3D Printed Guns: Questions, Fears, Regulations

By: Anya Sahaydachny

The spate of school shootings, particularly Parkland, has reinvigorated calls for gun control.[1] Emerging 3D gun printing technology adds a new dimension to the gun control debate. 3D gun printing, while still developing, raises calls for regulation because it enables anyone, regardless of age, mental health, or criminal history, to download and print weapons that are very difficult to detect even with metal detectors, without the registration and traceability of standard guns.[2] Online distribution of downloadable and printable gun plans raises risks that courts and regulators are beginning to confront. While violent crimes involving 3D printed guns have yet to be reported, lawmakers and politicians are beginning to act in anticipation of widespread availability of such technology.[3]

In 2013 when Cody Wilson’s Defense Distributed published blueprints for 3D printed guns to Defense Distributed’s website, the US Department of State deemed that a violation of the Arms Export Control Act and, exercising its jurisdiction under the Act, demanded their removal.[4] In 2015, Wilson sued the US government on free speech grounds.[5] Yet, despite prevailing against Defense Distributed’s attempts to get a TRO pending trial, the Government (now under Trump) settled the case last July.[6] The settlement stipulates that banning online publication of 3D gun plans violated Defense Distributed’s First Amendment rights.[7]

Subsequently, nine states (Washington, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Maryland, New York and the District of Columbia) jointly sued the Trump administration for its decision to allow 3D printable guns online, specifically naming Wilson’s organization.[8] In addition, Attorneys General from 21 different states sent a joint letter to the State Department and Department of Justice, requesting an injunction blocking the sharing of 3D printed gun plans.[9]

As recently as August 1, 2018, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against online distribution of 3D printable gun files by chief distributor Defense Distributed.[10] However, Defense Distributed has circumvented that order by releasing the files through a different website, a tactic that could be exploited by others to bypass such court rulings.[11] This has added significance because, once available, consumers can redistribute blueprints without obstruction.

While effectiveness of litigation is yet undetermined, the recent settlement sets a dangerous legal precedent for unhindered online publication of 3D gun plans. However, strong opposition from Democratic lawmakers, who have introduced legislation in Congress, and from gun safety groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence to open access to 3D gun blueprints, and recent legal actions, signify a growing awareness of the serious threat to public safety posed by the proliferation of 3D gun printing.[12] Time will tell if lawmakers and public officials act in anticipation of that threat before it ushers in a new wave of school and other mass shootings.

[1] Jeremy Ghez, Gun Control in America: Why This Time It Could Be Different, (Feb. 27, 2018), forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/hecparis/2018/02/27/gun-control-in-america-why-this-time-it-could-be-different/#7b80f97254af.

[2] Katilin Benz and Sean Hollister, 3D Printed Guns: 19 states sue, nationwide restraining order granted, (Aug. 3 2018), cnet https://www.cnet.com/news/3d-printed-guns-19-states-sue-nationwide-restraining-order-granted/.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.; see also 22 • U.S.C.§ 39 (2012).

[5] Defense Distributed v. United States Dept. of State 838 F.3d 451, 453-476.

[6] Benz, Hollister, supra note 1.

[7] See Defense Distributed, 838 F.3d 451, 453-476.

[8]Tyler Koslow, 3D Printed Gun Report – All You Need to Know in 2018, (Aug. 1, 2018), all3dp, https://all3dp.com/3d-printed-gun-firearm-weapon-parts/.

[9] Id.

[10] Deirdre Shesgreen and Josh Hafner, Courts in three states bar release of 3D-printable gun blueprints, (Jul. 31, 2018),  usa today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/07/31/3-d-printable-guns-donald-trump/870557002/.

[11]Koslow, supra note 7.

[12] Id.

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