The chief person driving the push for 3D-printed firearms said Tuesday he has started selling plans through the mail, hoping to work around a judge’s order this week that banned posting the blueprints online.
Cody Wilson, founder of Texas-based Defense Distributed, is testing the limits of free speech, battling a Clinton-appointed federal judge and enraging gun control groups that say distributing the blueprints will lead to undetectable plastic guns flooding communities.
But Mr. Wilson said he is following the judge’s orders to the letter by stopping free downloads from the web. Instead, he is selling the plans and sending them to customers on flash drives through the mail, and is considering email sales as well.
“I’m happy now at this point to become the iTunes of downloadable guns if I can’t be the Napster,” Mr. Wilson said as he announced his plans.
He is offering plans for 3D-printer manufacturing of parts for several rifles and handguns, including the popular AR-15 rifle and a 1911 pistol.
He suggests a $10 price for each sale but allows users on his website, DefCad.com, to name their own price. He does require users to check a box signifying that they are American citizens, though the company will not ship to billing or shipping addresses in the nearly two dozen states that have sued to block him.
“Anyone in the US can buy, but I’ve chosen to humiliate some state residents for living under slavish conditions,” he said in a text message.
His ability to sell the files directly likely comes as a shock to many Americans who thought 3D plastic guns were illegal and figured distributing plans for them must be as well.
But the legal situation is far more complex.
When the Obama administration first blocked Mr. Wilson, it used military weapons export laws, saying that posting plans on the internet was giving away weapons technology to foreigners.
After a lengthy legal battle, the Trump State Department reversed that move this year, saying Mr. Wilson was likely to prove his free speech claim and that the firearms for which he offers plans shouldn’t fall under the export ban.
Nearly two dozen state attorneys-general sued and won an injunction this week from Judge Robert S. Lasnik, who ordered the federal government to go back to the Obama-era policy for now.
He said the Trump administration likely cut too many corners in agreeing to the settlement with Mr. Wilson.
But Mr. Wilson and his defenders say the plans are already in cyberspace — and indeed have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, including from websites that rushed to post the files after Judge Lasnik’s original order late last month.
“This has always been about constitutionally protected content and free speech,” said Brandon Combs, who set up one of those websites.
Mr. Wilson said the judge’s latest order expressly indicated that while the files cannot be uploaded to the internet, they can be emailed, mailed or shared by people within the United States.
“This is clearly about a speech power. It’s about the power of states to control websites,” Mr. Wilson said. “This is about these states desperately flailing for some type of internet power to prevent people from sharing things online. I won’t give it to them.”
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is leading the legal case against Mr. Wilson, said it is up to the Trump administration to figure out what to do about Defense Distributed’s direct-sales plans.
“Because of our lawsuit, it is once again illegal to post downloadable gun files to the internet,” he 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.”
Gun control advocates say the proliferation of the plans online could lead to terrorists or people otherwise barred from having guns making their own untraceable, undetectable firearms.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Mr. Wilson’s move, though officials said this month that while distributing the blueprint files may be legal, producing an untraceable firearm is still against the law and will be prosecuted. Most plans for 3D-printed guns include some metal, in part to keep them legal because they are not “undetectable.”
Dave Kopel, research director of the Colorado-based Independence Institute, said Mr. Wilson is on solid legal ground with his actions.
“There is no law in this country that prohibits Cody Wilson from distributing these files to Americans,” Mr. Kopel said. “The sole issue has been if you post it on the internet … where foreigners can see it, is that a violation of the Arms Export Control Act?”
Mr. Kopel said that throughout Mr. Wilson’s legal battle, both the Obama and Trump administrations have been consistent in saying that sharing files between people within the United States wouldn’t necessarily pose legal problems.
Mr. Kopel also said Judge Lasnik’s ban on online posting raises tricky questions tied to federal civil procedure, since he was blocking a settlement that arose in another case in Texas, presided over by a different federal judge.
That judge, an Obama appointee, blocked a petition in late July from several gun control groups looking to halt the settlement in his courtroom.
“Does that mean if there’s some case where the parties in Minnesota settle, that some third parties who don’t like the settlement can go in and get a judge in Alabama to shut down the settlement?” Mr. Kopel said. “That seems like a pretty serious usurpation there.”
Mr. Wilson said his goal isn’t to turn a profit — though he is conducting a pledge drive on his website, and said he is halfway to his $400,000 goal.