"But can we make guns with it?"

3D printing needs to get away from this question.

For a particular type of entrepreneur, the first question asked about any innovation is: “Can we make weapons using it?” Self-styled crypto-anarchist and founder of Defense Distributed (DefDist) Cody Wilson, is one such individual. Recognising the potential of increasingly affordable 3D printing technology, not to mention his desire to "defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms," thus presumably spreading crypto-anarchy, the 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas made the plans for the gun available online.

Anyone familiar with Airfix kits will be familiar with the appearance of the component parts of the Liberator, minus the surplus plastic flash from popping them out of the sprue. Just 15 plastic elements make up the weapon, plus two metals ones – the firing pin and a single screw – including complex structures like springs. Designed to fire standard handgun rounds, the gun is also fitted with an interchangeable barrel to handle a broad spectrum of calibre rounds.

3D printers use a digital design to create a solid object by depositing tiny droplets of molten plastic layer upon layer until the shape is complete. They were originally the preserve of design studios and prototyping and testing laboratories, but now prices have dropped to £1,000 for a domestic model, purchasing one is no longer unattainable by the general public. DefDist distributing the gun plans meant anyone could print gun parts at home in less than an hour.

Wilson’s scheme created a stir in Europe, where gun control law in many countries makes weapon acquisition a deliberately bureaucratic process. However, the Liberator was skating on thin legal ice even in the US, where the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 makes it illegal to manufacture a firearm that is not detectable by walk-through metal detectors.

As a workaround, DefDist incorporates a 170g piece of steel into the body of its gun design, making it legal, but who is to say people who download the design to print their own would do the same? It may be argued that the gun’s inability to be detected using metal detectors is negated by the fact it uses a metal firing pin and regular ammunition, and modern airport scanners would detect the shape enclosed in clothing anyhow.

However, all arguments regarding its legal status became moot when, a week after its test firing results were made public, the US Department of State ordered DefDist to remove digital blueprints for the Liberator and to cooperate with an investigation to check whether the files comply with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

The company complied with the order, and a disclaimer on DefDist's website now reads: "This file has been removed from public access at the request of the US Department of Defense Trade Controls. Until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information."

The order is believed to have come too late as the gun specs had already been downloaded 10,000 times between going online on 6 May and the issuing of the mandate.

DefDist took on pushing the boundaries of firearms law and freedom of information and lost. Plastic guns manufactured using 3D printers are significantly inferior to the real deal, which even those aiming to acquire one for nefarious purposes can get hold of much cheaper and more easily.

For now, the only significant role 3D printers hold in the weapons industry remains creating tangible prototypes for ergonomic testing and functionality trials such as wind-tunnel experiments.

Photograph: Getty Images

Berenice Baker is Defence Editor at Strategic Defence Intelligence.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation