The Last-Ditch Legal Fight to Stop 3-D Printed Guns
For the last half decade, 3-D printed pistols and metal-milled “ghost guns” have only rarely caught the attention of lawmakers, and have barely registered in the mainstream of America’s gun control debate. But now, a controversial legal settlement may have unlocked a new era of digitally fabricated, DIY guns. It’s also unleashed a political backlash unlike anything seen in the five years since the first 3-D printable firearm appeared online.
Earlier this month, WIRED broke the news that gun access group Defense Distributed had obtained a key settlement in its lawsuit against the State Department, winning the right to publish the blueprints and CAD models for practically any commercially available gun, files ready to be downloaded from the web and fed into a 3-D printer or computer-controlled milling machine to produce a lethal weapon in the unregulated privacy of anyone’s garage.
In the weeks since, the reaction has snowballed: A growing coalition of state attorneys general have launched a belated effort to undo the agreement, and two lawmakers have introduced a bill that would make it far harder to legally produce or own a 3-D printed plastic gun. Even President Donald Trump tweeted about the issue Tuesday morning, in what vaguely sounded like opposition to public availability of 3-D printed guns.
On Monday, attorneys general from 20 states announced that they’re suing the US State Department and Defense Distributed, in an effort to force them to rescind their settlement. The AGs are asking for an immediate restraining order to prevent the gun group from publishing its digital firearm files. Their central claim: The State Department violated the Tenth Amendment’s constitutional protection of states’ rights to make their own laws—including those governing gun control.
“We’re going to court to say this violates our state laws that are there to protect public safety,” says Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts. “It puts our residents at risk of harm. It puts weapons into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to acquire them.”
On top of that state law claim, the AGs also argue the State Department’s settlement violated the Administrative Procedure Act. That law governs the process by which regulatory bodies change their rules, and requires a period of public comment—and consideration of those comments—before an agency makes a regulatory change. The attorneys general argue that in its unexplained, sudden settlement with Defense Distributed, the State Department changed the rules around an individual’s freedom to post digital gun files online without considering public comments, and thus broke the law. “There has to be a certain process and transparency, there has to be an explanation for the change, and all of that’s completely lacking here,” says Healey.
Separate from that coalition of attorneys general, two states—New Jersey and Pennsylvania—and one city, Los Angeles, have already launched independent legal actions to head off Defense Distributed’s distribution of their gun files, making similar claims to the coalition that the settlement violates their state and local gun laws. In temporary concessions in each case, Defense Distributed agreed to block access to the website hosting its database of gun files, Defcad.com, for visitors with IP addresses showing that they’re residents of either of those two states.
‘We’re going to court to say this violates our state laws that are there to protect public safety.’
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey
That doesn’t mean Defense Distributed is rolling over. The group, after all, won its current settlement by doggedly suing the State Department for forcing it to take down 3-D printable gun files it had uploaded to an earlier version of Defcad in 2013, arguing that takedown threat violated its First Amendment rights. Now it promises a similar fight against the states attempting to quash that victory. Defense Distributed has already countersued the attorney general of New Jersey and the city attorney of Los Angeles. The group’s founder, Cody Wilson, promises more countersuits to come.
“I intend to litigate,” Wilson told WIRED in a brief statement. “Americans have the unquestionable right to share this information.”
In fact, Wilson points out, the legal actions are already too late to prevent him from uploading the guns. Despite a previously stated August 1 deadline, Wilson has already quietly uploaded plenty of files. Defcad currently hosts CAD files for 10 entire guns, including all the components in AR-15 and AR-10 semi-automatic rifles, a Beretta M9 handgun, and the fully 3-D printable Liberator pistol the group invented in 2013. All of those have already been downloaded thousands of times. “I posted the files on [July] 27,” Wilson says. “August 1 is marketing.”
Aside from those ongoing court battles, Democratic congressmen David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts have also seized on the renewed controversy around 3-D printed guns, with plans to introduce a bill this week that would vastly limit the legal forms of 3-D printed plastic firearms. Their bill would “modernize” the Undetectable Firearms Act, which currently makes it illegal to make or own a fully plastic gun, to instead ban any firearm that doesn’t have a major component like its barrel, slide, or frame made out of detectable metal.
Earlier 3-D printed guns like the Liberator, to meet the requirements of the Undetectable Firearms Bill, sometimes contained a removeable chunk of metal designed to make them detectable. The new bill, if passed, would essentially mean a core, unremoveable component of the gun would have to be made of detectable metal instead.
Wilson points out that the bill is largely the same as one introduced by Democratic congressmen in 2014, and even more unlikely to make much headway in the current GOP-controlled House of Representatives. “This Congress isn’t passing any gun bills,” he says.
But at the state level, gun control for ghost guns is coming: New York state legislator Brad Hoylman has introduced a bill that would ban 3-D printed guns and homemade “ghost guns.” The bill follows the passage of a similar law in California that took effect on July 1, and efforts by New Jersey and Connecticut lawmakers to crack down on the untraceable weapons, too. Those state-level laws don’t block access to the Defense Distributed files, but do
‘Americans have the unquestionable right to share this information.’
Cody Wilson, Defense Distributed
And why this sudden wave of gun control measures around DIY firearms after five years in which most politicians ignored the issue? The answer, says Avery Gardiner, the copresident of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, may be the series of brutal mass shootings in the last year—from the Las Vegas concert massacre to the Parkland school shooting—that have re-energized gun control advocates, in combination with growing awareness of the Trump administration’s tight relationship with the NRA. When the Trump State Department gave Defense Distributed a strangely friendly deal, both those factors have played into the outrage. “It was absolutely the Trump administration’s behavior that set off this firestorm of controversy around the printing of guns,” says Gardiner, despite Trump’s sudden tweet suggesting his opposition to the practice.
That outrage is a welcome sign of Americans’ growing awareness of the dangerous progress of DIY gunmaking, Gardiner says. But it comes too late, she points out, to stop Defense Distributed and its founder Cody Wilson from releasing it online gun library. “It’s too little, too late. But if a judge ordered him to take it down tomorrow, that would be better,” she says. “If we can stop him from posting more, that’s at least something.”