The 3D Printer Dilemma—Building Untraceable Guns

The debate on guns is a heated one in Canada but the conversation rarely gets beyond the idea of banning guns.  I am not arguing for pro or anti-gun legislation, but I am saying that 3D printers allow criminals to build guns that would otherwise be unavailable for purchase in Canada.  The potential for 3D printers to be misappropriated by criminals is real and I was told by a community resource police team in Ottawa that they are aware of 3D printers being used to create gun parts.  The idea of requiring individuals to register 3D printers or having some sort of database might be something we really need to consider.

This past week I was in attendance for a community meeting that featured a community police officer speaking on policing matters affecting our community.  At the meeting, community members discussed an incident where a car was pulled over and police recovered a gun and drugs.  The conversation piqued my interest and I asked about the origins of these guns.  Where did they come from? Were they stolen from homes? Were they smuggled into Canada? Were they ghost guns? The police officer estimated that roughly 85% of the guns seized were traced back to the USA, and somewhere between 5-10% were either identified as stolen in Canada or were ghost guns.

The term “ghost gun” best describes a gun that was built with separate gun parts, think of it as a home-made gun.  The scariest thing about these home-made guns is that they are untraceable.  There is no origin story to them because these gun parts tend to be after-market parts, but they can also include older gun parts.  What most Canadians are unaware of is that it is not illegal for people to buy gun parts across Canada or the USA, and they often get delivered to a person’s doorstep.  For gun parts that are prohibited from sale, 3D printers are being used to create identical replica parts and they work just as good as the original parts.

Another question I later posed to the community police officer was on whether there was a tracking system for the buying and selling of individual gun parts.  The answer was no.  I found this quite odd.  The tracking of buying and selling of certain goods is not a new idea.  In the USA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency proposed a regulatory program for the buying and selling of ammonium nitrate to prevent the misappropriation or use of ammonium nitrate in an act of terrorism.  While ammonium nitrate is largely used by farmers to stimulate crop growth, it can also be used to create home-made bombs.  The regulatory program was brought about to track the buying and selling of ammonium nitrate was an open secret and it appears to have been quite effective in its function.  We need more tracking systems for goods that can be weaponized like a home-made bomb, or in this situation a home-made gun.  Regulatory programs for these types of goods have no negative privacy or freedom implications but they can help identify individuals who have criminal intent.

The threat that gun violence poses is too extreme to not act on and it has affected Canadians from coast to coast.  The current trends of increased violent crime mirror trends seen in most big cities across Canada and the USA.  The last 5 years in Ottawa have seen record highs for gun violence.  A new record was recently set in 2021 after there were 80 shootings, surpassing the record of 78 shootings in 2018.  Smaller cities should be safer but in 2020 all of Canada was shocked after the Nova Scotia attacks that saw 22 people dead plus the deranged man armed with guns who went on a killing spree.  That rampage was the deadliest in Canadian history.

There is no better time to get ahead of the misappropriation of 3D printers as more technology is bound to come along that expands beyond the purview of old school legislation than now.  Individuals should not be able to have the capacity to become their own weapons manufacturers.  Not now.  Not ever.