A spate of liberal politicians have begun sounding the alarm over the prospect of Americans fabricating homemade firearms using 3D printing technology. The catalyst for this round of hand-wringing and posturing (and, in some cases, genuine concern) is the Trump administration’s settlement of a case with a man whose company sought to upload certain detailed instructions for gun printing to the internet. In response, a handful of blue states have filed a lawsuit, including Massachusetts — whose Attorney General shared the following video from left-wing outlet NowThis on her Twitter feed:
Everyone needs to know how dangerous downloadable guns are.pic.twitter.com/SJ47ro6CSM
— Maura Healey (@MassAGO) July 30, 2018
Writing at National Review, David French reviews some of the central claims advanced in the clip, finding them to be misleading to outright false:
[Claim]: “Downloadable guns are a real thing because of the Trump administration.”
False. 3D-printed guns were legal regardless of the outcome of the case, and plans for 3D-printed guns were widely available online.
[Claim]: “Individuals will now be able to log on to a website, and if they have access to a 3D printer, print fully functional and totally undetectable firearms.”
Misleading. The word “now” is deceptive. Individuals were able to do this before the Trump administration’s settlement, and they would have been able to do so even if the Trump administration kept litigating the case. Moreover, it’s important to note that possessing “totally undetectable” firearms violates federal law.
[Claim]: “All of this is because the Trump administration quietly settled a lawsuit with Cody Wilson, a 3D-gun creator who had sued the federal government for being forced to take down his downloadable 3D guns back in 2013.”
False. As the Fifth Circuit clearly stated, manufacture and possession of a plastic pistol or plastic lower receiver (subject to the Undetectable Firearms Act) “is legal for United States citizens and will remain legal for United States citizens regardless of the outcome of this case.”
The Obama-era stance of the federal government was that the private company in question should not be able to share prinatable schematics for certain guns under a law governing international arms trafficking. “The Obama administration justified its decision to prevent the plaintiffs from posting the files on the grounds that the files would be available for international download and international use. It also argued that the files at issue were not ‘expressive speech,'” French notes. “As the Fifth Circuit explained, printing a fully functional plastic lower receiver or Defense Distributed’s single-shot plastic pistol ‘is legal for United States citizens and will remain legal for United States citizens regardless of the outcome of this case.‘”
He goes on to write (a) that homemade guns have been common and legal in the United States for centuries, (b) that online gun printing blueprints are already widely available online, (c) that manufacturing or possessing guns that would avoid metal detectors is already against US law, and (d) that the Trump administration’s settlement was spurred by the difficulty of the speech-related elements of the case: “The plaintiffs’ case was fundamentally a speech case, not a gun case. The plaintiffs weren’t distributing guns, they were distributing information, and by blocking the flow of information, the Obama administration had placed a “prior restraint” on the plaintiffs’ speech. Prior restraints are among the least-favored government actions in First Amendment jurisprudence.”
Columnist David Harsanyi makes a number of similar points, also underscoring a few weaknesses in the “ban it!” crowd’s argument: “If you’re unable to legally purchase firearms, you are already prohibited from making a gun in your home, just as you are prohibited from buying a gun through a straw purchase or stealing one from your neighbor or smuggling one into the country. That’s settled law,” he explains. “Censoring code on the internet simply because you find guns objectionable, though, is another story. As [Defense Distributed founder Cody] Wilson told The Washington Post, code ‘is the essence of expression. It meets all the requirements of speech—it’s artistic and political, you can manipulate it, and it needs human involvement to become other things.’ How can the state ban the transfer of knowledge used to help someone engage in an activity that is completely legal? Scratch that—to engage in an activity that is constitutionally protected?” Speaking of Mr. Wilson, he appeared on Fox News Sunday and defended his position:
As a staunch supporter of the First and Second Amendments, I’m both extremely hesitant to embrace government-imposed prior restraints, and skeptical of new regulations on guns. I do, however, realize that advancing technology can present thorny legal challenges. Harsanyi’s piece highlights that printing guns at home is expensive, difficult, and comparatively inefficient. That may be true for now, but as 3D printing becomes more prevalent and turn-key, such counterpoints may lose their salience. I am alarmed by the idea that a mental unstable individual or convicted criminal could bypass background check requirements and other important restrictions by manufacturing their own illegal firearms.
Nevertheless, I’m not sure if any proposed ‘solutions’ are workable. Banning people from doing things that are already illegal through other means strikes me as mostly symbolic. Yes, new laws could be used to convict people who violate them, but considering that lawbreakers are by definition comfortable with ignoring laws, the deterrent effect could be limited. And what about Harsanyi’s argument about the legality of banning the “transfer of knowledge” (i.e. speech) regarding engagement in a constitutionally-protected activity (i.e. gun ownership)?
I don’t pretend to have easy answers to these questions. I do, however, believe that policy and constitutional debates about complicated issues should lead with facts, not emotions. The amount of ignorance and misinformation that factor into — or even dominate — many of our discussions about guns is hugely problematic. The press regularly subordinates facts to a biased agenda on this issue, deeply harming their credibility as impartial arbiters of relevant information. As such, any report or commentary that weighs in on concerns about 3D gun printing while clumsily framing the question as ‘about Trump,’ or falsely characterizing what’s “now” permitted, should be disregarded as fake news. Journalists who loathe that term should work hard to avoid vindicating it.
I’ll leave you with French’s upbraiding of a federal judge who issued a “futile and unconstitutional” temporary order against the release of files that were already released: “A federal court has issued a prior restraint on speech (it’s attempting to block the spread of information; it is not blocking the lawful home manufacture of firearms) that is already thoroughly and completely moot. The files are out. They’re all over the internet. They’ve been copied and reproduced. The judge’s order can’t change that fact. Moreover, Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation are hardly the only sources for online files or blueprints that enable a home manufacturer with a 3D printer to make a gun. I’m honestly unclear what the court is trying to accomplish here, aside from targeting the Trump administration and/or targeting a disfavored private company.” I think David just answered his own question.