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Tackling the public safety threat of 3D-printed ‘ghost guns’ in Singapore

As seen in the recent detention of a teenager who plotted to attack two mosques, public safety in Singapore has benefited from strict controls on access to firearms. However, new 3D printing technologies present a serious threat to such regulations.

A 3D printed gun, called the "Liberator", is seen in a factory in Austin, Texas on Aug 1, 2018.

A 3D printed gun, called the "Liberator", is seen in a factory in Austin, Texas on Aug 1, 2018.

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The recent detention of a radicalised teenager who plotted to attack two mosques and kill Muslim worshippers has dominated headlines and shocked Singaporeans.

The 16-year-old boy planned to use a machete only after a sustained but ultimately unsuccessful effort to seek access to firearms.

He had wanted to follow the example of far-right extremist Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the Australian who livestreamed his massacre of more than 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019.

As reflected in the teenager’s case, public safety in Singapore has benefited over the past decades from strict controls on access to firearms.

However, new technologies present a serious threat to the enforceability of these regulations.

This is a threat the Government is well aware of.

In January, a Guns, Explosives and Weapons Control Bill restricting the unlicensed ownership of digital blueprints for firearms or firearm components was passed in Parliament.

Such blueprints would allow owners of 3D printers to produce increasingly feature-complete firearms at minimal cost, and without extensive firearm-specific technical expertise.

3D-printed firearms have been a looming threat for law enforcement around the world for some time. The emergence of the first truly 3D-printable gun in 2013 – the Defence Distributed Liberator – caused concern that a corner had been turned in the ability of governments to control the spread of guns.

Much of this worry dissipated with the gradual realisation that the Liberator was unreliable and prone to catastrophic malfunction, making it as much a threat to users as it was to targets.

Practical and safe alternatives to the Liberator still incorporated dedicated firearm components that could not be 3D-printed.

Concerns about unrestricted access to 3D-printed weapons thus diminished.

Recently however, a group seeking to carry on the work begun with the Liberator, released a blueprint for an almost entirely 3D-printed semi-automatic carbine.

What puts the carbine a cut above the competition is its integration of a process that allows for the creation of a high-quality gun barrel.

This lowers barriers to access by removing the need to source a barrel — which is often a highly regulated component — while considerably improving the effectiveness and reliability of the resulting firearm.

As such, apart from ammunition and certain components that can be extracted from airsoft pellet guns — classified in most countries as toys — all other parts needed for the carbine can be fabricated on widely-accessible 3D printers.

This includes 3D printers which are easily available in Singapore.

In Singapore, certain safeguards are nevertheless in place.

Owning an airsoft gun requires a licence, and possessing live ammunition is completely illegal. However, there have been isolated incidents in the past that showed that acquiring such items illegally in Singapore is in fact possible.

Putting the technology and its availability aside, an important consideration is the ideology fuelling the development of these weapons.

Generational improvements leading to the carbine were developed by highly motivated, technically competent gunsmithing hobbyists, united by a shared passion for firearm design, and a shared loathing of gun control.        

In keeping with this, the carbine’s creators are openly contemptuous of gun control and view undermining it to be a key goal of their project.

It is for this reason that the design logic for the carbine prioritises accessibility above all, with the creators posting instructions and tutorials targeted at individuals possessing no experience with 3D-printing whatsoever – including recommendations for which 3D printers to purchase.

Even if unintentional, there is thus a natural intersection between these gun control-averse hobbyists and supporters of mass violence in often shared online spaces.

Many of these online spaces have furthermore served as incubators for the emergent strain of self-radicalised far-right terrorism which spawned the recently detained would-be assailant in Singapore.

This incident demonstrates that despite Singapore’s multiculturalism and seeming distance from the origin of these sentiments in Europe and North America, it is not immune to the spread of far-right ideology.

Due attention should thus be paid to the online spaces which engender these sentiments, and the resources which might be made available to radicalised individuals on these spaces.

It should go without saying that 3D-printed guns are only one application of a transformative, economically significant technology.

Additive Manufacturing, which includes the processes traditionally associated with the term 3D-printing, is acknowledged by the Singapore Government to be an important growth area.

In the Government’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 plan, S$3.2 billion was allocated to research and development in advanced manufacturing and engineering, with a substantive quantity of those funds dedicated to the development of additive manufacturing.

Should the Government seek to build Singapore’s reputation as an innovation hub for 3D-printing and develop local expertise, it would benefit from broadening access to 3D-printing facilities and keeping regulatory oversight flexible to enable the organic growth of hobbyist circles.

The controls on digital blueprints within the Guns, Explosives and Weapons Control Bill reflect an awareness by the Government of the growing threat posed by 3D-printed weapons to public safety. 

However, like many laws governing the possession of specific data, it is likely to be unenforceable in advance of an inciting incident, serving in a deterrent, rather than preventative capacity.

The outbreak of a potential terrorist incident involving 3D-printed firearms would have implications on Singapore’s reputation as a jurisdiction with strong rule of law and public security.

It would also potentially motivate disproportionate restrictions on 3D printers, which could have a detrimental effect on the development of expertise in the field.

To circumvent this possibility, the Government may seek to pre-emptively impose light registration requirements on private ownership of 3D printers, in line with regulations in place for unmanned aircraft or personal mobility devices.

This process is inexpensive and relatively painless, while affording authorities some oversight over the operation of such devices within the country.

Additionally, law enforcement agencies may seek to more closely engage with e-commerce platforms which sell 3D printers, to develop protocols for detection and early warning.

These could entail obliging platforms to notify the authorities in case shopping lists are generated containing unregulated components which could be used to print firearms.

Law enforcement agencies may also seek to step up engagement with existing or emergent hobbyist communities and industry associations, to promote self-regulation and high standards of safety, while also facilitating strong partnerships that could lead to greater agility in policing.

Either of these approaches involves greater regulatory burdens on individual hobbyists and platforms. However, they may be a necessity, given the increasing sophistication and accessibility of 3D-printed firearms.

Seven years of work brought the field from a self-destructing proof-of-concept to an undeniably functional “ghost gun” in the form of the carbine. Only time will tell what another seven years will bring.

Recent events have proven that even our own society is not immune to the challenges posed by far-right internet culture, and the violence those online communities promote.

It is vitally important that law enforcement agencies remain vigilant against these new emergent threats.



Gareth Tan is a research analyst at TRPC, an information technology consulting and research firm. These are his own views.

Related topics

firearm gun terrorism 3D Printing Technology

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