How AI Tools are Improving Investigations of 3D Printed “Ghost Guns”

April 2024

Among the many technological breakthroughs that are changing the world in the 21st Century, 3D printing is among the most revolutionary. The possibilities for 3D printing can be inspirational when considering their applications for medicine, art, and virtually every industry on the planet. However, like most technologies, 3D printing also creates new possibilities for criminal activity. Perhaps the most potentially dangerous use of 3D printing recently has been the creation of “ghost guns” and firearm modification components. The term “ghost gun” is a general description of firearms that do not have standard serial numbers or records. They can be assembled from collected parts or created in part or in whole with 3D printers. For some criminals, there is little need for this type of firearm. The 3D printing option can be too expensive and complicated if standard firearms are readily available. However, if criminals are unable to gain access to firearms because of background checks or the laws of their countries, or if they simply want to take steps to obfuscate the origins of the weapons they plan to use, 3D printed ghost guns may be an appealing option.

The creation of 3D printed guns has been on the rise for the past few years. In the United States, the ATF has recovered over 45,000 ghost guns of various types, and at least 700 of the incidents investigated were homicides and attempted homicides. These firearms have been involved in school shootings like recent ones in California, as well as other types of violent crimes. In 2023 3D printed guns and related equipment were even found inside a day care in New York City. Scotland saw its first 3D printed firearms case recently, and the UK, Germany, Spain, and other European nations report escalating threats from these weapons. Canada recently saw one of its biggest cases involving ghost guns when they arrested an Edmonton man on over 40 charges related to 3D printed firearms and restricted firearm parts.

In addition to complete firearms created with 3D printers, law enforcement professionals also face the 3D manufacturing of restricted parts and accessories for firearms, including various types of conversion kits that can turn semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic ones. This has recently become a major issue in the United States, where many types of semi-automatic weapons are widely available, but where fully automatic firearms are generally restricted. Two people in Evansville, Indiana, were arrested for 3D printing over 90 “machine gun conversion devices,” many of which had already been used in the commission of crimes. Similarly, police in Columbus, Ohio, recovered approximately 75 “Glock switches” last year, 3D printed devices that convert the semi-automatic handguns to fully automatic.

Whether 3D printing is used to create entire firearms from polymers (some of which may even pass through metal detectors) or to create devices to make existing firearms more deadly, the good news is that these items are not untraceable. Investigative Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be applied to combat this new wave of illegal firearms activity, and, in some cases, even to prevent the manufacture and use of 3D printed firearms and devices.

AI and the Fight Against 3D Printed Firearms

It may come as a surprise to law-abiding citizens how widely social media is used for illegal activity. In fact, the convenience and efficiency of social media is just as useful for criminals as it is for anyone else; the criminals who use it just tend to be a bit more discreet. The creation of any 3D printed item requires digital plans, a file to be loaded into the 3D printer, and these files are typically found and transferred through social media. Even though there is a digital footprint for these files, investigators may face difficulties because the plans often come from individuals or small groups with extremist ideals. They may provide the plans secretively and for free in the hopes that people will use their designs to create weapons to commit violence on behalf of their ideologies.

Finding and tracking the paths of 3D ghost gun plans is a Herculean effort for even the best of human investigators. Thankfully, the latest analytical tools are now able to find and process massive amounts of Open-Source information (OSINT) from an array of social media platforms and databases on the worldwide web, deep web, and even the dark web. Analysts can use a range of approaches to apply AI tools to the investigation of ghost guns. Here are a few of those approaches:

  • Image analysis has many applications when investigating 3D printed guns and parts, including the ability to quicky and efficiently match images of seized items to corresponding digital designs, pictures, and coding from any part of the internet. When combined with facial recognition and location matching analysis, these systems may even be able to direct investigators to particular vehicles, structures, and individuals related to their investigations.
  • Linguistic analysis is one of the most useful tools available with modern AI investigation technologies. Some systems can translate 100 languages, as well as coded language, emoji codes, and keywords related to the subject being investigated. In the case of ghost guns, these translation tools and language analysis systems eliminate any potential challenges due to language barriers, and they locate and analyze any Open-Source online references relating to the orogain and distribution of digital designs, locations of manufacturing, specific individuals who may be involved, and intended uses or targets once the firearms are made or modified.
  • Most 3D printed gun designs still need a few parts that are made of metal and cannot be easily 3D printed (although 3D printers for metal are becoming more available and less expensive). In many cases, makers of 3D printed guns still need to find and purchase barrels, pins, and / or springs to complete their weapons. AI systems can apply algorithms to examine sales of the parts of guns that are not typically 3D printed, and to the purchase of certain types of 3D printers that may be used to print weapons. This type of analysis could be valuable at various stages of different types of investigations.

While 3D printed firearms can provide criminals with a new avenue for acquiring weapons, the process of manufacturing these ghost guns requires an extensive amount of digital activity to create and transmit the designs required to load into the 3D printer. The process also may involve online purchases of parts, and of the 3D printers themselves. As long as the criminal activity is facilitated by internet activity, investigators with the right AI technology have a fighting chance to find and prosecute the offenders.

Author: Chris Johnson, Voyager Labs

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