Home-made gun trade alive and well

John Maxwell

When criminals can’t find the firearms they want on the black market, or the prices are simply too high, some still manage to lay their hands on home-made guns. These account for just a small amount of guns seized by police across Australia but turn up often enough to indicate they’re a genuine problem – and that some crooks are willing to take substantial risks.

Those risks come in two areas. Most of these are not firearms manufactured in modern factories using quality materials and precision machine tools, they’re made in backyard workshops using basic tools which can make them as dangerous to the user as to the intended target. Secondly, making illegal firearms attracts heavy penalties – in NSW that’s 10 years’ jail rising to a maximum of 20 years for manufacture of a prohibited firearm or handgun.

With the advent of 3D printing, concern was expressed in some quarters that criminals or anyone else could use this new technology to start turning out their own Glocks and Uzis but  that reflects limited understanding of firearms and 3D printing, referred to in the industry as additive manufacturing. In traditional manufacturing, material is removed to create the finished component, whether by use of a file or CNC milling machine. In 3D printing, material is added layer by layer according to a computer program to create the finished product.

3D printers are readily available with basic units costing a few hundred dollars. These use a plastic filament which is melted and applied to create the finished item, clever technology which has far reaching implications for manufacturing and much more.

But can it make guns? The answer is yes, sort of. In 2013, US anarchist and gun rights activist Cody Wilson released plans for a single-shot handgun in .380 ACP which could be made on a 3D printer. He named this the Liberator after the single-shot handgun the US Office of Strategic Services planned to  distribute to resistance forces during World War Two. 

This created quite a sensation and plans were downloaded more than 100,000 times before US authorities pulled the plug (just how many guns were actually made will never be known). Media reports at the time suggest those who tried were mostly experimenters and reporters curious to see if it would really work. Wilson’s design might have had greater success were it not for their tendency to blow up, sometimes on the first shot.

Plastic barrels and even lower power handgun cartridges are not a good mix. High-end 3D printers used in the aerospace industry to make precision metallic components could do better but these are priced well beyond the reach of your average backyard gunsmith. That’s not to say the risk of 3D printed firearms is trivial and Australian law enforcement is aware of the potential but assesses the threat as low.

In its 2016 report on Illicit Firearms in Australia, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) said this technology did not commercially enable mass production of printed components which matched the reliability and cost-effectiveness of factory-made firearms. ACIC noted that one Australian police agency had created and tested a 3D single-shot pistol which would shoot a single round but was also found to be unreliable and potentially dangerous to the user.

“Since instructions to produce a 3D printed firearm were published online, the ACIC has identified only three attempts to manufacture such firearms in Australia,” it said in the report. “Of those identified, none were functioning when detected by police.

“3D printing technology is improving rapidly, with new materials in use and commercially available. However, at this time the capabilities of 3D-printed firearms are limited and, in the short term, this production method is unlikely to be a significant source of illicit firearms. As technology improves and 3D printing becomes more affordable, the threat of this manufacturing method is likely to increase.”

ACIC said over the same period it traced almost 1000 factory-made handguns, demonstrating that  conventionally made guns continue to be more readily available at this time. And there are other types of home-made firearms. ACIC said items such as single-shot pen guns, key-ring guns and submachine guns were still believed to be illicitly made in Australia but remain in small numbers compared with factory-made guns on the black or grey markets – only 1.7 per cent of the illicit firearms traced by ACIC’s Firearms Trace Program in 2015–16 were of this type.

However, in 2014 the head of NSW Police Firearms and Organised Crime Squad said 10 per cent of guns they seized were home-made. “A lot of them are very crude and dangerous, especially to the user. They misfire, don’t fire at all or even explode in the user’s hands,” he said.

Home-made firearms continue to be found in police raids and arrests – often in connection with drug busts – in the hands of people  who figure they have need of a gun, any gun. Images of these devices have been released by police media departments, indicating they range from the downright crude (and surely dangerous) to some which resemble factory-made firearms.

In January  2016, Queensland police seized a home-made single shot .22 calibre pistol after a three-year-old girl was shot in the leg and seriously wounded. That apparently wasn’t intentional but a man and woman were subsequently charged with causing grievous bodily harm and unlawful possession of an improvised handgun.

As ACIC noted, single-shot pen guns continue to be made and in 2014 NSW police arrested a man who had created something of a cottage industry in these highly dangerous and illegal devices by modifying metal work centre punches. Queensland police have also seized a number of home-made revolvers in 38/357, one in the possession of a 22-year-old woman along with drugs. These appear to be reasonably well made and the fact they’re popping up in Queensland suggests a common source.

ACIC also reports that home-made sub-machine guns (SMGs) are also popular with criminals. In January of last year, police raided a house in Toowoomba and found a home-made .22 calibre SMG along with various machine tools, gun components and methamphetamine and last May police on the Gold Coast raided a home and seized a handgun, drug stash and a pair of home-made SMGs.

That followed an earlier bust in Queensland in January 2016 in which a police raided netted a meth lab and makeshift SMG manufacturing facility and three finished firearms which appear to be based on a design by British gun rights advocate Philip Luty, a kindred spirit of Cody Wilson who believed in unrestricted access for everyone.

Luty published a number of designs for SMGs which could, in theory, be made by anyone with basic tools and skills though even the best made Luty guns are regarded as nothing special, with marginal reliability and dismal accuracy. In line with Luty’s DIY philosophy the barrel is smoothbore, as rifled barrels are generally beyond the capability of most backyard armourers. Luty died in 2011 but guns based on his plans continue to turn up in the US, West Bank, South America, Europe and Australia. One was used by a right wing extremist in an attack on a synagogue in Germany last October in which two people died. Reportedly the gunman experienced multiple stoppages and reverted to an improvised shotgun.

So home-made guns in criminal and terrorist hands is a global problem. In countries such as Brazil, criminal groups turn out functional SMGs in well-equipped workshops, Indian police have seized home-made rocket propelled grenade launchers from insurgent groups and police in PNG regularly seize home-made firearms from bandit gangs, the basic operating mechanism a hardware store regular.  

The US would appear to have sufficient handguns available legally and illegally that criminals just don’t need to make their own, although it still happens, an emerging trend seemingly for crooks to convert their Glocks from semi-auto to full-auto through the addition of an illegal selective fire conversion kit. These are made in China and marketed on the internet for as little as US$15.

Home-made guns in Australia mostly aren’t the product of curious hobbyists and turn up in the hands of serious criminals, especially drug dealers and outlaw motorcycle gangs, media reports even suggesting bikie gangs have sought to recruit those with metalworking skills to become their armourers.

The ACIC report said Australia’s illicit firearms market was driven in part by outlaw motorcycle gangs, Middle Eastern organised crime groups and others engaged in trafficking illicit commodities such as drugs. “A wide range of criminals acquire and use firearms to conduct their business, protect their interests, intimidate others and commit acts of violence,” it said. “Organised crime is exploiting the rapid development of technology and its increasing availability to users worldwide. Criminals are likely to exploit new and emerging trends to acquire and traffic illicit firearms.”

The extent of the firearms black market and grey market (guns not surrendered in the buybacks) remains unknown and potentially large but police have achieved considerable success in cracking down on illegal guns. One indicator is the high prices charged, especially for handguns for which a criminal could pay upwards of $10,000, and unsurprisingly some will seek to acquire guns elsewhere. All of which puts paid to an oft-repeated claim by anti-gun groups such as Gun Control Australia that all guns in criminal hands start out as legal. Clearly they do not.

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