The Legal Implications of 3D Printed Guns

3D Printed Guns and The Law

Recently, 3D printing has become the center of an ongoing legal controversy.  As the law struggles to catch up with technology, there has been much debate about which legal rights, if any, apply to the possession of the blueprints for these weapons and of the weapons themselves.

How does 3D printing work?

3D printing was invented earlier than most people think. In 1983, Chuck Hull worked for a local company that produced tough coatings for tables using UV lamps. During the course of his employment, he conceptualized a new way to use the UV technology: turning computer designs into prototypes. One night, in his lab, he managed to solidify liquid “photopolymer” – an acrylic-based material – by exposing it to UV light.

This YouTube video by Mashable provides an overview of the entire 3D printing process.

What are 3D printed guns?

3D printed guns are exactly what they sound like. They are guns assembled from parts produced by 3D printers.

In 2013, 30 years after the advent of 3D printing technology, Cody Wilson created and shot the world’s first fully printed 3D Gun at a firing range in Austin, Texas. The “Liberator,” Wilson’s brainchild, is comprised of 16 pieces, 15 of which were created inside an $8,000 second-hand Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer. The only non-printed piece was a common hardware store nail.

After the gun successfully fired the bullet, Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, a non-profit devoted exclusively to making 3D firearms for the general public, uploaded a blueprint for how to compile the Liberator (along with blueprints for nine other 3D-printable firearms components) to his website, Defcad.com.

Less than a week later, Wilson received a letter from the State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance demanding that he take down the online blueprints immediately. The government’s letter stated that by uploading the weapons files to the internet and allowing them to be downloaded abroad, Wilson may have violated International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Wilson complied. Defense Distributed submitted a “commodity jurisdiction request” to the Department of State, which the company hoped would clear the way for the publication of the files.

What is the current legal status of blueprints for 3D printed guns?

After not hearing back for two years, Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation, sued the Department of State, alleging that its actions violated both the First and Second Amendments. According to the complaint, the government’s action constituted “prior restraint” – preventing publication before it occurs. Citing District of Columbia v. Heller (44 U.S. 570), the complaint alleged that “infringing upon the creation and acquisition of arms […] violated the Second Amendment.”

The complaint was filed in 2015, during the Obama administration. In July 2018, during the Trump administration, the Department of Justice reached a settlement with the plaintiffs. Under the terms of the settlement, the government agreed to waive its prior restraint against the plaintiffs, allowing them to freely publish the 3-D files.

In response, 19 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit seeking to block the settlement. On July 31, 2018, a Seattle judge granted a temporary restraining order against the 3D printed gun plans, although they had already appeared online days earlier. At that point, thousands of blueprints had, according to Wilson, already been downloaded.

Despite the order, Wilson stated that he would still distribute the blueprints to the public. Wilson argued that the court order only blocked him from publishing the blueprints for free, so he began charging a “suggested price” of $10 and distributing them via flash drive. Reiterating his First Amendment argument, Wilson stated, “today I want to clarify, anyone who wants these files will get them – I’ll sell them, I’ll ship them. […] The free exchange of these ideas will never be interrupted.”

Is this legal battle futile?

Regardless of the legality of Wilson’s actions, it is likely that the legal battle to stop the distribution of 3D-printed guns will ultimately be fruitless. UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh points out that the government will be unable to control the spread of this kind of information on the Internet, especially since 3D-printed gun plans are available online from other sources. According to Volokh, taking legal action against Wilson will not stop the spread of this technology. At this point, the government would need to go after Google and Internet Service Providers, and even that would likely not stop the proliferation of 3D-guns.

Looking ahead

At this point, 3D-printed guns are not nearly as lethal as traditional metal guns. That being said, they present in a unique risk in that police testing has shown that they are just as likely to harm the shooter as they are anyone else. Further, it is worrisome that 3D-printed guns can be assembled without any background check, which is traditionally required to purchase a gun. As 3D-printing technology continues to advance, it remains to be seen whether 3D-printed guns will become a larger threat to public safety.

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