Vast reductions in cost and rises in quality of 3D printing have seen NSW pass Australian-first legislation to further restrict 3D printed weapons, but a criminology professor fears the new laws have come too late to stem criminal access to the technology.
On Tuesday, the NSW parliament approved the Firearms and Weapons Prohibition Legislation Amendment Bill 2015.
Among new and toughened laws around possessing stolen firearms, altering identifying marks on a weapon and illegal use or supply of unregistered guns, is a new ban on possessing files used to 3D print guns.
"A person must not possess a digital blueprint for the manufacture of a firearm on a 3D printer or on an electronic milling machine," the new law states, with a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
Owning or using a 3D printed gun is already illegal under existing firearms legislation, legally treated the same as a conventional firearm.
In 2014, the Attorney-General's Department told a Senate enquiry into gun violence in Australia that "[3D printed weapons] would be treated no differently to traditionally manufactured firearms, and that importation, manufacture or possession of a 3D printed firearm, without a licence, would be illegal in Australia".
A spokeswoman for NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for Justice and Police Troy Grant said NSW was the first jurisdiction in Australia "to specifically outlaw the possession of digital blue prints for the manufacture of firearms on 3D printers".
Law enforcement agencies feared the advent of 3D printed weapons as they could be produced cheaply and easily in-home without coming to police attention and were moulded in plastic that would not trigger metal detectors.
In 2013, NSW Police demonstrated a 3D printed plastic gun could fire, printing their own handguns with $35 worth of materials on a $1700 printer, using files downloaded from the internet.
"In amending the Firearms Act and Weapons Prohibition Act, the NSW Government wants to be on the front foot of any emerging technologies that pose a threat to our community," Troy Grant's spokeswoman told The Huffington Post Australia.
The law states "possession" of plans is illegal, but also covers downloading itself, and will apply even if a computer or device holding the plans is in another state.
She said the Attorney-General could give authorisation -- for instance, to university academics or law enforcement -- to manufacture a 3D weapon for research purposes.
Australian National University professor of criminology Roderic Broadhurst told HuffPost Australia that recent huge leaps forward in the quality -- and reductions in price -- of 3D printing technology had made such laws vital.
"The problem is the sophistication of 3D printing is getting better -- it's not just plastic now," Broadhurst said.
"The big story in 2013 was a plastic gun that could fire one bullet, but they can be made of metal now.
"If you went online and searched, you'd be astonished what is there."
"3D printers have become less costly and much more capable. In this university, about 12 years ago we bought a very sophisticated printer for $750,000. The same quality today would be about $2500, second-hand, and would fit on your desk.
"It is the scaling up of capacity and drop in price, combined with readily available software -- that's what we’re dealing with."
NSW Police could not give any information as to whether any charges had been laid over 3D printed weapons or whether 3D printed weapons had been used in crimes in the state, but confirmed possession or manufacturing of such firearms was illegal.
“3D guns do not have any of the safety standards, quality control or protection for the user that commercially produced firearms have," police said in a statement.
"A 3D-printed gun is extremely dangerous. If you produce a firearm using a 3D printer you are committing at least two crimes: Manufacturing a firearm and possession of an illegal firearm.
"Offenders caught manufacturing, selling, owning or in possession of a 3D gun will be prosecuted."
Broadhurst said he supported the tightening of laws around such weapons, but feared the legislation has been too slow to prevent 3D printed weapons from already entering the community. A 2013 test (in the video at the top of this post) found a 3D printed metal gun could fire 500 continuous rounds of ammunition.
"[The new law] makes sense, if you believe in the deterrent effect of law. This stuff shouldn't be available to everybody, but maybe it already has. This is like closing the gate after the horse has bolted," he said.
"You’d be astounded at how rapidly this technology has improved. You can print not only in plastic but metal, which is much more expensive, but well within the reach of criminal enterprises. On the deep web, there are machines with that capability, in the $15,000 to $30,000 mark."
Broadhurst said the new laws were a step in the right direction, but cautioned law enforcement bodies around Australia to "keep a weather eye" on evolving technology.
"I've not heard of any crimes with 3D printed weapons, but it wouldn't surprise me," he said.
"Technology changes fast and criminals are opportunists and early adapters. Crime follows opportunity so it makes a lot of sense to put measures into place sooner rather than later.
"This should be an extension of existing firearm laws on manufacturing weapons. It is absolutely incumbent on [governments and law enforcement] to move swiftly, to provide some sort of legal mechanisms to deal with this."