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The Role of Online Communities in Supporting 3D-Printed Firearms

The Role of Online Communities in Supporting 3D-Printed Firearms
25th August 2021 Nicolò Miotto
In Insights

On 9 October 2019, Stephen Balliet, a 27-year-old German neo-Nazi, shot to death two people and injured another two near a synagogue in the city of Halle, Germany. Law enforcement agencies revealed that “some non-essential parts of the firearms were produced with a 3D-printer.” The Halle shooting constituted the first use of partially 3D-printed guns in a terrorist attack, shedding a light on the disruptive potential of this technology. The case of Balliet is still unique. However, multiple violent actors, ranging from jihadi groups like Hamas to far-right organisations such as the Atomwaffen Division, are expressing their interest in this cutting-edge technology.

Since 2019, numerous individuals have been arrested and convicted in different countries for attempting to print 3D weapons. Furthermore, the monitoring of extremists’ online activity is showing an even broader interest of malevolent actors in 3D-printing. In April 2020, the FBI revealed that numerous members of the Boogaloo movement acquired 3D-printed plastic components of automated rifles from an online site. Some weeks after, extremist posts with guidelines and links on 3D-printing of weapons were published on 8Kun. In January 2021, in the aftermath of the 6 January storming of the US Capitol, a white supremacist Telegram channel provided information on 3D-printed guns. In April 2021, the Spanish police stormed an illegal workshop and sized numerous 3D-printed weapons, including an assault rifle. Finally, this summer, two British citizens linked to the extreme right have been convicted for the potential terrorist use of 3D-printing.

These events clearly highlight the interest of extremists in the 3D-printing of firearms. The reasons behind this pattern are the strategic and tactical opportunities additive manufacturing – better known as 3D-printing – offers. 3D-printed weapons can be auto-produced, are difficult to detect and can be easily destroyed by melting their components. Their digital files can be erased from devices, thus challenging potential investigations. Furthermore, as 3D-printed guns are made of plastic materials, terrorists carrying them could evade controls and enter security parameters such as airports and trains and conduct deadly attacks.

Nevertheless, experts argue that limitations of terrorist 3D-printing persist and decrease the likelihood of a systemic adoption of this technology by extremists. Bullets are still difficult to 3D-print and, if carried with the 3D-printed guns, they would render weapons detectable. For instance, in 2016 a 3D-printed weapon was identified in some luggage at the Reno-Tahoe airport in Nevada as it was loaded with live rounds.

However, the last years witnessed a pivotal advancement in the 3D-printing of weapons. There has been a proliferation of online peer-to-peer networks which offer support and technical knowledge for producing more efficient 3D-printed guns. These digital communities provide information on 3D-printers and software for designing weapons, and also share videos to illustrate the main stages of manufacturing and demonstrate the effectiveness of 3D-printed guns. The rise of online networking for the 3D-printing of weapons poses a substantial threat to public safety. Terrorists and extremists can find support in these communities and learn how to produce more efficient 3D-printed weapons for future attacks.

The Diverse Cosmos of Online Communities for 3D-Printing: Gaming, Miniatures and Firearms

The Internet offers access to manuals, information and courses on 3D-printing technologies. Numerous online communities for 3D-printing are emerging, being hosted on YouTube, blogs, websites, and social media platforms. Additive manufacturing has gone viral in recent years, attracting the interest of diverse communities, ranging from gaming groups to archaeologists. Internet users are sharing ideas and free digital files and providing advice on this state-of-the-art tool, bringing about positive innovation. However, 3D-printing is a dual-use technology; it can certainly revolutionise fields such as biomedical engineering, but it can also be used for harmful purposes by malevolent actors.

The vast majority of online groups discuss legitimate non-harmful 3D-printing such as miniatures and board games. Individuals in the gaming culture are interested in 3D-printing miniatures for tabletop games and cosplay and have developed online communities on social networks such as Reddit, Telegram, and Facebook. These groups share digital files of miniatures as well as manuals and links with guidance on 3D-printers, providing information on manufacturing processes and maintenance of 3D-printers. These online pages are creating an innovative environment for Internet users, establishing auto-financed peer-to-peer communities. For instance, MyMiniFactory has been revolutionising the concept of 3D-printing since its launch in 2013. A decentralised network for both creators and users of 3D-printing files, MyMiniFactory financially supports joint initiatives such as ‘Scan the World’ through crowdfunding and members’ donation, thus being an autonomous ecosystem for 3D-printing.

These digital communities paved the way for the spread of 3D-printing, profoundly innovating online interactions between Internet users. However, such a paradigmatic shift in both technology and the online environment has led to problematic outcomes. Some other online communities are interested in the harmful use of 3D-printing such as the production of firearms. These online forums provide crucial guidance and knowledge for learning how to use 3D-printers, create digital files and 3D-print guns and rifles. By advocating for unlimited freedom of speech and the right to self-defence, these communities are offering technical support and advice on the production of 3D-printed weapons. Potentially, terrorists and extremists can become members of these communities and acquire the technical skills necessary to produce deadly weapons and use them in attacks.

Defense Distributed, an open-source digital platform founded by Cody Wilson in 2012, has been a pioneer in the cosmos of online communities for the 3D-printing of guns. By launching fundraising campaigns on platforms such as Indiegogo, Wilson and his collaborators created an innovative loose online network supported by crowdfunding. In 2013, Defense Distributed produced and shared the first fully 3D-printable gun – ‘The Liberator’ – which was made publicly available on multiple websites. Due to the removal of contents from the Internet, Defense Distributed opted for opening its own online page – DEFCAD – to repost all digital files that were deleted. By becoming a partner of DEFCAD, users can upload and access digital files as well as videos providing information on 3D-printers and 3D-printable firearms. The page is publicly available and contains files on 3D-printable guns and firearms’ components. Currently, the group has also a Telegram channel where users share digital files for 3D-printable firearms’ components. Furthermore, Facebook groups supporting Defense Distributed and its core values and ideas are proliferating, while also avoiding Facebook’s censorship rules on hate speech and harmful contents.

However, Defense Distributed is not the only online community spreading knowledge and prototypes of 3D-printable guns. YouTube is a major source of open guidance on 3D-printable firearms with YouTubers giving advice and testing their products with videos and live Q&A. For instance, with almost 90,000 subscribers, one YouTube channel publishes videos on the production and testing of 3D-printed weapons. Similarly, a second YouTube channel, which has more than 92,000 subscribers, shares videos on how to 3D-print guns as well as guidance on how to use AutoCAD to create digital blueprints. These YouTube pages also advertise links to membership platforms such as Patreon to support YouTubers with funds. Videos and manuals on 3D-printed weapons can also be found on groups on Reddit, which provide recommendations about 3D-printers and technical guidance for the 3D-printing of firearms. These pages post links to join the groups on other platforms such as Discord and Telegram.

Although innovative, these digital communities for 3D-printable guns are becoming obsolete as new innovative online groups are emerging. These new communities are developing widespread peer-to-peer networks which use alternative online platforms for interaction between members. Such groups are also employing unconventional tools of financing such as cryptocurrencies. Among these online groups, Deterrence Dispensed is becoming growingly notorious as a revolutionary model of peer-to-peer networking.

“Come and take it” Deterrence Dispensed: The Global Network for 3D-Printed Firearms

In November 2020, the journalistic group Popular Front interviewed codenamed ‘JStark’, one of the leaders of the online community Deterrence Dispensed. The group is a decentralised network that advocates for free 3D-printing of weapons and unlimited freedom of speech, and shares blueprints for guns among its members. Deterrence Dispensed has been active on multiple platforms and channels such as Signal, Twitter, and Discord, where its members communicate and share information. The group shows an unprecedented improvement in the effectiveness of 3D-printed weapons and is revolutionising the concept of 3D-printing community by elaborating an open-source auto-sufficient global network.

Deterrence Dispensed has profoundly enhanced the quality of 3D-printable weapons. During the 2020 interview, JStark showed his homemade workshop where he prints 3D guns and their components. He is also able to create bullets by using a priming tool, thus rendering his gun, the FGC-9, completely operative and lethal. The rifle is a highly efficient 3D-printable firearm as testified in the videos shared by the affiliated YouTube channel. A hybrid 3D-printed gun which uses some ready-made components such as springs, the FGC-9 is having great success among Internet users. The digital files of the gun are available on the web and are being downloaded by individuals interested in 3D-printing it. Bloggers are providing information on how to 3D-print the FGC-9, while YouTubers are sharing contents on its testing.

The work of JStark is not an isolated case within Deterrence Dispensed. Under the motto “Come and take it,” the group has developed an online website where digital files of firearms and guns’ components are stored. An entire section of the website is dedicated to guidelines on types of 3D-printers and the AutoCAD software for designing digital files. However, Deterrence Dispensed does not centre its activities on the official website, as it is developing a decentralised network operating on multiple platforms. Under the name ‘The Gatalog’, the group is moving to Odysee where videos with guidelines are already published. The Gatalog community has been suspended from Twitter, but not from Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. However, Deterrence Dispensed is opting for alternative platforms to better enhance members’ connections. For instance, a chat group is available on Rocket.Chat, a platform that connects all the social media channels and webpages of the online community.

JStark openly asks members of the group for financial aid in cryptocurrencies such as Monero (XMR) or Bitcoin (BTC). The use of cryptocurrencies by extremist actors has become a security concern of increased importance in the last years. As crypto assets such as Monero offers anonymity to users, this adds complexity to the phenomenon of illegal 3D-printing, making it more difficult to detect and disrupt such activities. Deterrence Dispensed has also been using LBRY, a blockchain-based network managed by the creators of Odysee which employs the cryptocurrency LBRY credits (LBC) for payments. This demonstrates a fundamental shift in the 3D-printing of firearms. By adopting cryptocurrencies, groups like Deterrence Dispensed are providing individuals with means to challenge financial tracing from authorities.

A More Likely Scenario: Terrorism and 3D-Printed Firearms

These open-source communities allow Internet users to gain knowledge on 3D-printers and the manufacturing of firearms. Under pseudonyms or false identities, extremists and terrorists can find support in them, thus gaining the skills necessary to produce more effective 3D-printed weapons. Manuals and videos on 3D-printed guns are being shared on platforms which are attracting extremists. For instance, Odysee – where Deterrence Dispensed is becoming increasingly present – is gaining the interests of extreme right groups. Similarly, Islamic State (IS) has been already using Rocket.Chat to carry out its online activities.

Terrorist use of 3D-printing is becoming more likely, thus requiring attentive research and analysis. Considering 3D-printable guns as inefficient or difficult to produce is a misleading analysis. These online communities are clearly showing that it is possible to gain skills and knowledge via the Internet and produce deadly weapons. Such dynamics pose a major challenge to the P/CVE community as extremists and terrorists are likely to become increasingly autonomous in the 3D-printing of weapons (e.g., guns, rifles, and drones) for future attacks.