Homemade guns have become one of the leading bogeymen of 3D printing. Critics fear that once 3D printing goes mainstream, there will be little to stop criminals from creating their own firearms at home before going out on the town for a night's mayhem.
3D guns have already made an appearance in the US. In fact, law enforcement and various branches of government are growing concerned about the dangers of 3D-printed guns. When design documents for a handheld 3D-printed gun appeared on a U.S.-based site in May, for example, the U.S. Department of State wasted no time in issuing a takedown order for the files.
The US Department of Homeland Security has also warned against 3D-printed guns, and a New York City Councilman in June introduced a bill that would make it illegal for anyone but licensed gunsmiths to create 3D-printed firearms.
With concerns about 3D-printed firearms rising, police in Manchester, UK. this week seemingly confirmed that nightmare scenario. Early Friday, the Greater Manchester Police department said it seized the "component parts for UK's first 3D gun" on Thursday night. The seizure came as part of a wider operation against organised crime in the city.
"During the searches," the GMP said. "Officers found a 3D printer and what is suspected to be a 3D plastic magazine and trigger...The parts are now being forensically examined by firearms specialists to establish if they could construct a genuine device."
Although the GMP wasn't certain the parts it found were meant for a gun, the police wasted no time in publicising the evils of 3D-printed weaponry.
"The technology essentially allows offenders to produce their own guns in the privacy of their own home," the GMP's detective inspector Chris Mossop said in a statement. "Which they can then supply to the criminal gangs who are causing such misery in our communities. Because they are also plastic and can avoid X-ray detection, it makes them easy to conceal and smuggle."
But all may not be what it seems. Several eagle-eyed readers over at The Verge remarked that the supposed 3D gun parts bore a striking resemblance to replacement parts for the very 3D printer the GMP seized during the raid--namely, an alternative extruder design and filament spool holder for the MakerBot Replicator 2.
The necessary files for printing both parts are available on Thingiverse, MakerBot's website for sharing designs of 3D-printed objects.
The purported gun components' resemblance to the Thingiverse objects prompted the GMP to issue a clarification several hours after its blockbuster announcement.
"We need to be absolutely clear that at that this stage, we cannot categorically say we have recovered the component parts for a 3D gun, "said assistant chief constable Steve Heywood. "What we have seized are items that need further forensic testing by national ballistics experts...The worrying thing is for me is that these printers can be used to make certain components of guns, while others can be legitimately ordered over the Internet without arousing suspicion. When put together, this could allow a person to construct a firearm in their own home."
Law enforcement may have legitimate concerns about 3D-printed guns and the GMP's seizure may very well turn out to be the first evidence of U.K. criminals turning to 3D-printed guns. Nevertheless, 3D printing also promises many benefits for society where common household items are only a few clicks away. So instead of, er, jumping the gun, perhaps it's time to take the techno panic down a notch, relax a little bit, and print off a few Yoda figurines.