Though the controversy over 3D printed guns has been brewing for several years, it’s picked up steam in recent months following a legal settlement by the State Department in July, which allowed the Defense Distributed organization to publish plans for the guns online. In turn, 19 states sued to block the release of those plans out of public safety concerns, according to CNET.
A Seattle judge issued a temporary restraining order in response, and on Monday, granted a preliminary injunction to stop the distribution of the plans until the case is resolved. At best, it’s a temporary solution for a problem that won’t be going away.
On Tuesday, Defense Distributed, headed by Cody Wilson, moved to make the plans available online despite the court order, offering them for as little as one cent instead of for free as before. According to Wilson, the injunction did not prohibit selling the plans. Legal experts say he’s not wrong, although if Defense Distributed fails to verify that customers are US citizens, their sale will infringe on US export laws.
Bob Ferguson, Washington State attorney general and one of the plaintiffs, said:
“I trust the federal government will hold Cody Wilson, a self-described ‘crypto-anarchist,’ accountable to that law. If they don’t, President Trump will be responsible for anyone who is hurt or killed as a result of these weapons.”
There are a number of issues raised by 3D printed guns that are not addressed by laws pertaining to traditional firearms. Plans for the guns can be created or simply downloaded from the internet, as with Defense Distributed’s offerings. Anyone with a 3D printer can then “print” the mostly plastic firearms, which are perfectly capable of firing normal handgun rounds. In 2013, Wilson’s organization published plans for the first ever 3D-printed handgun, which is still as close as you can get to a fully plastic, wholly printable, firearm. However, the gun still requires a steel nail for a firing pin, as well as a larger piece of steel that is included only to ensure the gun can be detected by a metal detector, as required by the US Undetectable Firearms Act.
However, those metal parts could be stored separately. Also, the guns don’t include an industrial serial number, making them harder to trace. If that weren’t enough, printing a gun is yet another way to get a firearm without a background check, and in terms of evidence, plastic is much easier to destroy entirely than metal.
Data from the Gun Violence Archive has shown there is a mass shooting in the US on average, nine out of every ten days. With this violence reaching such epic proportions, it’s not hard to understand why the idea of readily available, untraceable, and potentially undetectable weapons is sparking controversy.
So far, things have largely gone well for Wilson. The government’s only leverage against the proliferation of the plans was, until the current lawsuit, based only on the idea that making them available online is equivalent to exporting them abroad. In July, the licensing of the blueprints was transferred to the Commerce Department, which regulates online data in a way that does not qualify posting the blueprints as exporting. Publishing them in print would not be subject to the same regulations. The State Department also temporarily removed the blueprints from the category of small firearms, approving them for distribution.
Wilson’s point, that qualifying online posting as an export violates first amendment, unfortunately holds water. The lawsuit by the states argues that removing the blueprints from the category of small arms should have required notice given to Congress, particularly given the public safety issues involved. And on Monday, US District Judge Robert Lasnik agreed, saying:
“The instability and inaccuracy of 3-D printed firearms pose threats to the citizens of the plaintiff States.”
But even if public safety is motivating both the plaintiffs and the judge in the case, these issues surrounding export law are essentially a workaround for the lack of regulation directly limiting the sale of plans for 3D printed weapons, as Wired points out.
Given the political situation in Washington, it may not be realistic to hope for a ban on the distribution of blueprints for 3D printed firearms on a federal level. And that may ultimately be necessary to prevent the proliferation of these weapons. But for the moment, direct legislation by these states would be a more effective way to address the problem.