Starting Aug. 1, all you’ll need to make your own firearm is a computer, an internet connection and a 3-D printer.
Download a free guide, enter a few keystrokes and you’ll be the proud owner of a 3-D-printed, plastic firearm. No background check required.
And as long as you don’t sell the gun, it’ll all be legal.
Federal law already allows citizens to make their own firearms for personal use. But this do-it-yourself, high-tech gunsmithing has been in legal limbo since 2015. That’s when the U.S. government shut down Texas-based Defense Distributed, just a few days after the company began sharing its 3-D-printable gun plans for free online.
The organization’s founder, Cody Wilson, sued. After a three-year legal battle, the Department of Justice capitulated and settled earlier this year.
The settlement goes into effect at the start of August. It gives Defense Distributed permission to resume free online distribution of blueprints for fabricating a firearm with a 3-D printer — a decision that cheers Second Amendment supporters, and concerns groups already worried about gun violence.
Wilson, of Austin, Texas, created the nonprofit Defense Distributed in 2012. His goal: create a gun that could be fabricated with a 3-D printer. Following a trial-and-error period, he perfected plans for the “Liberator” and in 2013 began offering free online downloads of the schematics.
Wilson named his creation after the cheap, single-shot pistols intended to be airdropped by the Allies over France during the Nazi occupation in World War II, according to a 2013 Forbes article in which the reporter accompanied Wilson on a test shoot.
And, the builder must still include at least one metal piece to comply with the federal Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans any firearm that does not set off a metal detector. To comply with this, Wilson’s plans call for inserting a nonfunctional piece of metal in the plastic gun. There’s no way to guarantee the do-it-yourselfer will do this, however.
A few days after Wilson posted the files, the feds shut him down — not because what he was doing was illegal in the U.S., but because the plans could be downloaded overseas. That, said the government, directly facilitated the manufacture of weapons overseas, which is subject to U.S. export controls.
Wilson fought back. The crux of his lawsuit was the intersection of the First and Second amendments — using freedom of speech to increase access to firearms. According to media reports, Wilson said he was not manufacturing weapons. He simply creates, and offers for free, computer plans to make your own gun. And that’s freedom of speech, he said.
Wilson could not be reached for comment for this report.
Gun-control groups, law enforcement are wary
For Second Amendment advocates, the settlement was a significant victory.
The Second Amendment Foundation partnered with Wilson in his lawsuit. It said in a July 10 news release: “Not only is this a First Amendment victory for free speech, it also is a devastating blow to the gun prohibition lobby.”
The Statesman has reached out to the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance for comment.
Wilson’s project, however, has caused an uproar among gun-control advocates since he first announced it. That is because 3-D-printed guns are “ghost guns” — firearms without a serial number, which under the current U.S. system makes them untraceable.
Ghost guns can already be built in other ways: for example, by buying gun-making parts separately and then assembling them using an online kit.
Law enforcement and gun-control advocates are concerned such kits allow people prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms — convicted felons, domestic violence offenders and the mentally ill — to make their own untraceable guns.
The sudden announcement of Wilson’s settlement has now put those groups on guard.
The settlement and subsequent new rules allow “unchecked gun production in the U.S. and exports abroad by removing the block on 3-D printing of firearms,” the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence stated on its website. “… The new regulations run the risk of effectively condoning and enabling 3-D printing of firearms in the U.S. and around the globe. By effectively eliminating many means to detect firearms, background checks on domestic sales and end-use controls on international exports for such weapons, this change could generate many preventable tragedies.”
Another gun-control advocacy organization, Giffords, posted to social media on Thursday: “If you can’t pass a background check, you shouldn’t be able to build a gun in your basement. While an overwhelmingly majority of Americans support background checks for firearms sales, access to untraceable, 3-D printed guns is widening.”
Local police are watching how the situation develops.
“This is a topic law enforcement across the country has been keeping an eye on for quite a while now,” said Boise Police Chief William Bones. ”While innovation in technology brings great opportunity, we need to also have a responsible plan in place for something as serious as manufacturing a firearm.
“Measures are needed to ensure these weapons are safely built and to prevent access by children or those prohibited from owning a firearm. Hopefully we see some safe and responsible legislation soon as well as manufacturers taking measure to prevent access which might lead to tragedy.”
Meridian Police Chief Jeff Lavey said his department just learned of the DOJ settlement Thursday.
“We have had no time to offer an opinion, other than we support the Second Amendment while looking at every gun law to see how it affects the constitutional rights and safety of our citizens, as well as officer safety,” Lavey said. “We will incorporate any ruling within our training protocols to ensure our officers are safe, while ensuring our citizens’ constitutional rights are protected as well.”
What do state laws allow?
Idaho has no law prohibiting the manufacturing of a gun without a serial number, as long as the weapon remains in-state.
According to Idaho code, “A personal firearm, a firearm accessory, or ammunition that is manufactured commercially or privately in Idaho and that remains within the borders of Idaho is not subject to federal law or federal regulation, including registration, under the authority of Congress to regulate interstate commerce.”
Idaho law does require such guns to “have the words “Made in Idaho” clearly stamped on a central metallic part, such as the receiver or frame.”
One state has already taken steps to ban “ghost guns.”
New Jersey, where the gun laws are among the toughest in the nation, in June enacted a law prohibiting the manufacturing of guns without serial numbers.
New Jersey’s attorney general sent a cease-and-desist letter on June 12 to “ghost gun” manufacturers throughout the United States, ordering them to stop advertising and selling partially-built firearms in New Jersey.
It is unclear how the June law might affect Wilson’s operation. The Statesman reached out to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, but has not yet received a response.
Cynthia Sewell is the Statesman’s government and investigative reporter. Contact her at (208) 377-6428, firstname.lastname@example.org or @CynthiaSewell on Twitter.