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3D Gun Printers Take Their Case to the Fifth Circuit

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

3D printers promise to allow anyone to create complex objects at home. For a few hundred dollars, you can pick up a consumer-grade 3D printer and start printing out toys, architectural models, or firearms. Yep, it's pretty easy for anyone with a 3D printer to print out a gun in their living room -- guns that are powerful, unregulated, and even undetectable.

Aware of the risks posed by widespread hobbyist arms manufacturing, the State Department has ordered gun and tech enthusiasts to stop disturbing plans for 3D-printed guns online. One of those enthusiasts, gun activist and founder of Defense Distributed, Cody Wilson is challenging that order and should see his case in the Fifth Circuit soon.

The Anarchists' 3D Printing Book

Wilson is an ambitious gun rights advocate. His Defense Distributed describes itself as a "nonprofit digital publisher and 3D printing R&D firm." According to The Atlantic, Wilson's goal is make obtaining a firearm "trivial enough that even trying to place restrictions on gun manufacturing becomes useless." According to the ATF, there's no federal restrictions on making your own firearms, so long as you make them for your own use.

But, Wilson isn't making the firearms. He's sharing their designs so that anyone with a 3D printer can create a gun, including felons and child. That, according to the State Department, can be illegal. The Department's Office of Defense Trade Control Compliance let him know as much in a 2013 cease and desist letter, saying that his public distribution of 3D printing arms specs were "ITAR-controlled technical data." Essentially, Wilson was an illegal arms trafficker. By that point, his gun design had been downloaded several hundred thousand times.

Taking the Fight to Court

Wilson sued, alleging that the government's order was a violation of his free speech, the right to bear arms, and due process. He also sought an injunction against the prepublication enforcement requirements of ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which allows applicants to request a written determination as to whether an item is a covered "defense article."

A district court in Texas quickly refused to grant any such relief. First, the Court noted that Defense Distributed waited two years to file suit, undermining his claims of irreparable injury. Secondly, the public interest was on the State Department's side. While Wilson asserted the need to protect constitutional rights, the public had a greater interest in "restricting the export of defense articles." Further, the court found Wilson's First, Second, and Fifth Amendment arguments unconvincing and unlikely to succeed.

Wilson is now appealing the denial to the Fifth Circuit. In the meantime, instructions for 3D printed guns and other firearms are still widely available online.

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