Judge Sparks First Amendment Fight Over 3D Printed Guns

Judge Sparks First Amendment Fight Over 3D Printed Guns

Lawmakers often struggle coming to grips with new technology, and that problem is rapidly getting worse. The pace of technological change now means that a new product can affect areas that seem totally unrelated, especially when easy, fast information sharing comes into the picture. One of the most controversial issues right now is 3D printing, because it’s put gun control activists into a flat spin. Now a federal judge has poured gasoline on the subject with a controversial comment.


The first time 3D-printed guns hit the headlines was in 2013 when the federal government told Defense Distributed that some of the files available for download on its website counted as the illegal export of armaments.

  • Defense Distributed was hosting files that could be downloaded and used to print parts for a range of guns; anyone could download the files free and make the parts on increasingly cheap 3D printers.
  • In fact, this was more a political statement than a realistic way to create guns, because the weapons were terrible — the flagship product was a very bulky, single-shot .22 handgun that tended to split its barrel after a handful of shots. In fact, 3D printing isn’t cheap, either. Most actual criminals would be able to buy a black market handgun way more cheaply than they could print one.
  • However, the government told Defense Distributed that their files violated two laws — the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and the Arms Control Export Act.
  • The company and others sued the State Department in 2015, alleging that their First Amendment rights were being violated. The plaintiffs argued that the files weren’t weapons; they were instructions on how to make weapons, and therefore constitutionally protected free speech.
  • In 2018, the government settled the lawsuit, announcing that 3D printer files would be removed from the United States Munitions List. Items on the list can only be exported with a license — but it’s a list of weapons; it doesn’t contain any Word documents, and Defense Distributed successfully argued that it shouldn’t contain printer files either.
  • However, several states immediately sued the federal government for taking the files off the list, claiming technical violations of administrative procedures as well as a violation of states’ rights to regulate firearms (although actual firearms weren’t involved).
  • Now, Judge Robert A. Lasnick, of the US District Court for the Western District of Washington, has ruled that the removal of the files from the list was illegal — because Congress wasn’t given 30 days’ notice, a purely technical argument.
  • Gun control proponents are likely to jump all over this decision and make more attempts to suppress 3D printer files they don’t like. The concern among rights advocates is that this is the thin end of the wedge. A 3D printer file is not, and never will be, a gun. It’s information, and the First Amendment protects our right to distribute information. Liberals don’t see it that way, though, and they’ll use any excuse to make sure we can only get the information they want us to have.

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