Of the numerous risks posed by 3D-printed guns, a prominent fear is that they will give potential criminals easy access to untraceable firearms, leaving law enforcement with little recourse when trying to track the illicit firearms.
Guns assembled from digital files come without traditional safeguards like serial numbers (just like perfectly legal home-built firearms), but a researcher from the University of Buffalo claims to have developed a new method for tracing the weapons.
Wenyao Xu, a professor in the University of Buffalo’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, calls the technology “PrinTracker.” Xu’s research pertains to 3D-printing, rather than the minutiae of 3D-printed guns. In a press release, he explains that even devoid of a serial number, identifying markers are already embedded in the firearms similar to birthmarks left from the 3D-printing process.
3D-printers layer plastic or other filaments on top of each other, fashioning a gun or much more ambitious projects like a military barracks. But every printer comes with its own peculiarities, often reflected by its filament type and nozzle size. Every printer creates its own “wrinkles,” or what Xu call’s “fingerprints”—identifying markers that can link a gun back to its creator.
The university explains part of the methodology:
Each layer of a 3D-printed object contains tiny wrinkles — usually measured in submillimeters — called in-fill patterns. These patterns are supposed to be uniform. However, the printer’s model type, filament, nozzle size and other factors cause slight imperfections in the patterns. The result is an object that does not match its design plan.
For the study, a research team printed 5 door keys from 14 separate 3D-printers. The team took photos of each key, then digitally enhanced them to see deep into the filament pattern. The images were sorted through an algorithm, meant to specify their variations and match them to a printer.
Researchers had a 99.8 percent success rate matching the keys to their respective printers. The results stayed the same when the team tested the model again ten months later.
With 3D firearm peddlers like Defense Distributed drumming up contentious debate and litigation in recent years, Xu hopes his research might help regulate 3D-printed firearms.
That of course comes with a multitude of caveats. Tracing guns that fall outside of the traditional manufacturing paradigm would require all 3D-printers to register with the federal government—or at least avail themselves to law enforcement agencies if ever necessary. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) can trace weapons upon request, provided a concerned citizen has the gun’s serial number.
For 3D-printed guns to adhere to the same standards, it’d necessitate a massive overhaul. Their “fingerprints” would have to be stored in a federal government database — something that doesn’t even exist for traditional firearms. Moreover, none of this considers the limited durability of 3D-printed firearms. The technology’s poster-device, Defense Distributed’s Liberator, isn’t designed to last after pumping out a single bullet, which means all of that effort would go to tracking guns which are easily outclassed by readily available and legal build-it-at-home fare.
Given that the United States is notoriously averse to regulating firearms, it remains to be seen whether Xu’s discovery could ever be implemented.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics