17/09/2013 13:04 BST | Updated 17/11/2013 05:12 GMT

The Grim Printer: How 3D Printed Guns Could Pave the Way for Illicit Weapons on Britain's Streets

3D printers are coming to Britain. This autumn Selfridges is offering a London-based printing workshop, allowing people to make 3D-printed statuettes of themselves. It's all very exciting, but - like most technology - it has a dark side too and has the potential to kill.

The Victoria & Albert museum has just put on display the first functional 3D printed gun - a Liberator pistol by Texan Cody Wilson. The controversial exhibition raises some fundamental questions: will the 3D printed guns become a black vision of the future of armed violence in Britain? Will future criminals be able to download and produce plastic guns in their basements?

The answer is: possibly, yes.

As technology improves and grows in popularity, 3D printers will make it easier for all of us to create weapons. Right now, given the right tools, it is possible to produce a variety of weapons from the publicly available 3D printed blueprints. One example is the six-barrelled Hexen pepperbox revolver, which was released on the Web just last week. The Hexen, which could easily kill man, shows the remarkable and frightening speed with which this technology has advanced.

In just a few months, the possibilities of 3D printing of weapons have grown from producing individual firearm components to a single-shot pistol, then to a rifle and now to a multiple-shot weapon.

Even more worrying is the fact that these advances are being made by gun enthusiasts without any effective oversight by the authorities.

Fortunately, we still have time to address the problem, because for all their potential, 3D printers are still relatively rare. In short, they won't put Smith and Wesson out of business anytime soon.

At present, the plastic materials that commercial (as opposed to industrial) 3D printers use are not particularly suited to the production of functional firearms. Such printers work with soft plastics. These don't really contain the explosive forces in a firearm's chamber.

They're also imprecise: objects built on home 3D printers are less complex and less durable than those built on industrial printers.

One engineer in Wisconsin does claim to have printed a working version of the Liberator on a home 3D printer, but it needs a hammer to fire it and considerable effort is required to remove the empty casing.

Industrial 3D printers are much better at making functional weapons. But their considerably higher cost and much larger size (not something most people would have space for in their garage), mean they are unlikely to be used by criminals anytime soon seeking to produce 3D guns.

So today in the UK anyone wanting to 3D print a working firearm would have to order one from a commercial 3D printing service. But in filling that order, such a service would violate Section 5 of the Firearms Act of 1968.

Yes, a criminal could make a complete 3D printed weapon by having separate components printed by separate shops, but doing so would be a complex and difficult endeavour.

So for time being, the actual use of 3D printed guns by British criminals is pretty unlikely.

But if it is difficult to imagine a contemporary British criminal using a printed weapon, it might have been equally difficult to imagine a criminal use for the massive, bulky, unreliable mobile phones of the early 90s. Yet, today's sophisticated mobile phones are central to many an illegal activity.

The practical obstacles to the use of 3D printed weapons in crime may be considerable for the moment, but as the technology continues to mature they will diminish.

To prevent a dangerous destabilisation, legal obstacles must rise in their place.

3D printed guns are still guns in the eyes of the law. The Home Office confirmed last week that they are regulated under the same legislation as other guns - which here in the UK is a pretty strict set of laws.

But these very strict laws might mean, over time, 3D printed weapons in the UK could also become the alternative for criminals who would otherwise have to buy conventional guns on the black market.

Ultimately, it's clear that the British government needs to develop ways to monitor how this technology develops. Because if they don't, the next milestone is going to be the country's first 3D printed gun murder.