The 3-D Plastic Gun and Airport Screening

by Stephen Bryen

 
There is growing alarm about 3-D guns, essentially plastic guns that are produced through a process called 3-D Printing. 3-D guns produce two issues –the possibility of manufacturing guns by individuals and groups that are not gun manufacturers and are not licensed in any way.  In this way, guns proliferation morphs into a staggering problem, even bigger than we have today with illegal firearms.  While government can outlaw the 3-D printing of guns, how to enforce such a ban is vexing.  Governments have not been able to control the illegal flow of guns, which account for most crimes.  That is why no one really wants to talk about controlling illegal guns.  3-D plastic guns makes the problem worse.
 
The second problem is security, especially at airports, in public buildings, and other places where there is screening for weapons.
 
3-D guns do not, for the most part, show up on X-Rays, or on other types of scanners.
 
Many years ago this problem reared its head with the Glock hand gun, which was plastic and was made in Austria. I know a lot about the problem because my staff at the Defense Department worked with the Glock people so that their guns would not slip through X-Ray scanners and magnetometers.
 
Today we have far more sophisticated scanning equipment than we had 25 years ago.  But whether it can catch a plastic gun is open to question.  
 
The Transportation Security Administration in the United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps more, on trying to secure airports.  It has improved scanners, and introduced new millimeter wave scanners that virtually undress a person.  But the vulnerability is less the person, shoe bombers excepted, than it is with carry on bags where scanning is known to have multiple weak points and failures.
 
Today’s terrorists are well informed and sophisticated enough to know about these weak points, or to test what they think are vulnerabilities, sending so-called “mules” through security screening lines to see if they can beat the system.  Not only this, but because rogue states such as Iran, and troubled countries like Pakistan, Syria and Yemen, already have security scanning equipment, terrorists can work out ways to trial their bomb and gun smuggling strategies “locally” thanks to permissive regimes or healthy bribes.  It is not surprising, for example, that sophisticated bombs were smuggled on board flights originating in Yemen and heading either through Dubai or London to the United States, with the intention of exploding over Chicago and causing mass casualties.
 
Aircraft themselves are bombs, as the 9/11 hijackers demonstrated.
 
It seems, therefore, that the current technology we have may not be up to the job of screening for 3-D-printed plastic guns and we should be concerned.
 
For many years there has been a strong debate between American security experts and Israeli ones on the question of how to go about screening aircraft passengers.  The Israelis opted for a human method, namely carefully interviewing people to try and find any potential risk.  Baggage is also scanned (just as in the U.S.), but instead of relying on “get-naked” technology, the Israelis rely on smart people who are very well trained to find a dangerous person.  
 
In the U.S. this approach was rejected, partly because the U.S. has so many airports that putting in place a mature and capable interviewing method was a daunting challenge; and partly because the method is very slow.  If you take a plane to or from Israel you are advised to be at the airport for check in at least 3 hours before the flight.
 
Is there a middle ground that might help achieve some of the results the Israeli’s get, and could help solve the hard-to-identify 3-D plastic gun?  
 
In February of this year, the magazine HSToday published a front page article that explained a system that could detect a passenger’s intentions with a fair degree of accuracy, and do that quickly and without the target knowing it.  The technology, which was developed in Israel, uses a type of scanner, but it is remote from the passengers in the security line.  A number of countries have tested the system and are now installing it at airports, rail stations and on border crossing points.  [Full disclosure: My company is representing this technology in North America.]
 
I was surprised that neither TSA or the Department of Homeland Security responded to the article or inquired about the technology.  They would have learned something, and if someone gets through with a plastic gun and does some damage, it would be a tragedy because perhaps the disaster could have been avoided.
 
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