Imagine a world in which anyone with access to a 3D printer could build handguns or rifles with files downloaded online.
That's the future law enforcement officials in Beloit and Janesville hope to never see as the debate surrounding 3D printed weapons vaulted the national spotlight recently after a Texas-based company won the right to post 3D printed gun designs on its website.
An emergency federal ruling stopped the plans from being posted Aug. 1, and since then lawmakers, law enforcement officials and attorneys general across the country are speaking out. Since the first 3D printed handgun was printed by Defense Distributed in 2013, thousands of people have downloaded different design models of weapons and firearms parts.
From handguns to rifles, plans allow users with access to 3D printing capabilities to build unregulated weapons, something law enforcement officials say could put weapons in the hands of convicted felons, terrorists and those with mental illness.
In interviews with the Beloit Daily News, both Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski and Janesville Police Chief David Moore said they were against 3D printed weapons.
"I don't think this is a good idea. I don't see this as a First Amendment issue, just like I don't see people putting nuclear (weapons) blueprints on the Internet," Zibolski said. "There are limits to those rights. I would argue that anyone who would argue in favor of this is not very sensible."
Zibolski said state and federal lawmakers were "way late to the game" since the plans had already been distributed online.
"While it's temporarily blocked right now, large dissemination of this information is going to take a lot of the things law enforcement has done over the years in some jeopardy and I think it's a safety issue across the board," Zibolski said.
Along with Zibolski, Moore said the weapons printed from online designs would be untraceable making it difficult to track a weapon's origins.
Moore said he believed criminals sought two types of weapons: those with the ability to fire high capacity rounds and weapons that could be concealed, both of which he said aren't part of the most common 3D printed handgun design.
"This weapon (the handgun) doesn't have either of those," Moore said. "It sounds like it's a one shot use item. The longevity of the weapon isn't good and it's not very concealable. While I am concerned about it getting into the wrong hands, it doesn't strike me as something that's very desirable to criminals. My biggest concern of this weapon is it falling into the hands of children or young adults who don't appreciate firearms."
Zibolski stressed that it was only a matter of time before 3D printing technology improved, allowing for stronger, more durable weapons to be downloaded online en masse.
"It has the propensity to be quite dangerous down the road," Zibolski said. "This is not going to be hard to proliferate this. There's going to be some tragedies that are a result of this."
Both Zibolski and Moore attended a state police chiefs conference earlier this month and conversations centered on school safety, while the 3D printed gun debate seeped into the discussions.
"It's a piece of the conversation," Zibolski said. "There's a lot of discussion on how to keep schools safe and things that are done as defensive measures that would slow someone down to prevent someone from committing a heinous act. (3D printed weapons) are just another way of making that more defeatable. At times it feels like we are behind the technological curve rather than in front of it."
In Beloit, Zibolski said officers recovered 89 firearms and to-date this year have recovered 49 guns. Of the 89 recovered last year, 64 were confiscated after being associated with a crime and 25 were kept in safe keeping from those placed under emergency detention for a mental health episode. This year, 25 were related to crimes while 24 were kept at the department for safe keeping from individuals in the commitment process.
Statistics for Janesville show the department confiscated 114 firearms in 2017 and as of Aug. 7 confiscated 73 firearms.
Both Zibolski and Moore said neither department had confiscated or come across 3D printed weapons at the time of this article.
On July 30, a coalition of attorneys general sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking them to stop the company from publishing the instructions. A lawsuit was also filed by state prosecutors asking for a similar outcome. Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel told the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel the lawsuit "appears to be moot" since the blueprints had already been uploaded and that making them is against the law.
The issue to allow the published information has been framed by Defense Distributed CEO Cody Wilson as an infringement of his First Amendment rights, previously saying the efforts to upload gun instructions would be a way to nullify any future gun control.