Legal Adventures of DIY Firearms


Thanks to 3D printing tech, you are now able to make a prosthetic leg, a nice bling-bling for a not so dear friend, or even a firearm as easily as renting a movie or buying tickets online. All you would need to make a gun is a proper blueprint, proper materials, and an actual 3D printer, and that’s basically it. No ID, no background checks, and virtually no chances to get your gun traced.    

Such a premise may sound very much alarming, but for some people it’s is an important part of their personal freedom and their personal right to defend themselves. The controversy around the issue of DIY guns and 3D-printed guns in particular is still unfolding, and just recently, the story about lawsuit exchange between the government and a 3D-printed guns enthusiast Cody Wilson fighting for the right to share his creations got updated.

Brief History of 3D-Printed Guns

The technology seen in most of the modern 3D printers — fused deposition modeling — dates back to 1988. In 1993 the actual term 3D printing was coined, originally referring to a powder bed process involving inkjet print heads, just like the ones you would desperately try to clean while covering yourself and the whole place in ink, only to get those documents printed already.

The actual concept of using 3D printers to make guns exists since 3D printing became real. However, there are several barriers holding 3D-printed guns back from becoming widely adopted. One of those was the price. In order to create a somewhat reliable firearm, one would most likely need a good high-end printer, which may cost north of a thousand dollars. Also, there a wannabe gunsmith would need to have knowledge or at least blueprints and the methodology of printing a functioning firearm. Finally, given that you have a decent printer, there are chances that the printed piece quality will be lacking.

Now, the barriers of costs and potentially low overall quality of the end product are already going away, as hobbyist and consumer 3D printers are becoming cheaper and better. As for the knowhow and blueprints, one of the solutions to that problem is to simply share them over the internet. Yet, the premise of sharing such files freely is the central part of a years-long legal fight.

The actual story of designing and actually printing operational firearms or parts started back in 2011, when a person uploaded a 3D model for an AR-15 magazine to a website for 3D printing enthusiasts. About a year later another enthusiast printed out a lower receiver for AR-15 and tested it. The test was allegedly successful but there is no solid proof of that.

ArmaLite AR-15 with 25-round magazine. Source: Wikipedia

In August 2012, a guy named Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas, a libertarian and anarchist, created a non-profit group Defense Distributed (the website is unavailable at the moment). The purpose of the group was to design a gun that anyone would be able to create using only a 3D printer. Wilson imagined that the blueprints for his Wiki Weapon would be easily uploaded to the Web and available to everyone around the globe.

AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with a 3D-printed lower receiver made by Defense Distributed enthusiasts. Source: Makezine.com
AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with a 3D-printed lower receiver made by Defense Distributed enthusiasts. Source: Makezine.com

A year later, in 2013, Wilson has created his functional 3D-printed firearm called “the Liberator,” just like the cheap one-shot pistols intended to be distributed French resistance fighters. The weapon he designed had 16 pieces, 15 of which was made out of plastic using a $8,000 Dimension SST 3D printer. The only piece that wasn’t printed was a regular nail acting as a firing pin.

Liberator XP002 with treated barrels. Source: Wikipedia
Liberator XP002 with treated barrels. Source: Wikipedia

After a successful testing, when the DIY gun fired a .380 bullet without anything breaking or exploding, Cody Wilson uploaded the blueprints for the Liberator to Defcad.com. This event is now referred to as a birth of the first fully-functional 3D-printed firearm.

Regulatory Response Retrospective

The very next day, on May 3d, 2013, in response to Wilson’s Liberator gun New York Congressman Steve Israel called for a revamp of the Undetectable Firearms Act, intended to ban firearms that can’t be found by metal detectors.

“This legislation is not the solution, this is part of the solution. Given the pace and the growth of this technology, it’s just a matter of common sense to reauthorize the Undetectable Firearms ban. That law was implemented when this was science fiction. It will lapse when this has become a reality,” said Congressman Steve Israel.

Shortly after that, on May 5th, New York Senator Charles Schumer also spoke out against 3D-printed guns, noting that without a new legislation to ban such weapons “a terrorist, someone who’s mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage.”

On May 9th, 2013, as the authorities’ reaction was gaining momentum, the US State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance (DDTC) demanded Cody Wilson to take down the gun blueprints he uploaded online and threatened him with prosecution for violating the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The letter DDTC sent to Mr. Wilson implied that Defense Distributed may have violated the law by allowing the .cad files on Defcad.com to be accessed from other outside the US.

“Until the Department provides Defense Distributed with final [commodity jurisdiction] determinations, Defense Distributed should treat the above technical data as ITAR-controlled. This means that all data should be removed from public access immediately. Defense Distributed should review the remainder of the data made public on its website to determine whether any other data may be similarly controlled and proceed according to ITAR requirements,” reads the letter.

Defcad website where the blueprints were listed was subsequently shut down. However, Cody Wilson still faced the risk of imprisonment, pretty much the same way he would if he shipped grates of guns illegally across the border. His files, meanwhile, were already being shared across the internet, appearing on Pirate Bay and other sites. Defense Distributed later remarked that they asked the DDTC for approval to share the files, but got no response.

Notably, the same day, Wilson said that Defense Distributed is not subject to the ITAR rules under an exemption for non-profit public domain releases of technical files. Here the exclusion from ITAR is possible because publicly available information is not included in the in the definition of technical data. And technical data, is what ITAR regulates. The argument was that the blueprints were available at a library, given that it has internet access, and that they were as well available in a bookstore in Austin, Texas.

Defense Distributed Sues Back

In May 2015, almost two years since the DDTC letter, Cody Wilson decided to challenge it. Together with the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights group, Defence Distributed initiated a lawsuit against the US Department of State and a number of other governmental entities and officials.

The plaintiffs’ complaint claims that the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) violated their right to free speech by prohibiting to publish blueprints for the Liberator and other files for printable gun parts, which is a violation of the First Amendment. In the lawsuit Wilson and the Foundation argue that the Liberator is not necessarily a weapon and that the blueprints for the product are “speech,” freedom of which should is protected by the US constitution.

“The internet is available worldwide, so posting something on the internet is deemed an export, and to [the State Department] this justifies imposing a prior restraint on internet speech. That’s a vast, unchecked seizure of power over speech that’s…not authorized by our constitution,” said plaintiffs leading lawyer Alan Gura.

In case the First Amendment violation wouldn’t be enough, Defense Distributed’s suit also claims that the State Department crossed his and his peers’ right to bear and acquire firearms by restricting blueprint sharing, which is a violation of the Second Amendment. In addition, Defense Distributed claims that the way the justice was administered in their case violates their right to “due process” from the Fifth Amendment. The argument here is that the DDTC threatened of prosecution without a proper decision on the legal status of their publications and didn’t say anything about when it will make such decision.

Ultimately, the lawsuit questions the State Department’s authority over the publication of technical data under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, seeks compensation from the State Department for restricting Defense Distributed activities, and seeks to prevent the Department from censoring the group’s files any further. And there are three potential violations of constitutional amendments to prop up the claim.

In 2018, after almost three years since the initiation of the lawsuit, the US State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance offered Defense Distributed a settlement. This settlement dated June 29th, 2018, allows Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed to publish plans, files, and 3D drawings in any form, and grants them an exemption from the ITAR.

“I consider it a truly grand thing. It will be an irrevocable part of political life that guns are downloadable, and we helped to do that,” Mr. Wilson commented.

Finally, Defense Distributed reopened their website and planned to make the blueprints for the Liberator and other guns available next month. But that wasn’t the end.

Legal War Escalation

On July 30th, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, along with New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Maryland and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration seeking to prevent publishing of Defense Distributed’s blueprints and instructions for 3D-printed weapons. Washington’s Bob Ferguson called the court to issue a restraining order to prohibit the administration from elimination of export restrictions.

“3-D printed guns are functional weapons that are often unrecognizable by standard metal detectors because they are made out of materials other than metal (e.g., plastic) and untraceable because they contain no serial numbers. Anyone with access to the [Computer Aided Design] files and a commercially available 3-D printer could readily manufacture, possess, or sell such a weapon—even those persons statutorily ineligible to possess firearms, including violent felons, the mentally ill and persons subject to protection and no-contact orders,” reads the lawsuit.

Ferguson also argues that by not informing the Congress about its decision to go for a settlement and by violating the actual procedure of the settlement, the State Department violated the Administrative Procedure Act, as well as the state’s rights under the Tenth Amendment.

I have a question for the Trump Administration: Why are you allowing dangerous criminals easy access to weapons? These downloadable guns are unregistered and very difficult to detect, even with metal detectors, and will be available to anyone regardless of age, mental health or criminal history. If the Trump Administration won’t keep us safe, we will,” Ferguson noted in a statement.

New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood also expressed her disapproval of relaxing gun control rules.

“It is, simply, crazy to give criminals the tools to build untraceable, undetectable 3D-printed guns at the touch of a button. Yet that’s exactly what the Trump administration is allowing. We won’t stand by as New Yorkers’ safety is jeopardized by this abrupt about-face by the federal government,” she said.

Thirteen more states joined the lawsuit, and a coalition of attorneys general of 22 states signed a letter to Jeff Sessions and Mike Pompeo calling them to withdraw from the settlement with Defense Distributed.

The same day Cody Wilson responded to the move in his twitter.

The next day president Trump expressed his opinion on the matter, adding some fuel to already heated discussion.

However, this move escalated the controversy even further. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded to Mr. Trump’s tweet expressing his concerns:

And then, on July 31st, 2018, just a day before the blueprints for 3D-printed guns were to be released, judge Robert S. Lasnik of Federal District Court in Seattle blocked the release, noting that “there is a possibility of irreparable harm because of the way these guns can be made.”

Thus, although the Defcad website was up and running just the day before, the blueprints weren’t released as planned.  

By August 10th, ecommerce platform Shopify disabled Wilsons’ business.

However, Wilson wasn’t going to just let it slide and decided to crowdfund his fight.

By August 27th, the judge ruled to extend the preliminary restraining order of July 31st, meaning that Defense Distributed and Cody Wilson are not allowed to publish the files. Also, the judge’s ruling blocks the settlement the State Department achieved with Defense Distributed. But even this decision didn’t end the fight.

On August 28th, Cody Wilson said that he is still complying with the court order. He argued, however, that the order only prohibited him from posting blueprints for free on the web. Thus, as he began to charge an optional payment with a suggested price of $10 for the files.  

“I’m happy to become the iTunes of 3D guns if I can’t be Napster,” Wilson said.

Conclusion

The very possibility of 3D-printed firearms becoming widely available brings about a serious, if not harsh, controversy which goes well beyond legal issues and gnaws directly into moral philosophy and international security.

From a legal point of view, it might not become a problem just for the United States, as the blueprints, whatever the way they might be obtained, will become available worldwide. Most countries, unlike the U.S., have strict gun control laws in place which generally mandate that a person willing to have a handgun has to undergo a psychiatric scrutiny and pass several exams in order to legitimately own a firearm.

With an easily obtainable gun that can defy any control measures by simply lacking a serial number and being easily destroyable, it will arguably become much easier to commit murders without much evidence, and therefore punishment. Similarly, a gun made of synthetic materials can easily bypass most security measures, like metal detectors in airports. Does it mean that terrorists will necessarily enjoy those features? Of course, not. But it sure means that they might.

“We’ll give up on trying to trace guns and ammunition, and focus more on authorizing people to possess guns, and on catching and prosecuting unauthorized possession. You’ll get the firearm equivalent of a marijuana card from the state, and then it won’t matter if you bought your gun from an authorized dealer or made it yourself at home,” Jon Stokes, a tech journalist and gun enthusiast told TechCrunch.

This situation, however, directly defies the Second Amendment in the U.S., so, given the obvious unwillingness of organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their lobbyists to give up the most sacred amendment, it is quite unlikely that such changes would be made in the short run (if ever).

Still, the international ramifications of handguns becoming easily attainable go way beyond potential changes in the U.S. constitution. They would require complete reconceptualization of the existing gun control laws in almost any country in the world.

Adding to that is the fact that the 3D printing tech is obviously getting cheaper over time. Of course, the machines available now for a few hundred bucks are hardly good enough to create a gun, but the general trend suggests that it will become quite a realistic scenario in just a few years’ time.

Finally, there is a notion of freedom of sharing. Even if printing a handgun would be made an official crime, one could recall that the same thing was done for downloading movies from torrent trackers. To put it simply, people will always find a way to download things they want, no matter how punishable that might be. As they say, if you build a 10 meters high fence, you only establish a market for 11 meters high ladders.


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