Are Downloadable Plans for 3D Printed Guns Legal?

Although no federal or state law specifically outlaws the possession or manufacture of 3D printed firearms, the government has taken steps to block distribution of their digital files.

3-D printed guns are a relative newcomer to the world of weaponry. In 2013, Defense Distributed, a non-profit group founded by Cody Wilson, debuted the first 3D printed gun in a video on its website, offering free, downloadable digital plans (or blueprints) for the weapon. The digital plans are in the form of computer-aided design (CAD) files, and their release sparked a legal battle involving the U.S. government and eventually more than twenty state attorneys general that continues to date. In 2018, New Jersey enacted a law prohibiting the manufacture of 3D printed firearms, except by registered firearms manufacturers; and criminalizing the distribution of digital plans for 3D printed firearms to anyone in New Jersey, except to registered firearms manufacturers. Defense Distributed has challenged that law in court, arguing that it violates the First Amendment because the digital plans for 3D printed firearms constitute a form of speech.

How 3D Printing Works

A 3D printer makes a solid, three dimensional object from a CAD file. To create an object with a 3D printer, the user creates a design with CAD or animation modeling software. The software creates a blueprint of the desired object and divides the object into digital cross-sections, so that the printer can build the object. A user without specialized skills or software expertise can obtain ready-made designs and digital schematics from third-party sources.

The printer makes the object by using an “additive process.” An additive process creates a three-dimensional object by laying down successive layers of material, which may be plastic, rubber, paper, polyurethane, or even metal—the way you’d build a brick wall from the ground up. Using the design created by the software, the printer transfers material by making multiple passes over a platform, depositing layer on top of layer in order to make the finished product. By contrast, traditional manufacturing constructs an object by cutting material into a specified shape and often piecing various parts together to form the object.

Making and Downloading 3D Printed Firearms

The 3D printed handgun presented in Defense Distributed’s video was a single shot pistol made entirely of plastic materials (save for a metal nail inserted as the firing pin). The video captured a successful test shoot of the weapon. Since the debut of the Liberator, a number of other operational firearms made from 3D printers have emerged. In late 2013, Solid Concepts, Inc. printed a 3D metal handgun (making the gun better equipped to engage in repeat fire). And in November 2014, a machinist from Pennsylvania released plans for a plastic 3D printed firearm with a bullet chamber designed to withstand multiple rounds of firing without cracking or deforming.

Despite recent innovations in printing technology, 3D printed guns still are not easy to make and are not particularly sophisticated firearms. While any functional firearm can cause death or great bodily injury, a plastic 3D printed gun like the Liberator is a crude weapon—it cannot withstand repeated firing, is unpredictable, and has limited accuracy. And even if digital blueprints become readily available, negating the need for sophisticated design skills, a person who wants to produce a 3D firearm must have access to a high quality 3D printer capable of building a firearm. These printers can be very expensive.

Some 3D printer models are commercially available for several hundred dollars, but not every printer is capable of producing a firearm, much less one that actually works. The Liberator was printed on a machine costing approximately $8,000, and printers with superior capabilities range from that cost to as much as $100,000. The printing process is lengthy, requiring multiple hours (or even days) for a finished product. The 3D printer also does not simply produce an assembled and fully functioning firearm. The software and 3D printer produce parts for the weapon that must be assembled.

The Legal Battle Over Releasing Plans for 3D Firearms on the Internet

Shortly after Defense Distributed released the Liberator video and the CAD files in 2013, the U.S. Department of State sent Defense Distributed a cease and desist letter, directing that the CAD files for the gun be taken down from the website. Relying on the Arms Export Control Act, 22 U.S.C. section 2778, and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the State Department reasoned that uploading the digital plans for 3D printed firearms to the internet and allowing them to be downloaded abroad potentially violated international export controls. Defense Distributed complied with the cease and desist letter, but claimed the plans already had been downloaded as many as one million times. Defense Distributed then attempted to challenge the directive from the State Department through an administrative process with the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), a federal agency.

In 2015, the DDTC had not yet issued a ruling in the administrative proceeding. Defense Distributing and the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights organization, filed a lawsuit against the State Department, challenging the federal government’s power to regulate publication of the CAD files for the 3D printed gun on the Internet. Defense Distributed also alleged that the State Department violated Defense Distributed’s First Amendment rights, arguing that the CAD files were a form of protected speech. The State Department obtained a temporary restraining order preventing Defense Distributed from publishing the CAD files. In April 2018, the State Department filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit altogether, but in a surprise turn of events later the same month, the State Department entered into a settlement agreement with Defense Distributed, which would lift the restraining order and through which the State Department would take actions that would allow Defense Distributed to distribute the CAD files on the internet to anyone in the United States.

The settlement agreement was announced publicly on July 10, 2018 and was to take effect on July 27, 2018. Defense Distributed announced that it would release the CAD files on August 1, 2018. On July 30, eight state attorneys general filed a lawsuit to block the settlement, arguing that it violated the Administrative Procedures Act. The attorneys general obtained a temporary restraining order on July 31 to stop the release of the CAD files, but Defense Distributed actually had released the CAD files on July 27 and reported that the files already had been downloaded 20,000 times. Nonetheless, thirteen more state attorneys general joined in the lawsuit and the federal court granted a preliminary injunction on August 27, 2018, blocking the settlement agreement in the original case until further order from the court. That lawsuit still is pending, and the CAD files do not appear to be available on Defense Distributed’s websites.

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