The Ongoing Debate Over 3D-Printed Guns

By: Elle Nainstein

With 3D-printing technology on the rise, obtaining a gun may now be as easy as downloading one within the privacy of your own home. To do so, an individual could simply find blueprints for a firearm online, enter the schematics into a 3D printer, and within a matter of days, he or she would have their hands on a fully-functional plastic gun. Policymakers all over the country have been working to prevent this “under the table” method of acquiring firearms, expressing concerns over the fact that no background check is required to download the blueprints and no serial number would exist to trace the gun in the event that it is used to commit a crime.

In 2013, Cody Wilson, owner of the company Defense Distributed, created what is believed to be the first fully 3D-printed gun. After Wilson successfully tested the gun, he uploaded the blueprints to his website so that they would be made publicly available to anyone who might wish to build one. Under the Obama administration, the State Department ordered that the blueprints be taken down, asserting that Wilson’s publication of the blueprints constituted the exporting of weapons without a license. In 2015, Wilson sued the federal government, arguing that barring him from publishing the blueprints inhibited his First Amendment rights. When the case settled under the Trump administration in June 2018, Wilson was granted permission to move forward with publishing his 3D-printed gun blueprints beginning August 1, 2018.

Immediately following the announcement, nineteen states sued to block distribution of the blueprints. On July 31, 2018, US District Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle issued a restraining order that halted Wilson’s plans to release 3D-printed gun designs online. On August 27, 2018, Judge Lasnik granted a motion for a preliminary injunction and extended the previous restraining order. “The court finds that the irreparable burdens on the private defendants’ First Amendment rights are dwarfed by the irreparable harms the states are likely to suffer if the existing restrictions are withdrawn and that, overall, the public interest strongly supports maintaining the status quo through the pendency of this litigation,” Lasnik wrote.

On August 28, 2018, Wilson announced he would begin selling the blueprints directly to people who want them. According to the ruling, “[r]egulation under the (law) means that the files cannot be uploaded to the internet, but they can be emailed, mailed, securely transmitted, or otherwise published within the United States.” Wilson said that while the preliminary injunction forbade him to share the files online for free, he interpreted the ruling as expressly allowing him to sell them. “Anyone who wants these files is going to get them. I’m gonna sell it to them, I’m gonna ship them. That began this morning,” Wilson said. “That will never be interrupted. The free exchange of these ideas will never be interrupted.”

Less than a month later, on September 25, 2018, Cody Wilson resigned from Defense Distributed after being detained and arrested in Taiwan. According to authorities, Wilson had fled the United States upon learning that he was being investigated for allegedly paying $500 to have sex with an underage girl in Austin, Texas. Wilson was subsequently deported back to the United States and is currently facing sexual assault charges. If found guilty, he faces up to twenty years in prison. Wilson has since been released on bail but has yet to issue a public statement on the matter. As of today, it is unclear how his resignation or the criminal charge will impact Defense Distributed and its role in the debate over 3D-printed guns.

Citations:

Charles Duan, Copyright Law Could Stop 3-D Printed Guns. Should It?, Lawfare (Aug. 31, 2018, 9:23 AM), https://www.lawfareblog.com/copyright-law-could-stop-3-d-printed-guns-should-it.

Eric Levenson and Keith Allen, Judge blocks distribution of 3D-printed gun blueprints until case is resolved, CNN (Aug. 27, 2018, 7:41 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/27/us/3d-guns-judge-ruling/index.html.

Jim Vertuno and Martha Bellisle, 3D-printed gun maker says he’s selling blueprints, despite court order against him, USA Today (Aug. 28, 2018, 7:59 PM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/08/28/3-d-printed-guns-cody-wilson-selling-plans-despite-ruling/1127628002/.

Eric Levenson, Maker of 3D-printed guns begins selling blueprints, despite court order, CNN (Aug. 28, 2018, 3:45 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/28/us/3d-printed-guns-cody-wilson-blueprint/index.html.

Paul J. Weber, Cody Wilson, 3-D Printed Gun Advocate Has Been Jailed in the U.S., Time (Sept. 23, 2018), http://time.com/5404123/cody-wilson-3d-gun-advocate-arrest/

3D-printed gun pioneer bailed after sex assault charge, BBC News (Sept. 24, 2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-45625275.