3D printable guns and terrorism

I was reminded this week how old I am.  I was engaging clients on the issue of 3-D printable guns and whether or not they needed to worry about them for their business line.  In the throes of our back and forth I brought up that famous line from The Graduate, where Dustin Hoffman’s character, a recent graduate, is told by a family friend: “I want to say one word to you.  Just one word.  Are you listening?  Plastics.  There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”  One of my clients, of my ‘age bracket’,  wrote back: “Only you and I are old enough to remember that scene.”


Plastics get a lot of press these days, especially when it comes to the impact they are having on our environment. Pictures of sea turtles with straws up their noses or caught in plastic fishing gear are all rage these days.  The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, aka the Pacific trash vortex, is a massive plastic ‘accumulation zone’ three times the size of France.  This is a serious waste problem.

Recently plastics have hogged the headlines for an entirely different reason: guns.  The ‘invention’ of downloadable plastic guns that anyone can reproduce on a 3D printer has changed the calculus of firearm availability in the minds of many.  I wrote a general blog on it earlier and the reader can surf the Internet for any other viewpoint on this issue.

What I want to focus on today is the link, if any, between plastic guns and terrorism.  In the minds of some the fear that terrorists can use these weapons in attacks has gone apocalyptic.  The truth, I think, is not so dire.

First of all, why would a wannabe terrorist seek to get his hands on a plastic gun?  I can think of several:

a) as they are not made of metal they can pass through machines undetected, opening up the possibility that they could be smuggled onto airplanes for example.

b) they do not carry serial numbers and are hence untraceable.

c) they mean that anyone can make a gun.

On the other hand, there are several reasons why a terrorist would turn up his nose at a plastic gun, among which are:

a) the printers needed to build these weapons are very, very expensive ($000s).  In my experience, most terrorists are not wealthy (this is especially true of lone actors).

b) the guns usually fire one bullet or a few before they become inoperable.  A terrorist who wants to kill and maim dozens could not so so with these weapons.

c) with the current technology these guns have a tendency to blow up in the faces of their users.  I know that many terrorists embrace suicide in their attacks but killing yourself but not anybody else is just embarrassing.

d) we are in an era of ‘dumbed-down’ terrorism where the weapon of choice ranges from guns to knives to vehicles.  Why would an aspiring terrorist take an unnecessary chance on an unproven and unreliable device?

e) as I have noted before, the US is awash in hundreds of millions of legal and illegal guns anyway.  In  a market of this size there is no need to go for the plastic option.  Terrorist have their pick of lethal weaponry already.

So it is thus far from obvious why a terrorist would choose to carry out an attack with a plastic firearm.  Never say never, however.  The day when an event of this exact nature occurs is inevitable, if for no other reason that an extremist wants to be the first to do so.

There are all kinds of reasons to ban these weapons, even if it is impossible to do so now. I’d like to suggest that preventing terrorism should not be on the top of that list.

PS I don’t normally include graphics in my blogs (should I?  Let me know if you would find them more interesting if I did) but this cartoon was way too good to pass up!  Enjoy!

Cartoon by Jimmy Margulies -

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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