When the police entered a clandestine weapons and explosives workshop in Tenerife, they did not expect to see a 3D printer at work finishing the gray frame of a revolver. It was the first time in Spain that printed weapons were found in a police operation. The investigation had started after the detection of a white supremacist sympathizer who was buying chemical material that can be used in explosives. The possibility that the suspect could be printing weapons came up in the end, according to sources in the investigation. Homemade 3D gun printing is in fact perfectly possible without raising any police alarm: there are valid blueprints on the open web, the indispensable metal parts are legal to acquire, and 3D printers cost hundreds of euros and have no control.

This case has led the Spanish police to verify their intuition about the danger of the development of 3D weapons. “We did not expect it,” says the Spanish inspector who leads the action dedicated to combating new threats in firearms in the European group that combats illicit trafficking (Empact Firearms). “Something like this is never pleasant, but it is comforting to see that I am not on the wrong track and that I am projecting a certain threat,” he explains to EL PAÍS. The arrest occurred in September, although it has been kept secret until now.

“We try to measure the degree of threat by contacting other European police, international organizations and agencies such as Interpol and Europol,” says the inspector. “We have done a seminar to detect future threats between now and 2030 and we have detected that the main threat is the printing of weapons,” he adds.

The intuition of the inspector has led Spain to host a European meeting on 3D weapons in the autumn. In Madrid, police and external experts will debate what the real risk of this type of weapon is and what are the best ways to combat it, such as arms control, ballistics or legislation. During the meeting, a 3D weapon will be printed and tested at the shooting range of the Police complex in Canillas (Madrid). Although the internet is already full of plans and experiments, the process has been so fast that the police have not yet tested any of them finished. Although they are easy to build, they also have risks if something goes wrong.

The ‘old’ Liberator

The risk of home-printed 3D weapons emerged nearly a decade ago with the Liberator pistol, although at first it seemed more of a curiosity than a danger. But in recent years the conjunction of very cheap capable printers and the proliferation of drawings on the internet has turned the danger into a real threat.

The material from the clandestine workshop in Tenerife included two printers of different categories. The most expensive was a Prusa Mk3S, with a full cost of around 800 euros unassembled and around 1,000 already assembled. “It has great quality and precision and is quite affordable,” says Juan González, 3D printing specialist and author of the Govaju channel on YouTube. The second printer in the shop was a Creality Ender 5 Plus, priced at around 500 euros. The first brand is Czech and the second is Chinese. “The differences between the two models were not considerable, basically in price. They are the entry range, ”adds González. It is rarer for a home user to have two printers: “Whoever has one ends up acquiring another to double production,” he says. But who wants to experiment with 3D weapons does not intend in principle to “double production”.

Seizures such as that of Tenerife that have occurred in Europe can be counted on the fingers of the hands. And there are plenty, say police sources. There have been cases in the UK and Poland, for example. It is something very incipient, but with great speed of growth and opportunities.

The only real and alarming use case was the attack that left two dead in a synagogue in Halle, Germany in October 2019. The author had bought a 3D printer in May and said in a manifesto that he had managed to assemble five weapons . In images of the shooting, it is seen how the weapons jam him several times and he returns to his car, presumed proof that they were not yet very reliable. Even so, he killed two people.

His interest in home-made weapons and in the supremacism of the detainee in Tenerife brought him closer to the German case. Police suspect it could be a profile of lonely wolf, without many social connections and in danger of radicalization, who also had a peculiar past: presumably he was a military man in Venezuela before Hugo Chávez and then he lived for 10 years in the United States, where he was able to come into contact with those interested in weapons and extreme right.

More information

The police do not rule out discovering new leads by analyzing the detainee’s electronic devices or computers, although so far they have not found manifestos or statements on open networks. However, he had “Hitler’s diary and military material from Nazi Germany, with a photo dressed in a Nazi military suit, Nazi gun holsters and flags that are used by supremacist groups,” say sources in the investigation.

The 19 frames that he had at home were all handguns and there were extra parts to try to mount a pistol. The police know that he made some homemade explosion in the field, but they are not certain at the moment if he assembled, tested and later disassembled any printed weapons. Investigating whether with the parts he had at home he could assemble a fully functional pistol. The detainee had on his computer the downloaded plans for the FGC-9, a European-designed submachine gun, made of plastic and with spare parts that can be found on the internet, and a replica of an AR-15 assault rifle, which shoots plastic pellets. , but that has parts that can be adapted for the FGC-9, such as the stock, trigger, safety or pistol grip.

Before the increase in the threat with 3D weapons, the police were already closely pursuing a parallel problem: the separate shipment by parcel of disassembled weapons that could be reassembled at destination. Despite the difficulty of analyzing millions of packages, it is a more controllable type of threat: in addition to finished weapons, there are essential parts that are also traceable with an identifier. With 3D printing the ability of the authorities to find the owner or buyer of a piece disappears.

The autumn congress in Madrid aims precisely to debate the possibility of somehow planning the purchase of more than one printer for personal use or to seek legislation that allows reducing risks. Police sources also fear that metal 3D printers will come after plastic printers: “There are already metal printers: gold, titanium, but they are much more expensive. Bicycles and prosthetics have been seen. Although it does not go below 200,000 or even half a million euros, ”says González. One of the relative difficulties today for criminals with 3D weapons is ammunition, which has yet to be purchased or obtained. There are home-made examples on the internet, but it requires more skill.

It is not only the police who seek to better control this new threat. Experts also experiment because they know that it will soon be time for them to go to court to give details: “We have not had any case yet, but it has become real. I already have a printer running 24 hours to understand it better ”, says Fernando Mairata de Anduiza, technological forensic and president of the Professional Association of New Technologies Experts.

In the field of new technologies, only drones pose another growing risk in the field of lone terrorists, but law enforcement already have more resources to find their owners.

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