In Depth

3D printed guns Q&A: Should we be alarmed by plastic weapons?

Discovery of printed 'gun parts' in Manchester raises spectre of criminals making 'untraceable' firearms

POLICE in Manchester have arrested a man after seizing what appears to be a plastic trigger and ammunition magazine made using a 3D printer. The components are still being tested by ballistics experts to see they could form part of a working gun, but the incident has raised concerns that criminals may use the process to manufacture cheap, lightweight and "untraceable" weapons. Here are five key questions about 'printed' guns: 

How does 3D printing work?

The process works by creating solid objects using layer upon layer of a material, usually plastic. Templates for objects such as jewellery and shoes can be bought on the internet, downloaded to the printer and made "in minutes", says ITV News. "It is thought in future we will see clothing, medical devices and consumer electronics printed at home in this way."

Is it possible to make a working gun using a printer?

Yes, it is. The world's first gun made using 3D printer technology was test fired in Texas earlier this year. Dubbed The Liberator, it was made by Defense Distributed, a company formed by 25-year-old law student Cody Wilson. Fifteen of the gun's 16 components were manufactured on a 3D printer Wilson bought on eBay for $8,000. The gun, which fires a single .380 calibre bullet, is potentially lethal.

Do the police think the guns pose a threat?

They do. Police fear that criminals could make "untraceable" weapons at home using printers that are widely available for about £1,000, says The Independent. Detectives believe they could be the "next generation of firearms", the paper adds. 

Were the components found in Manchester definitely part of a gun?

No, they weren't. After headlines such as "Police find first 3D gun-printing factory" began appearing in the press, Manchester police issued a statement saying "we cannot categorically say we have recovered the component parts for a 3D gun". Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Willard Foxton, says the items seized in Manchester are unlikely to be parts of a Liberator. The 'magazine' looks "suspiciously like a part from a Pez [sweet] dispenser", writes Foxton. And in any case, the Liberator - "the only reliable 3D printing gun design" - doesn't carry a magazine.

Is Cody Wilson surprised that someone may be trying to make 3D printed guns in the UK?

No, he isn't. The self-described "cryptoanarchist" told the BBC that in the past few months he has "received emails from people in Europe and the UK who have been printing out components for plastic firearms".

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