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University of Toronto professor Matt Ratto, left, used a 3-D printer to build a plastic handgun with his team: postdoctoral researcher Isaac Record and PhD students Dan Southwick and Ginger Coons. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
University of Toronto professor Matt Ratto, left, used a 3-D printer to build a plastic handgun with his team: postdoctoral researcher Isaac Record and PhD students Dan Southwick and Ginger Coons. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

U of T team’s DIY handgun tests the potential of 3-D printing Add to ...

It’s a pistol that sounds like a criminal’s dream. Undetectable, untraceable by police and assembled in downtown Toronto, it’s a handgun with a single part that could set off a metal detector: its deadly .380 bullet.

With law enforcement struggling to cut off the flow of smuggled firearms into Canada’s largest city, new technology is on the verge of making current policing approaches obsolete. In late May, a team of four at the University of Toronto set out to prove that they could build a working handgun with a 3-D printer.

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It took them 26 hours and files downloaded off the Internet. The result was Canada’s first printed handgun, the tip of a new 3-D printed world where nearly everything can be created in your basement. The technology stands to change the world in both fascinating and frightening ways: just as major innovations such as the Internet have enhanced the way we live, they have rapidly created profound new debates over policy, safety and ethics.

The team at U of T didn’t break any laws. Using the plans for the Liberator, the world’s first 3-D printable handgun that was made in the States, the researchers changed the design of the pistol to make it impossible to fire – although it could have, had they kept the design intact.

The $300 price tag for materials to print the pistol is far below the going price for a street weapon.

The man behind the handgun isn’t a gun-rights advocate. The director of the university’s Critical Making Lab, Matt Ratto explained that his team built the weapon to better understand 3-D printing. He worries that the government won’t take 3-D printing seriously before one of the undetectable pistols is used on Toronto’s streets.

The first working design, the Liberator, is still crude. “It’s only useful if you want to kill someone from about three feet away,” said Dr. Ratto.

While it is legal in the United States to build homemade firearms, Canadian law strictly prohibits the practice. Plans accompanying the design warn makers to insert a steel plate in the pistol’s grip to make it detectable, the only requirement under U.S. law. Built out of clear plastic, the white spring and hammer inside Dr. Ratto’s pistol is visible, making it look like a cross between a toy and a flare gun.

No Canadian law prohibits the downloading of gun files or requires the tracking of 3-D printers, devices which can make anything from ceramic coffee cups to steel firearms.

Canada’s police services have varying levels of knowledge when it comes to these weapons, with the advent of 3-D printable guns not yet on the radar of some forces. No 3-D printable weapon has yet to be used to commit a crime in Canada.

Declining an interview request, the RCMP told The Globe and Mail that it will continue to “monitor” the development of 3-D printers. The national force has no policies for 3-D printed handguns. Police officers in Montreal were unfamiliar with the technology, having never come across a 3-D printed handgun. One constable was left wondering how a “photocopier” could make a dangerous weapon.

Unveiled by Texas law student and anarchist Cody Wilson last May, the plans for the single-shot handgun are easily accessible online. After the first videos of the pistol firing, the U.S. State Department ordered Mr. Wilson to remove the files from his website, citing arms-export laws. The design was downloaded 100,000 times before he could comply.

“You have to accept that this is going to happen,” said Mr. Wilson of the spread of the 3-D-printed weapon.

Due to the success of the Toronto Police’s anti-gun strategy, even cheap handguns fetch as much as $2,000 on the city’s streets. During major raids by the police on June 13, 40 firearms were seized at a number of sites across the city. While guns like the Liberator are not expected to replace those seized, future versions could become more attractive in the years to come.

“It’ll be a judgment call for a criminal if they want to use the Liberator,” the 25-year-old Mr. Wilson said from his home in Arkansas. “There are already plans online for a submachine gun made from parts available at a hardware store.”

More than 10,000 Canadians are now thought to have access to 3-D printers, a number that is expected to explode over the next few years as cheaper and simpler models are unveiled. The office-supply giant Staples recently unveiled a $1,300 printer designed for hobbyists.

When asked how police could stop people from printing handguns in their basement, Dr. Ratto’s response was curt: “They can’t.” Worried that governments will react with strong-armed legislation and that police forces won’t have the proper procedures to react, he has offered to print a working plastic handgun for the Toronto Police. Contacted on Wednesday, the police confirmed they had declined the offer.

A self-described libertarian who has been labelled one of the world’s most dangerous men by Wired magazine, Mr. Wilson was not bothered that the Liberator had been printed in Canada.

“The kind of person who would print a Liberator in Toronto is probably someone curious and intelligent, someone who deserves the mercy of police and not the baton,” Mr. Wilson said.

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