A federal injunction this month blocking the online distribution of blueprints for 3-D printed plastic guns has raised questions about the availability of a product considered to be untraceable and undetectable. Local police said they were prepared to enforce all state and federal firearms laws in an effort to prevent such technology from falling into the wrong hands.
The law enforcement officials said Friday that they are keeping a close eye on developments regarding the availability and use of the 3-D printed guns, but warn that regardless of how these cases play out, such weapons are already illegal in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
“Some of the problems in trying to prepare for these 3-D printed weapons, as with any technology, is to be ready for those who would use the technology in ways they are not intended,” said Westerly Police Chief Richard Silva, who also serves as vice president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association. “There are no serial numbers and no way to conduct a background check, so certainly we have some concerns regarding availability.”
The concept of 3-D printed weapons has come under scrutiny in recent months after the company behind the plans, Texas-based Defense Distributed, reached a court settlement in June that allowed the blueprints to be published online. That decision was blocked by a temporary injunction on Aug. 1, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of 22 state attorneys general seeking permanent restrictions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday said federal officials would “vigorously prosecute” anyone who would manufacture any firearm that is untraceable or undetectable, including 3-D printed guns.
The issue that makes the guns already illegal in Rhode Island and Connecticut is the lack of distinctive markings such as a serial number necessary for firearm registration, Silva explained. Both states also require a specific background check for firearm ownership.
Silva said that with the 3-D technology, the power to build a gun is just a program code away and these new weapons skirt a variety of laws designed to help keep the public safe. Among the concerns, he said, is that the weapons could not be detected with X-rays or metal detectors, and that use of the technology by amateurs could lead to dangerous and potentially life-threatening mistakes.
“Even traditional firearms produced by established manufacturing professionals will still malfunction on occasion,” the chief said. “When you let amateurs build and test their own, there is bound to be an increase in the number of accidents associated with it.”
There has been no reported presence of 3-D printed guns thus far in the southern New England region. Police from Westerly, Stonington, Hopkinton, Charlestown and Richmond all confirmed this week that their departments had not experienced any complaints. And all area departments said Friday that when it comes to enforcement, they would seek charges if someone were found in possession of one.
Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson and Hopkinton Police Capt. Mark Carrier each said that when it comes to this technology, it’s not yet as widely available as people think. The materials to print such weapons, including the printer itself, are extremely expensive and well beyond what would be considered affordable for the average user.
But the officers also noted that it’s only a matter of time before the costs go down and both access and availability rise.
“Illegal guns are out there and always have been, but these 3-D printed weapons are a whole new issue,” Carrier said. “We need to be ready. We don’t want these types of blueprints falling into the wrong hands.”
While guns remain the focus, the police officials said Friday that such weapons are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential misuse.
Carrier said officers are concerned that the technology will eventually be used to create other weapons, including less-regulated but still-dangerous compound bows and knives.
All three officials said they anticipate that the technology will be used in other ways for criminal enterprises, including for the development of tools that could be used for data and ID theft or other nonviolent crimes.
As the national fight continues to play out and new technologies become available, Olson said police will need to remain vigilant and adjust their training and policies to stay ahead of any potential issues.
“Make no mistake, this is yet another danger for law enforcement to deal with on a day-to-day basis,” Olson said. “Every day there is a new technology and a new challenge. It’s our business to stay informed, be prepared and adapt.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.