?
Alex: Well, I guess unfortunately it’s rather an unremarkable story of me opening up my laptop one morning and sort of going onto my favourite Torrent downloading site and typing in a few words and 18 seconds later I think for the download to occur I had all the files on my computer, stuck them on a USB stick, and headed into the city into a 3D printing store. And probably the most difficult part about it was the queue. I was waiting in line…
Natasha: Such is the demand.
Alex: I know, yeah. That’s the trouble. You know, city life and all that. But I was in line for like twenty minutes, and I guess because there were so many people in the store waiting to use the printing facilities, the staff just wanted to sort of push me through quickly and, you know, it’s just one more customer. And I think they didn’t really take notice of the fact that I was printing out files that were sort of like ‘trigger’ and ‘barrel’ and ‘grip’ and things like that.
Natasha: So they asked simply no questions about what you were printing?
Alex: They said, just sort of conversationally, the girl sort of said ‘Oh, what is it you’re printing?’ And I sort of said to them ‘Oh, it’s for a photography project for my uni degree,’ which wasn’t an entire lie. But that was it, that was just sort of like a conversational thing before she stuck the USB stick in and, yeah, we had the files up on the screen and we were, you know, you have to adjust the scale of this particular file I downloaded.
So together we were sort of making sure it was all the right size and clearly it looked like a firearm on the screen and, you know, no questions asked – she clicked the print button.
And actually there was a seven to ten-day waiting because it was sort of near the end of uni semester, so there was a bit of a backlog. So I just had to wait then for an email confirming that my print job had arrived.
Natasha: So you rock up, seven to ten-days later?
Alex: Yeah, exactly. And they hand it to me in a little box.
Natasha: Right. They hand what to you exactly in a little box? Describe the final product. Is this capable of shooting anything?
Alex: Well, I guess there are a few caveats. So, the one I printed, the actual piece comes in a certain amount of files and then you have to assemble it at home later. It would be quite costly if I’d printed the whole thing, and truth be told the budget for the article was a bit prohibitive, so I couldn’t afford to print out the whole thing. I also didn’t want to break the law. So I just sort of needed enough to make it look scary in a photo really.
Natasha: For the purposes of an online journalism piece.
Alex: Yeah, exactly.
Natasha: Still, the whole exercise is quite confronting.
Alex: Yeah. Actually going and doing it wasn’t too scary. I was more worried about the printing shop sort of coming back at me afterwards and, you know, a defamation case or something coming up. But actually just going into the shop and having it printed wasn’t that daunting at all. I think it was a little bit too easy.
Natasha: Well I’ll come back to you on what you think about the whole experience, what you think should happen.
Roderic Broadhurst, a criminologist at the ANU, what are your thoughts? I mean, clearly Alex didn’t print out a workable gun in this case, but what are your thoughts about how easy it was for him to walk into a 3D printing shop and request a gun be printed out?
Roderic: Good morning Natasha. Yeah, look it is one of the challenges. I mean illicit guns generally are a pretty formidable challenge for law enforcement. And a couple of things that I quickly want to mention: of course you can produce these rather, kind of basic plastic mould single shot pistols. You’re still going to have to get ammunition. A lot of the files, the source codes, which as you pointed out earlier, possession of which are now in New South Wales at least, are banned. Look, it’s a bit more tricky than Alex has outlined, but it is a bit unnerving to realise that it could be that simple.
Natasha: So are guns being printed out anywhere in the world, using 3D printing, that work? I mean I saw a video from, I think it was the New South Wales Police force, where they were demonstrating a workable 3D printed gun.
Roderic: Yes, you can print out a workable single shot plastic mould weapon that does need a metal spring, and you need ammunition. But that’s based on a 2013 model that somebody called Cody Wilson demonstrated in a sort of bright blue plastic. What’s happened since then has been a very, very rapid development – constant tinkering if you like – with the code. And what we’re seeing really is some pretty impressive weapons being moulded, printed and so on, on 3D printers capable of actually rapid fire. And some of these products are turning up even in Australia. And they’re certainly turning up in the deep web or, if you’d like, sometimes we called dark net, and the sort of sites like ‘Silk Road’ and so on.
So, they’re a very unwelcome addition to the illicit gun market.
Natasha: So last week the New South Wales government has taken action and taken this issue very seriously, even if most people couldn’t get their hands on suitable blueprints that make guns that work. But what did they do to the firearms legislation?
Roderic: Well, I think firstly I need to say the rapid response of the New South Wales Police, the fact that they’ve taken this up pretty seriously is I think very, very commendable. It may be a small step but it’s an important step by banning the possession of digital blueprints.
Natasha: So it’s actually illegal, just to clarify, now it is illegal to even download the blueprints in order to print out a gun using a 3D printer?
Roderic: Or an electronic milling machine of some kind, yes, it’s now currently outlawed to possess that kind of digital, what we would call source code. And actually there’s quite a lot of source codes for printing guns on 3D type machines, whether plastic or metal, I mean there’s all kinds of alloys now available. They’re more expensive. And they are showing up in many jurisdictions, and I believe a few of them actually have turned up in Australia as well. And this just simply reflects, for want of a better word, crime follows opportunity.
Criminals are generally very early adopters of technology, and so as a consequence at least, I think the response of the New South Wales Police has been to take it seriously, and I think that’s the right thing to do. And as they attempt to apply the notion of deterrence; that somehow we can deter, or at least chill, the use of this kind of material, especially around attempts or preparation. So, I think it’s a small but very important step.
Natasha: You just wonder how they’ll police it though in New South Wales. Will they be keeping an eye on what people are downloading through, you know, Bit Torrent streams?
Roderic: Look, I think there’s all sorts of ways that they might be after. Perhaps add this sort of information to intelligence data streams. But essentially what it does, it gives them the power to, I guess, interfere or disrupt a process where somebody might be attempting to mill a 3D gun from a 3D printer, from a source code.
There are lots of other sort of sources for illicit guns. Restricting ammunition is part of that game. But I see it as an attempt to disrupt preparations and attempts to produce guns, because it’s unlawful to manufacture guns without a license in Australia. So it’s just extending that in the same way as this amendment also extended some of the penalties for altering or defacing a weapon, or acquiring a weapon that’s defaced. So it’s just a general effort on part of New South Wales Police and the government to try and sort of stem the flow of illicit guns. I mean they’re under a lot of pressure. So, I think it’s a good step. It may be the beginning of something important.
Natasha: So that’s New South Wales, but not to put Alex in the drink, but what about in Victoria? Was he committing an illegal act by downloading a blueprint in order to writing this article about the 3D printing of guns and whether or not it’s more easy to do?
Roderic: No, he wasn’t committing an offence.
Roderic: And no more than if he had downloaded something like, I don’t know, one of the very sophisticated crimeware tool kits you can get from the internet, right? It’s not an offence to possess those things. It’s certainly an offence if you use them to break into somebody’s computer. And likewise, in the case of Victoria, I would imagine – particularly one would hope – that the other states in the Commonwealth will take some kind of lead from the New South Wales example. Because it does beg that question; how much further do we need to push out? Even though it may not appear to be particularly effective, it’s certainly a necessary step.
Natasha: So do you feel some relief there Alex? I’m just interested in what you were trying to demonstrate by writing this article for ‘Junky.com’ about how easy it is at least to request to have a prototype of a 3D printed gun made.
Alex: Yeah, I guess in a way I feel like of sound of mind, so I wanted to be the first one to do it because I know I’m not going to go out and go on a rampage or anything like that. So it was kind of a way to at least get the conversation started, and it was actually an idea I’d had before the legislation had passed in New South Wales.
I mean I’m just sort of going to echo what’s already been said, but the internet’s like the Wild West where it’s so hard to police. You know, every industry’s struggling and I don’t think it’s just the firearms industry that has problems, like music video piracy’s always struggling, Uber’s now starting to take on the taxi industry. So, yeah, I think it’s going to be a really hard thing to police.
Natasha: It’s a bigger story. And perhaps the 3D printing shops need to play a part here too and raise their eyebrows if you walk in and print out a gun.
Alex: Exactly. They had a very comprehensive pamphlet on copyright law.
Natasha: Oh right. Well that doesn’t help though does it?
Alex: No. No it doesn’t.
Natasha: Let me come to Gail Greatorex, Director of Product Safety Solutions, former Director of Product Safety Compliance, in fact, at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. So Gail, you’ve been thinking about 3D printing from a consumer safety perspective, and actually thinking about the issue of guns you were contemplating a case that was part of an episode of the series ‘The Good Wife’*, which you’re a fan of. Tell us about that case and what it illustrated. This was a hypothetical scenario where a 3D printed gun goes off and it’s not clear who is to blame . . .
Gail: And while it was guns it could have been any product really, so they actually took the designer of the product to court – the person who had uploaded the design onto their website. They ended up looking at the printer manufacturer because they weren’t sure if the printer had worked properly. There were then issues around whether the person who had done the printing had used the right materials, whether they had maintained their printer properly. And of course with 3D printing you can, once you’ve downloaded a design you can also then use your software to vary the design so that if, in this case, the gun handle didn’t quite fit the guy’s hand so he varied the design. And that then raised questions about where the liability lies and who’s responsible.
Natasha: Yes. Now this is a sort of emblematic case of this whole sector. Has there been much thinking about consumer safety and 3D printing more broadly?
Gail: It’s begun. But because it’s only a fairly new technology at the consumer level there hasn’t been a lot examined at this stage.
So that was why I wrote a White Paper at the start of this year to just try and explore and tease out some of the issues and see what action might need to be taken.
Natasha: Okay, so what action do you think does need to be taken?
Gail: Well. With product safety we say everybody has a role to play; the manufacturers, retailers, governments and consumers. The primary responsibility lies with the manufacturer typically, and the people designing, because if you can design safety into a product and eliminate the hazard at the outset then that’s the best way of making a product safe. In this case it’s still a case that everybody has to have a role to play. So I think that there needs to be focus on the designers and also the people who are making the 3D printers for sale to consumers. I think they can take the lead on this primarily.
Natasha: It’s so distributed though, isn’t it? If I want to go into a shop and get something 3D printed I might take a blueprint off the net, there’s a designer who came up with the blueprint. I might go into the shop and together we might modify that design in some way, and then you get a product. It’s difficult to establish who should be accountable.
Gail: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. And I know that some of the 3D print shops that have opened up in Australia have thought long and hard about what their role might be in this field, and there’s some accountabilities being built in. But of course people can own a 3D printer at home as well, so there’s nothing stopping them in that context.
Natasha: So the shops might be thinking about it. Is there actually an organised 3D printing industry in Australia that might play a role in advocating consumer safety?
Gail: Yes, there’s certainly a number of organisations that are involved; and I’m actually involved this afternoon in Brisbane: Griffith University is running a forum, and there’s a number of industry bodies and also the universities are definitely involved.
Natasha: On the other hand, could 3D printing be an absolute boon for people’s households? Might it improve their lives in ways, rather than increase risk?
Gail: Well, 3D printing offers some fantastic opportunities, and indeed you can print products with 3D printing that can’t be (made) any other way. So that’s a real bonus.
From a safety point of view, I’ve thought about things like trying to get people to wear protective gear – like a helmet or elbow pad or goggles, say, if you’re doing some welding. Some people resist that because they’re uncomfortable. But with 3D printing you could customise and tailor the product so that it fitted your body effectively, and it might encourage people to wear protective gear. That’s one innovation. There’s also, with 3D printing there’s often fewer parts – fewer moving parts – in a product. So sometimes that can be helpful from a design point of view.
Natasha: It’s such fascinating terrain to me. Rod Broadhurst, do you think that most states, just coming back to the 3D printing of gun issue, do you think most states will follow suit in terms of what New South Wales has done to make it illegal to download blueprints for guns?
Roderic: Yes, I think most states will follow and hopefully the Commonwealth law will be amended as well. I’m pretty confident that that’s already a matter for consideration at the Commonwealth level, and it would be really important I think to try to get a national approach. Like I say, the New South Wales approach has been very rapid and it’s a small, but important step. And it does raise this question about what extent we need to criminalise things like crimeware – not that I think that 3D printers are necessarily crimeware at all. They’re going to bring many benefits as Gail’s pointed out. But there’s always some down-side to new technology, and we’re just looking at one of these unintended consequences, I think.
Natasha: Yeah. Alex, now that you’ve got the blueprint, you know, 3D printed thing going on, any plans for the future? What are you going to print out next? A new car? I need a new car.
Alex: Oh that would be nice.
Natasha: A new bike? I need one of those too.
Alex: Don’t know if that sort of stuff fits in a 3D printer just yet. But actually I’ve been doing a bit of research into biomedical 3D printing and, as you were just saying, there are benefits to 3D printing technology as well. So there are people now, like there’s Wright University in the US are doing a lot of open source 3D printing of, you know, human kidneys and liver tissues and stuff like that. So, you know, maybe not just yet, but you know forty years down the line when this technology’s commercially available I might print myself some new organs if I ever need them.
Natasha: Yeah, that’s it. I know.
Alex: I don’t know. Yeah. I don’t think I’ll be printing out any more firearms in the near future though.
Natasha: No, that’s right. It was an interesting experiment.
Alex: I’ve think I’ve proved a point.
Natasha: And thanks for joining us to talk about it.
Alex: Oh, no worries. Thank you very much.
Natasha: I was fascinated by it. Alex Dick is a journalist who recently wrote an article about the 3D printing of a gun in a Melbourne 3D print shop for ‘Junky.com’. And Gail Greatorex, thank you so much for jointing us.
Natasha: Director of Product Safety Solutions. Good luck with that afternoon symposium on all this issue. And Professor Rod Broadhurst, Professor of Criminology at the ANU, thank you so much for joining us.
Roderic: Thank you Natasha.
Natasha: Yeah, I wonder what you’ve tried to 3D print. Could it be a gun? Well, New South Wales has made headroads down that path. Looking forward to your comments on the Facebook page about this one.
For more information on 3D printing and product safety, and to get the free White Paper check out The Maze blog article 3D printing and consumer product safety
A more comprehensive interview on this topic is available at 3D printing and product safety: WTFFF podcast!
*Read about the 3D printing episode of ‘The Good Wife’ in The Maze blog