GEN.MEDIUM.COM August 15, 2020 – October 9, 2019 — Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year — a young white man attempted to enter a synagogue in Halle, Germany, with what appeared to be at least six homemade firearms while livestreaming via the gaming platform Twitch. Unable to enter the building, which had about 80 people inside, the man began shooting on the street, killing two and injuring two others. The gunman was a 27-year-old right-wing extremist with anti-Semitic and far-right views who had outlined his beliefs in a “manifesto” he uploaded online shortly before attempting to enter the synagogue. During the confusion following the attack, news outlets reported he had committed the atrocity using a 3D-printed gun.
The idea of a mass shooter using 3D printing technology shocked and intrigued those following the developing story from afar. U.K. newspaper The Independent cautioned, “Use of 3D printed guns in German synagogue shooting must act as a warning to security services, experts say,” while the Wall Street Journal screamed, “Is 3-D Printing the Future of Terrorism?”
The threat of the 3D-printed gun has loomed large in the American imagination for nearly a decade.
In 2013, Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed — an open-source collective devoted to developing printable guns — unveiled plans for the world’s first entirely 3D-printed gun: he “Liberator,” a clunky-looking, single-shot, plastic beige handgun named in honor of the FP-45 Liberator, a pistol that U.S. soldiers dropped behind enemy lines to resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied territories during World War II. Shortly after Wilson released the files online, the State Department forced him to take them down, jump-starting a debate over guns, gun control, and free speech that continues to pop up whenever 3D-printed firearms are mentioned. Wilson wasn’t penalized for making his Liberator prototype, though; the feds only swooped in once he shared the blueprints online.
It turned out that news reports had overstated the Halle gunman’s weapons; he hadn’t used a 3D-printed gun like the fully plastic, single-shot Liberator. Researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London confirmed that the two firearms used had only been partially constructed with the 3D-printed parts of a trigger clip and torch barrel attachment on a Luty submachine gun and a shell holder attachment on a shotgun.
According to his writing online, the Halle gunman had held a longtime interest in homemade weapons and had written in his manifesto that he’d wanted to take this opportunity to demonstrate their viability. Fortunately, both of the weapons he used malfunctioned at least three times, leading the gunman to yelp in frustration on his livestream, “I have certainly managed to prove how absurd improvised weapons are!”
3D-printed guns fall into the larger category of homemade firearms, known colloquially as “ghost guns” — an established, if slightly niche, part of gun culture, especially in America. The U.S. is home to a long tradition of DIY gunsmithing that stretches back to the Colonial era, when local blacksmiths forged musket barrels as well as horseshoes. Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, also pioneered the “interchangeable parts” method of production, which was used by legions of individual craftsmen to manufacture thousands of muskets during the 1790s. [full article]