Danger in 3-D: The Rapid Spread of Printable Pistols

PHOTO: Cody Wilson poses with the plastic pistol that he created with a 3-D printer, at his home in Austin, Texas, May 10, 2013.
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A student from Texas has invented a plastic pistol that anyone can make with a 3-D printer. It is undetectable by metal detectors and capable of killing. And it is spreading unchecked across the continents.

A few days after Cody Wilson's invention had been created, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to the rest of the world. The officials, responsible for fending off terrorist attacks, wrote three pages about the dangers of a weapon against which they are powerless. They wrote that public safety is threatened. They also wrote that, unfortunately, it is impossible to prevent this weapon from being made.

When the police in Australia heard about Wilson's invention, they decided to build the weapon themselves. It took them 27 hours to produce all the parts, but only a minute to assemble the gun. Then they fired a bullet into a block of gelatin. After that, the police commissioner of the state of New South Wales said in a press conference that the device was capable of killing people, and that he expected it to sooner or later be used in a crime.

Wilson's invention has also attracted the attention of Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and intelligence agencies. There was reportedly a meeting at the Federal Chancellery in mid-May to discuss the matter. The Germans aren't issuing any warnings yet, nor are they shooting at blocks of gelatin. Instead, they are trying to downplay the issue, under the assumption that it will attract attention on its own. A spokeswoman for the BKA merely says: "We are working on being able to reproduce the manufacturing process."

Cody Wilson is a do-it-yourselfer from the United States. His invention, a pistol, is small, white, oddly clunky and has a ridiculously short barrel. It consists almost entirely of plastic. But what looks like a toy at first glance is actuality a new threat to security across the world.

You don't need a license to obtain this weapon, it can't be bought, there is no official market for it and it isn't regulated. In fact, anyone who wants to can make this weapon without assistance. All you need is an ordinary computer, an Internet connection, a roll of plastic, a nail and a 3-D printer.

In his last State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama said that 3-D printing "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything." That was in February, when the American president didn't yet know about Cody Wilson.

Before Wilson invented his gun, 3-D printers were modern tools of industrial production. They were often used to make prototypes out of plastic, a process in which thin streams of melted plastic flow out of nozzles to produce an object, layer by layer. The printers became cheaper over time, and today they stand in the workshops of do-it-yourselfers, who use them to make garden gnomes and all kinds of useful household items.

It all starts with data stored in a computer, which 3-D printers then convert into objects. Some technology specialists claim that 3-D printers will transform our lives as fundamentally as the personal computer did over the last two decades.

By using the instructions for Wilson's invention, within a few hours, it is possible to make a weapon capable of killing people. Wilson calls it the "Liberator."

Arms and the Man

It isn't difficult to meet Wilson. You write him an email, he replies within a few hours and several days later he amiably opens the door to his apartment.

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