The 3D-Printed Gun Debate Is Turning Into a Live Fire Exercise

Printed guns and their blueprints are both dangerous. It's unclear if they're both constitutionally protected.

David McNew/Getty

When Australian police stormed a suspected meth lab last December, they were surprised and unnerved to find an American 3D-printed Liberator pistol. Arizona border patrol agents had a similar experience this month when they caught a man attempting to smuggle a 3D-modded assault rifle across the Mexican border just a week after a sting operation netted 24 members of El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel.

As 3D-printed firearms continue to turn up in criminal situations, one thing is becoming clear: Gun control laws aren’t stopping 3D printers from churning out weaponry. There are laws on the books about regulating guns, but not about regulating blueprints, and 3D printing — from a legal perspective — intermingles the first and second amendments in confounding ways. Blueprints aren’t weapons, but they might be protected speech. It depends on whom you ask.

This debate currently revolves around a lawsuit brought by 3D-printed gun advocacy group Defense Distributed against the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, the State Department demanded that the organization’s founder, Cody Wilson, take down the blueprints for the Liberator pistol, claiming they constituted manufacturing technology and, therefore, violated federal export laws. Wilson grudgingly complied, then quickly slapped the State Department right back with his own lawsuit. In forcing him to take his blueprints off the internet, he argued, the government had violated his right to both free speech and bear arms.

In an injunction request, Wilson, now considered one of the most dangerous people on the internet, described the blueprints as a way to “educate the public” and, therefore, “speech.” The argument for them being arms was a bit more complicated and bit less compelling. On some level, the lawsuit has been a way for Wilson, who self-identifies as a crypto-anarchist, to advocate more broadly against regulation by pointing out how ineffectual it often is — a fairly common libertarian rhetorical tactic.

It is worth noting that there are many people within the government Wilson wishes to cripple that support his argument about the first amendment (and that the National Rifle Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation do as well). Representative Thomas Massie, a member of the House Committee of Science, is a particularly vocal proponent of plans as speech. Still, the State Department is standing its ground.

“The issue isn’t domestic free speech,” a U.S. Department of State Official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the pending case, told Inverse. “It’s about protecting U.S. national security by preventing unauthorized foreign access to U.S. defense articles and potentially sensitive defense manufacturing technologies that could be used by terrorists or other bad actors to harm Americans, including our troops serving overseas.” According to the official, under current International Traffic in Arms Regulations rules, posting 3D-printed gun designs online without first applying for an export license is basically the same thing as FedExing a box full of Liberators to the Sinaloa cartel.

As both parties continue to argue over the premise of the argument, copies of Wilson’s plans and others like them seem to have proliferated across the globe, rendering the specific concerns moot. Wilson has already announced his intention to release a $150 3D-printed machine gun this coming April. If the case hasn’t been resolved by then, the State Department will have a tough decision to make. Do they risk running afoul of the first amendment, or do they risk allowing for the ongoing proliferation of weapons that could be used against U.S. citizens. That is, do they protect what makes America American or do they protect Americans?

They have a little over a month to decide.