A boom in 3D-printed guns, North Korean cat hunters and China versus Pfizer

Natalia Antelava


Welcome to the Infodemic. We are tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our lives. Below are the narratives, both real and fake, that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

China is on the offensive against Western-backed vaccines. Since December, we’ve noticed a steady increase in Beijing pundits and China-backed outlets pushing narratives discrediting the Pfizer immunization. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijilan Zhao has retweeted reports highlighting a handful of adverse reactions in Norway and Germany. Meanwhile, the Global Times is whipping up fears and featuring anonymous Chinese health experts calling on Japan and Australia to halt their Pfizer rollouts. 

Eastern Europe is experiencing a new wave of anti-lockdown protests. In Poland, a “gastro-rebellion” launched on Monday with restaurants and businesses coordinating across the country to open up in defiance of regulations. In the Czech Republic, punches flew in parliament after a right-wing MP took to the floor to denounce Pfizer for “bribing” politicians and to plug a conspiracy theory that Covid-19 is an elitist plot to create a new world order. After his microphone was switched off, Lubomir Volny, who refused to wear a mask, walked over to the chair of parliament and tried to seize his microphone. You can see for yourself what happened next.

North Koreans along the country’s border have been ordered to kill stray cats, because they could “bring the virus from China,” according to this Daily NK report. Officially, the country has confirmed no cases of Covid-19, but in 2020 authorities ordered people to stay indoors and wear masks to protect themselves from a “dangerous yellow dust” blowing in from China. “Now they are forcing even local residents to kill animals,” a source said. 

That Covid-19 has created a massive surge in gun sales has been well reported, but what is less known and potentially even more worrying is the recent proliferation of 3D-printed weapons. Coda’s Masho Lomashvili has more on this below.

By Masho Lomashvili

From gardening to baking, we have all been honing our skills through the lockdowns. But, while I took up pottery, it turns out that a growing number of people have been manufacturing their own plastic guns. 

The idea to make firearms using a 3D printer dates back to 2013. The initial flurry of media attention faded quickly as the technology required significant improvement. But, fast-forward to 2020 and acquiring such a weapon is easier than baking bread — or, in my case, molding a vase. 

It’s a three-step process:

  • First, you download or create a CAD file
  • Second, you print out the parts
  • Third, you assemble them

That’s all there is to it. You have your gun. I spoke to several vendors of 3D-printed gun blueprints, and every one of them told me there has been a threefold surge in downloads and sales since the pandemic broke out. 

Among the documented buyers are members of the Boogaloo movement and The Base — far-right groups that we all saw in action during the Capitol Hill riots. Then there was the recent story of Timothy Watson, a West Virginia man who was selling 3D-printed “coat hooks” that were actually conversion devices to turn legal firearms into fully automatic machine guns. Watson is accused of conspiracy against the U.S. government and prosecutors have linked him to the Boogaloo movement. 

The consequences of this boom in 3D-printed weapons are enormous. These guns are just as lethal as conventional ones, but here are five ways in which they are a lot more dangerous: 

  • 3D-printed guns are ghosts. They don’t have serial numbers and they cannot be traced by law enforcement agencies. 
  • If the gun is fully printed — there are also hybrids that use metal parts and are more durable — metal detectors cannot spot it. 
  • There are no background checks and no waiting lists for 3D-printed guns. Anyone can access the CAD files online. 
  • Radical political ideology is widely present in online gun-making groups. 
  • There is no regulation. One idea I keep seeing in these groups and forums is, “If everyone can make their guns, the government will simply be unable to regulate the gun industry.” 

“The 3D printing of firearms and firearms components is a serious trend worth watching out for,” said Jon Lewis, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. 

He told me that the incoming Biden-Harris administration has suggested a strong and sober approach to the regulation of untraceable firearms and the CAD files for 3D-printed components. But, like many experts, he fears that it may be too little too late. 

“These tools are freely available on the internet and unlikely to ever be successfully removed completely,” he said. 

The same goes for 3D-printed gun communities. When major platforms like Reddit and Facebook banned them, these groups simply moved to other platforms. Last time I checked, a 3D-printed gun design thread on the encrypted chat app Keybase had 26,591 members. 

Hungry for more? 

Last but not least: Young people in Russia are taking to TikTok to offer protest tips, ahead of tomorrow’s rally in support of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. The Russian government responded by ordering TikTok to restrict online calls for protest. This thread has great reactions. My favorite is this young Russian with hilarious instructions on how to pretend to be an American tourist, if arrested by the police. 

Thanks for reading, and see you next week,