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The Trump Administration Changed Its Minds On 3D-Printed Guns And A Federal Judge Wants To Know Why

A federal judge wants to know why the Trump administration allowed them to go up in the first place before apparently reversing course.

Posted on August 27, 2018, at 3:36 p.m. ET

Cody Wilson, owner of Defense Distributed, holds a 3D-printed gun called the “Liberator.”
Kelly West / AFP / Getty Images

Cody Wilson, owner of Defense Distributed, holds a 3D-printed gun called the “Liberator.”

A federal judge on Monday ruled that blueprints for 3D-printed guns must stay off the internet for now after 19 state attorneys general argued that making them public would pose an unreasonable risk to public safety and violate federal arms laws.

US District Court Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle also wants the Trump administration to explain why they allowed the plans to be posted in the first place.

Lasnik’s preliminary injunction extends an order issued in July and requires Texas-based Defense Distributed to keep plans for about a dozen guns, including a metal AR-15 and its innovative plastic pistol, off its website Defcad.com. It’s the latest twist in a yearslong saga around 3D-printed guns, which Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson believes are constitutionally protected and will herald a new era for gun owners. Meanwhile, law enforcement leaders and gun control advocates fear undetectable, untraceable guns will create new threats in schools, airports, and city streets — particularly as the technology improves.

“Do we really want terrorists to 3D-print plastic guns and bring them through airports to American soil?” Avery Gardiner, copresident of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told BuzzFeed News. “Do we really want Mexican drug cartels to 3D-print AR-15s out of metal and use them in their criminal activities?”

It’s an issue that the Trump administration initially said posed serious risks to national security and world peace, until it suddenly reversed itself and agreed that Defense Distributed could post its blueprints online. The state attorneys general then sued both the administration and Defense Distributed, accusing the government of arbitrarily changing its mind.

On Monday, Lasnik agreed that more explanation was necessary.

“No findings of fact or other statements are provided in the agreement that could explain the federal government’s dramatic change of position or that address, much less invalidate, its prior analysis regarding the likely impacts of publication on the United States’ national security interests,” he wrote in an order granting the preliminary injunction.

On April 6, the State Department — which regulates how firearms and other weapons may be exported — said the files would “undeniably” make it easier for people around the world to make their own guns. A court agreed the release of any plans should be put on hold while national security implications were considered.

Three weeks later, the Trump administration signed off on allowing the website to take its blueprints live. The federal government’s concerns about terrorism and crime were replaced with staunch words on freedom of speech and the right to bear arms. Besides, officials argued, gun export restrictions had been on their way to being eased for years.

The Department of Justice had independently advised the State Department to settle its lawsuit with Defense Distributed because of free speech issues, officials said.

But President Trump tweeted that he was looking into the issue because it “doesn’t seem to make much sense!” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also later said the president wasn’t consulted in the decision.

It was a reversal that took gun control advocates and state leaders by surprise. As they scrambled to get the plans taken down, they wondered: Was this a backroom deal? Who’d worked their influence on the administration? What facts had been considered? Why hadn’t Congress been notified, a typical requirement for adjusting weapons export laws?

On Monday, the judge was skeptical that the State Department had considered the unique issues raised by 3D-printed guns.

“Even if the Court accepts that the undisclosed administrative record will support [the State Department’s] argument, there is no indication that the Department considered the unique properties of 3D plastic guns or evaluated the factors Congress deemed relevant when the Department decided to authorize the posting of the CAD files on the internet as of July 27, 2018,” the judge wrote.

In court documents, attorneys for Defense Distributed downplayed such threats as “hypothetical generalized grievances.” Federal law already requires plastic guns to contain enough metal in their design that they can be found with a metal detector, and criminals are much more likely to turn to the black market to acquire a gun.

Wilson and Defense Distributed feel they’re being unfairly censored, and the company launched a campaign seeking donations for the continuing legal fight.

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Attorneys for Defense Distributed noted that though the company took down the files in response to a court order, they’re still easy to find on other sites. A search of major torrent sites immediately turns up the files.

“Anyone with internet access already has access to the speech at issue,” they argued. “Silencing Defense Distributed does no good.”

To Gardiner and other gun control advocates, that attitude doesn’t square with national security concerns initially raised by the government. Gardiner said she believed the State Department could have won its initial case, but either way, she doesn’t understand why the government settled.

“It’s your job to fight if you think it’s going to make America less safe,” she said. “That is a fundamental job of the administration, to protect the American people from threats foreign and domestic. They take an oath about that for crying out loud.”

The case did raise free speech issues, and when it comes to 3D-printing technology, there are questions that have yet to be answered, said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA who specializes in the First Amendment.

“The question is whether the government can restrict something that might otherwise be seen as speech, when it restricts it because of what it does and not what it says,” he said.

Kelly West / AFP / Getty Images

The information in the blueprints — the code and designs themselves — falls squarely under free speech protections, as do books on gunsmithing, Volokh said. So the question becomes not just whether instructions for a 3D printer are just speech, but whether a computer-aided design, or CAD file, is essentially an action, which could be limited under the Constitution.

“There’s deep disagreement among judges and commentators on this very issue, which I think reflects how unsettled it is,” Volokh said.

Those questions will need to be answered as the technology continues to advance. High-end printers are already creating specialized parts for the aerospace and biomedical industries. Others are in university labs, and cheap versions are becoming common in grade-school classrooms.

John Dogru, CEO of 3DPrinterOS, believes 3D printing is on the brink of becoming more democratized, like computers were decades ago. He’s hoping to help make that future a reality with his standardized operating system, the only of its kind in a world where most printers run off manufacturers’ software.

His operating system has been used to create 380,000 parts worldwide, using networks of printers — under the watchful eye of a network administrator.

“Most of these printers are in classrooms, on campuses, in [private] enterprises,” he said. “So you want to know who’s printing what, where, when.”

That detective functionality can safeguard against most real-world problems, he said. It won’t stop a criminal intent on hurting someone, he said, but in his mind, little will.

But there are safety risks, and software and policies need to be in place to monitor how 3D printers are used, he added. During its research and development phase in Estonia, Dogru said they turned over the software to children to see how they’d use it. Two out of four boys in the group tried to print toy guns.

Dogru can easily imagine a student taking a design to school and printing a gun. It wouldn’t have the accuracy of a typical gun. In fact, it might shatter as soon as it’s fired — which could injure or kill the shooter or a bystander, he said.

“The reality is this risk will be coming up, and the best thing to have is a way to monitor what is happening with the users, ban users, limit users,” he said. “An [administrator] can ensure something like this doesn’t happen with their printers.”

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