Nuclear Weapons

With 3D-Printed Guns Beyond Control, DIY Nukes Are the Chic New Concern

Increasingly sophisticated homemade guns are so entrenched cops fear their use by organized crime, so now let's fret over desktop weapons of mass destruction.

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On Thursday, after the Umpqua Community College shooting, President Obama took to the airwaves to blame the murderous acts of a motivated, vicious individual on America's unique status as "the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense gun-safety laws" (maybe Norway and France could show us how to do it right).

The president's words rang hollow to many observers. Perhaps that's because he openly boasted of politicizing the issue even while remaining vague as to the definition of "common-sense gun-safety laws," maybe it's because these crimes remain horrible and resistant to analysis but fortunately rare, or it could be that the legal restrictions on guns the president and his chums have touted over the years have won compliance only from the reflexively law-abiding and defiance from anybody else, even as it's never been easier to ignore such laws.

Just days before President Obama's speech, a police official in essentially gun-free Japan lamented to Vice News that a struggle among Yakuza organized crime factions threatened to turn violent, and that the country's tight weapons restrictions seemed powerless in the face of home-built drones wielding bombs, and 3D-printed guns.

"Even if a gang has no weapons on hand, they just need the right equipment," warned a detective with the Hyogo Police Department. "Print, kill, melt the gun. Those new guns will be hard to trace…. Escalation could be very fast and very bloody."

That the powerful crime syndicates—the organizations themselves are legal, with corporate headquarters, logos, and political connections somehow separate from their illegal activities—would bother to print guns rather than smuggle them in or "borrow" what they need from government contacts may be a testament to the technology's growing maturity. In 2014, just a year after the original 3D-printed gun was unveiled by Cody Wilson, Japan's Yoshitomo Imura was the first person imprisoned for 3D-printing a firearm. His capture was no feat of forensic scrutiny; Imura had publicized his successes with little apparent regard for the legal status of his efforts.

"This has shown that anyone can illegally manufacture guns with a 3D printer, flaunting their knowledge and skill, and it is an offense to make our country's strict gun controls into a dead letter," the judge in the case reportedly huffed.

But dead those controls pretty much are—and so are those elsewhere. "Proposed legislation to ban 3D printing of weapons may deter, but cannot completely prevent their production," the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had conceded by then. "It is very difficult to do anything about it," a Europol official agreed.

Yoshitomo Imura's revolver design has since been refined, with functioning examples produced elsewhere and the plans available for download around the world. Aficionados can print their own ammunition now too.

In this artisanal age, perhaps the Yakuza agree with so many others that craft-produced products have much to recommend them over their commercial counterparts. Who doesn't love that extra authenticity?

With home-brewed guns growing in sophistication, easily produced even without specialized skills, and nearly impossible to thwart, it's about time for the concerned class to get their panties in a bunch about something new. That fresh and shiny fear revolves around 3D-printed weapons of mass destruction.

"Within a few years, the greatest challenge to the government's ability to control firearms will be advances in additive manufacturing, popularly known as '3-D printing,'" Louisiana State University's Daniel C. Tirone and James Gilley recently trumpeted in a Washington Post op-ed that the Yakuza may have found intriguing.

Touting their larger treatment of the topic in the Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, Tirone and Gilley warned that "[t]he ability to 'print' or manufacture guns privately will allow individuals to bypass background checks, the primary way that guns are regulated today. And that challenge will expand exponentially as the technology advances, one day enabling individuals to print chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction at home."

Even a techno-enthusiast such as myself has trouble making the jump from printable mechanical objects like firearms to "My First WMD" kits on every petty tyrant's and terrorist's wishlist. Nukes? Really?

But chemical printing is already a thing, promising not just eased pharmaceutical research, but the ability to print otherwise expensive-to-produce orphan drugs (or illicit intoxicants) "at point of need." As of this year, 3D printers can operate at the molecular level, potentially building even live tissue from the ground up. Though not uranium any time soon.

"It should also be possible to use 3-D printers to print components needed to produce nuclear weapons, potentially even from fissile materials such as uranium or plutonium," Tirone and Gilley insist.

The authors extrapolate more than a little to arrive at their worries about a desktop bomb in a box. But who knew 20 years ago that the ultimate rebuttal to gun control dreams would be automated home-based manufacturing with widgets priced within most people's budgets? Maybe the Yakuza and other evil-doers of the future really will order their nerve gas factories from Amazon (pro tip: go with Prime membership if you want delivery in time for the Spring offensive).

Tirone and Gilley suggest that, when it comes to modern DIY technology, governments must act in ways "countering its potential for mass destruction."

That's a little vague and open-ended. My guess is that we'll have to listen to a president of the future fret that as "we do not have sufficient common-sense DIY-safety laws," hinting at a grab-bag of impractical and unenforceable restrictions on 3D printers, CNC machines, traditional tools, and devices we have yet to imagine.

It's clear that the cat is out of the bag when it comes to people's growing ability to make whatever they damned well please, guns included, no matter what governments may want. And the professional worry warts can't see any end in sight.

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  1. Clearly, we must prepare for a future of zero privacy, for the children.

  2. A bunch of people hyping up a fantasized threat in order to keep people scared and squeeze a little more of their money. Sound familiar?

  3. fap fap fap

  4. What’s worse, they could use a 3D printer to print more 3D printers. Imagine it, an arsenal of 3D printers just printing more 3D printers. Soon the world would be filled with 3D printers, burying all of us like the hoarder stacking one too many newspapers on the pile.

    1. I for one welcome our new 3D printer overlords.

    2. I suspect that printing a plutonium nuke would be a disaster due to nasty effects of breathing plutonium dust.
      That’s assuming the feed tanks don’t go critical first.

    3. You made a feasible point with humor.

  5. It WarBama has a nuke, I want one too.

  6. Don’t the Yakuza pretty much own giant corporations? I doubt they would need to use a 3d printer to make nerve gas, which they probably wouldn’t want to.

    Are you sure you aren’t confusing them with that cult? The Yakuza are basically the Japanese Mafia, but more business like. Except maybe in Miike movies…

    1. The Yakuza are incorperated, mostly as vague “associations”. They “blackmail” major corporations a little by threatening to disrupt stockholder meetings, amd are often paid as “security consultants” as part of that. But the big combines are liklier to own Yakuza than be owned by them, if I interpret what I’ve read correctly.

  7. “Common-sense gun-safety” is the equivalent of Warty saying “just the tip!”

  8. This has shown that anyone can illegally manufacture guns with a 3D printer

    Anybody with a drill and a screwdriver can illegally manufacture guns.

    and it is an offense to make our country’s strict gun controls into a dead letter

    So Mother Nature and reality you. Join the club.

    1. So Mother Nature and reality [offend] you. Join the club.

  9. Things like this are why I more and more think that government is relegating itself to the parts of meat space which matter less and less. Bitcoin and its ilk are taking finances out of their control; 3D printers are taking physical objects out of their control; and the internet and future mesh networks are taking thought out of their control.

    Russia and the EU and probably all governments are trying to rein in Google and other companies. The TPP treaty has outrageous intellectual property provisions. The more they squeeze, the more the toothpaste escapes the tube, but in this case, the toothpaste is sentient and their squeezing is what brings it to life.

    More and more of daily life is escaping government control. The world in 50 years is going to be a fantastic place to live.

    1. Unless it isn’t. True, there is great potential for amazing freedom in 50 years, even 20. But that assumes that governments around the world will LET it happen. There will be those in power who will want nothing more than to increase their power, and will be happy when 95% of the people are spying on each other to report to the ruling class — which, of course, they think they will be.

      I hope you are right, but I have 0 faith in A) those in power to give up their power, and B) the masses to require them to. As long as there is “bread and circuses” there will not be a revolution.

      1. Nothing like a good old fashioned major war to distract people, make resources “scarce”, and abolish civil liberties. It is hard to 3D print anything when all the raw materials are rationed. What do you think, war between NATO and Russia in the middle east? War with China in the south China sea?

      2. I don’t think they will be able to contain all these new freedoms. The USSR couldn’t control simple mechanical mimeograph machines and typewriters.

        Governments may try to control the 3D printer raw inputs, or even the printers themselves, and they are certainly trying now to control the internet, bitcoin, etc, but they could only do so with such a heavy hand that yes, the public would object. They want their kitty videos and myface, and once they see what 3D printing can do, business and people will not let the government stop its progress.

        Yes, government will hang on to building roads and issuing business and occupational licensing. But more and more of the economy is sliding out from under their thumb.

        1. I’m not worried about government controlling or stifle our new technology, I’m worried about the government using our new technologies to control and stifle in it’s tax cattle, the people. See the security state et al.

        2. The USSR couldn’t control simple mechanical mimeograph machines and typewriters.

          Rampant mimeography brought down the USSR?

          ~20-30 yrs. of the internet liberating society and wresting control away from the government. How do we know when it has worked? When the lights go out in NYC (again)?

          You make lots of assumptions. The biggest probably being that the people in charge of these technologies aren’t themselves duplicitous in establishing control structures *cough*Netflix*cough*. Bitcoin has already started to form factions and the exchanges have agreed to set their own standard to protect the technology that is bitcoin and. Frankly, I hear some pretty creepy stuff coming from plenty of bitcoin fan boys. Stuff like, ‘Imagine total knowledge and control of the money supply.’ that sounds more like every statist’s wet dream and still more of the same old ‘Top Men!’ B.S.

          See Cody Wilson, some of the most troubling bullshit he went through had nothing to do with government regulation.

  10. Once I’ve tweaked my Star Trek replicator, the liberals better watch out! Screw WMDs, I’m going to make cups of Earl Gray, hot!

  11. The Donald can manufacture himself a new wig.
    Also, you know who else manufactured guns?

  12. As of this year, 3D printers can operate at the molecular level, potentially building even live tissue from the ground up. Though not uranium any time soon.

    Nanoscale lithography and atomic force microscopes have been manipulating atoms and molecules into assemblies below this scale for almost a decade.

  13. It’s clear that the cat is out of the bag when it comes to people’s growing ability to make whatever they damned well please, guns included, no matter what governments may want.

    It will be pretty hilarious when some capable hacker turns on all the government, web enabled 3D printers, checks their material loadings and then has them start making guns, or dildos, or some other item that offends the bureaucracy.

  14. I’m Kent Brockman and tonight we Hail Ants

  15. This is just media hysteria masquerading as a serious article. Reason is going down the tubes.

    1. did you RTFA? This is Reason pointing out that the media hysteria is ridiculous.

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  17. A 3-D printer could be used to build a vessel, but I doubt if it could replicate the Sarin to fill it – and those (Sarin bombs) have already become a cottage industry.
    Some people just have way too much time on their hands.

  18. 3D printed WMDs? Please. I don’t need a 3D printer to build weapons of mass destruction and neither does anyone else. With a little imagination and the will to do so, almost anything can be produced with the most innocuous of tools and materials. For instance, I could build a biological weapon with a refillable aerosol can, a food dehydrator, a medical centrifuge, and a pound of raccoon dung. You want to make a superbug? You don’t need a degree in genetics or microbiology, just some Petri dishes and access to broad spectrum antibiotics (which many doctors would be happy to prescribe for you). Chemical weapons are even easier. Bleach and ammonia, anyone? I could do this all day. The point is that we live in a dangerous world were anyone can be the next Boston Marathon bomber and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. The last thing we need is to fear the government as well as the random crazies. Government overreach doesn’t make anyone safer, just more scared.

    1. …Guess who won’t be able to board a plane any time soon…

      1. The moment I let such a thing scare me is the moment I’ve lost. You’re probably right, but I’d rather run the risk of reprisal than compromise my principles by doing the government’s censoring for them.

        1. Sorry if I’m being overly corny. I’m in a mood where it’s all I can do to avoid being that guy who irritatingly posts quotes from the founding fathers that we’ve all heard more times than we can count. Granted, Ben Franklin’s got some really good ones…

  19. Time to make millions of nuke sniffers using 3D printers and turn them loose around the world.

  20. The hilarious part of all the government panty-bunching is that 3-D printers are a high-tech 21st century answer to a 19th century basic metalworking problem.

    All over the world people in rural areas that barely have electric lights are turning out all the AK-47s anyone could want, while their children make the ammo.

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