The First Amendment, The Second Amendment And The 3D-Printed Gun

from the wherein-things-potentially-go-from-bad-to-much,-much-worse dept

There are plenty of proponents of the First and Second Amendments, both of which tend to be very divisive at times. There’s enough overlap that many fully support both, but there’s also enough dissension that many use the First to argue for the dismantling of the Second. This is often countered by assertions that without the Second there would be no First, because when it all comes down to it, nothing beats back encroaching governments faster than armed revolutions.

Thanks to the advent of 3D printing, we’ve reached a nexus point. The law says you may own (certain types of) guns. The law also prevents the distribution of guns to other countries we’re currently not getting along with. Being able to print weapons makes a mockery of these restrictions. We’re no longer talking about crates of guns being smuggled aboard freighters or low-flying Cessnas. Now we’re dealing with the reality that anyone, anywhere in the world, can download and manufacture a gun.

Cody Wilson, of gun manufacturing advocacy group Defense Distributed, is that nexus. Shortly after Wilson debuted his fully-functioning 3D printed gun, he received a cease and desist from the State Department, ordering him to stop distributing his blueprint. That worked about as well as you can imagine.

Wilson’s gun manufacturing advocacy group Defense Distributed, along with the gun rights group the Second Amendment Foundation, on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the State Department and several of its officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry. In their complaint, they claim that a State Department agency called the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) violated their first amendment right to free speech by telling Defense Distributed that it couldn’t publish a 3-D printable file for its one-shot plastic pistol known as the Liberator, along with a collection of other printable gun parts, on its website.

Because a blueprint isn’t a fully-formed gun — at least not until the end user completes the process — Wilson is arguing that his design is nothing more than free speech. If so, then the State Department’s orders violate Wilson’s First Amendment rights. By declaring the publishing of a blueprint on the internet to be indistinguishable from exporting weapons, the government is engaging in prior restraint, according to arguments made in his lawsuit.

As Andy Greenberg at Wired points out, the government has used the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) to regulate not-actually-guns before.

ITAR already has a long history of being used to threaten Americans who publish controversial code. In the 1990s, the same regulations were used to threaten cryptographers with prosecution for posting online the first freely available strong encryption tools. Under ITAR regulations, a piece of uncrackable crypto software like PGP was considered a military munition. PGP inventor Phil Zimmermann was even investigated by the Department of Justice for three years at the height of what has come to be known as the Crypto Wars.

This, too, was challenged on First Amendment grounds, but that particular angle was left without closure. The government simply shifted regulation of computer code to the Commerce Department and carved out an exception for encryption. Good news for those producing encryption tools, but of very limited use to Wilson.

In fact, this argument may end up doing more damage than good, if the government chooses to play regulatory roulette in order to avoid having the First Amendment question answered with a legal opinion that may not be in its favor. Chances are that a favorable exception won’t be in the offing — replaced instead with a newfound desire to regulate internet traffic and/or place more burdens on intermediaries to police web traffic involving weapon blueprints. The chance of additional regulatory restrictions on the sale and use of 3D printers is even better. Already, private companies are taking proactive — but stupid and futile — moves to keep themselves distanced from something the government clearly thinks is an illegal act. Beyond regulation of the components, there’s the potential for both free speech and gun ownership to be worse off by the end of this.

But, as noted above, it’s not just the First Amendment being brought into play here. Wilson has more constitutional challenges.

Its complaint also cites the second amendment, arguing that by restricting Defense Distributed’s sharing of printable gun files the government denied the group’s members and followers the right to bear—and acquire—arms. And it questions the authority of the State Department to regulate the publication of technical data, a power it’s long assumed it had been granted by Congress under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976.

Defense Distributed is hitting the State Department with a fifth amendment argument, too. It claims that its staff had their right to “due process” violated. No government agency, it says, can hold the threat of prosecution over Defense Distributed’s head without even a decision on whether its publications are illegal or not—and without a time limit on when it must make that decision.

If you’re begging for more gun regulation, this seems to be a good way of working backwards towards it. I’m sure that’s the last thing Wilson wants, but the issues raised here are simply too enticing for the government to ignore. Its expressed concern relates to “exported” weapons, but there are implications right here at home. People may decide to print their own guns rather than abide by their state’s respective restrictions. Felons who are forbidden to purchase guns may decide to invest in 3D printers. But, despite the introduction of new technology, this really isn’t markedly different from the way the gun “market” has worked for years. Straw buyers purchase weapons for those who can’t, and criminals are largely unconcerned with many laws, not just the gun-related ones, making any gun restrictions essentially meaningless. But the government is apt to view this as a bold new era of unregulated gun manufacturing and will act swiftly and ridiculously to tame the Wild West of weapon printing.

No doubt legislators and regulators will have visions of terrorists and foreign enemies operating 3D printing mills to mass produce weapons, as if the old way of buying black market weapons was somehow more impractical than gathering the equipment and expertise needed to safely generate dozens of weapons that actually work. There’s actually an upshot to global distribution of gun blueprints and 3D printing technology. For people under oppressive regimes, the addition of self-contained, secret gun manufacturing could allow for uprisings and revolutions or simply act as a deterrent for additional ruling class power grabs.

But underneath all of this is the bitter reality that the government is ignoring. No matter what the courts decide and no matter what legislation and regulations are thrown at it, this is already a done deal. Wilson may have taken his plans down in response to the State Department’s order, but it’s already made its way to the edges of the internet — reposted at websites and file lockers and spread via torrents. Other gunmakers have already made design tweaks and improved on Wilson’s early models. These updated versions have similarly spread across the web. Opting for oppressive, restrictive legislation will do nothing but cause collateral damage — if damaging everything but the intended target can truly be considered “collateral.”

If Wilson prevails on constitutional grounds, it will only result in the government searching for a different route to get what it wants: illusory control. It won’t simply accept the fact that this is the new reality and that efforts to stop it are not only futile, but harmful to its own citizens. If it chooses to view code for a printed weapon as either a weapon or weaponized code, it will use public safety and national security to explain away any rights that end up underfoot.

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Comments on “The First Amendment, The Second Amendment And The 3D-Printed Gun”

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hij (profile) says:

Is Convenience That Big A Deal?

How is this all that different from the situation before 3D printers? Plans and details about making weapons have always been available. For example, there is a youtube video about how to make an AK-47 out of a shovel out there somewhere.

The only difference is that it is easier to load the file. The convenience of being able to make a weapon should not make any difference with respect to personal rights to express one’s self. The only difference is that a bumbling nerd like myself can use this and not someone who has a bit of skill at making things.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Is Convenience That Big A Deal?

The only difference is that a bumbling nerd like myself can use this and not someone who has a bit of skill at making things.

Anybody trying to print a gun had better know how to set up their printer for optimum welding of the layers to each other. A bad print would result in a hand grenade that you are holding, rather than a gun.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Is Convenience That Big A Deal?

“hand grenade” = very important. The stories I’ve heard are that the 3D guns are all plastic, which are OK for ‘one shots’ or limited use. Such guns won’t last with sustained use.

Now when 3D printers can print such guns out of metal and can print the ammunition for same then I’ll concede the government has a case for regulation. NOT prohibition.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Is Convenience That Big A Deal?

3D printers that can print metal already exist commercially and have for a few years. They’re just outside the price range of consumers. Mechanical properties aren’t quite as good as machined parts but they’re not bad.

Ammunition isn’t really practical to print. Either economically or technically.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Is Convenience That Big A Deal?

Not only that, but you better read up on material spec’s. ABS may be ok for a remote control but 60000 psi from a .223 is a little past its yield strength. The 22’s 24000 psi is still pushing it. That will require some creative tinkering to get the strength right where you need it.

If basement dwelling nerds really want to play with guns, read up on investment casting. Fire, metal and sand, everything your childhood prepared you for. It may even get you into recycling.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Is Convenience That Big A Deal?

I’m a little shocked at how strong the reactions have been against the potential to print guns. Current tech (at least that is generally affordable) makes pretty poor quality parts for this use. Hobbyist doesnt have a 3d metal printer.

It’s always been possible to make guns. Rifling isn’t easy but not impossible.

Anonymous Coward says:

3D printed gun violence is overhyped

The paranoia about 3D printed guns in recent years was summed up really well in a comic a few years ago. I can’t find it the comic at the moment, but it basically had a scientist showing his friend just how easy it is to 3D print a handgun.

The friend was seen in the first panel of the comic, but then disappears until the last panel, where he’s carrying a bunch of guns and bullets he didn’t have previously. He tells the scientist “I bought these while you were busy talking”.

The point basically being, it’s foolish to worry about 3D printed guns being used to commit crimes when it’s so ridiculously easy for criminals to get guns perfectly legally. If we’re really concerned about stopping gun violence we should crack down on the source where the bulk of guns used in crimes come from, not on hypothetical 3D printed guns that will only be a tiny fraction of the guns used in crimes.

mcinsand (profile) says:

my bet: MPAA-RIAA conspiracy

My bet on any outcome: tighter regulation on 3D printers. Until a printer can print metal, these ‘guns’ are technically firearms, but, as far as being a weapon, a person would do better to go to 18th century tech. They might be light, but they’re one-shot only, not rifled, and still a hazard to the user. However, using the excitement around the Second Amendment would be a great way to get printer-oriented legislation moving and, while it’s progressing, work in some required ‘features’ to keep printers from copyright violations.

Anonymous Coward says:

some one needs to explain to these people what an 80% lower is. only one piece of a gun is considered the firearm. for an ar-15 it is the lower receiver. everything else can be shipped to your door. a finished lower has to be shipped to a ffl so you get a background check before picking it up. not so for an 80% lower which is a strategically shaped hunk of steel that can be made into a functional lower receiver with a drill press and little technical knowledge. you can completely manufacture an ar-15 from billet steel and aluminum and its pretty cost effective for someone like the cartels or organized crime if weapons weren’t already so cheap and easy to come by. its also easy to manufacture suppressors and drop in auto sears. the thing that makes an ar-15 fully automatic is pretty much a square piece of metal connected to another square piece of metal by a pin. I have 3-d printed things its not a fool proof practice i wouldent trust a plastic gun in my hands. I worry more about the fact that with very little knowledge and a little money anyone can make a high performance suppressed fully automatic weapon in bulk. that fact has been in place since the 1980s really since the american revolution Paul Revere was a silversmith who manufactured cannons for the American side. cannons which are today illegal to own because of existing regulation. and yet civilization hasnt crumbled do to citizens owning firearms. imo it has crunblied more from the militarization of police and the war on drugs/terror.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on May 8th, 2015 @ 2:52pm

No, someone needs to tell this Cody character about zip guns. It is easier and cheaper to make a homemade gun with parts from home depot and it’s just as legal from a 3d printer. A block of wood, safety wire, springs, nails and pipe can yield quite a few versions of a rifle. Personally I would call it safer over the plastic gun this guy puts out.

alSeen says:

Re: Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on May 8th, 2015 @ 2:52pm

He knows about zip guns. He is fully aware that it is easier to make single shot firearms out of hardware store purchases.

That isn’t the point though.

He is doing this to make a point. It isn’t a coincidence that his first fully functional 3d printed gun was based off the old FP-45 Liberator.

Anonymous Coward says:

For people under oppressive regimes, the addition of self-contained, secret gun manufacturing could allow for uprisings and revolutions or simply act as a deterrent for additional ruling class power grabs.

Or just lead to more endless violence, since guns can’t tell which one is the good guy.

Anonymous Coward says:

As someone that does his best to not get overly worked up over gun rights / gun control, remember the following:

1) Currently it’s economically prohibitive to fabricate a 3D printed gun vs buy one where firearms are readily available. And where they’re not, it’s equally time-consuming to print all the little parts.

2) Most of the working 3d printed guns out there can at best shoot off 1-2 bullets before coming apart in the user’s hand. Advances in technology might make sintered metal printing more easy but I would expect that point 1) would apply here WRT costs.

amoshias (profile) says:

The most telling line in this piece –

“If you’re begging for more gun regulation, this seems to be a good way of working backwards towards it.”

Like an unfortunately percentage of Libertarians who make it into the public eye, Wilson is much more interested in thumbing his nose at “the man” than actually achieving any useful change. This IS an important issue, and a really important conversation to have. By letting a narcissistic kid like Wilson drive it, the only guarantee is that everyone on every side will wind up with a worse outcome than we’d get otherwise.

I think there’s a special circle of hell for people who make their arguments so badly, that even though I generally agree with your point, I find myself being forced to disagree with you. Wilson is clearly going there.

Rekrul says:

With or without the issue of guns, more regulations aimed at 3D printers are probably inevitable. When 3D printers start becoming as common as regular 2D printers and the quality increases to the point that a home printer can make items that look like they came out of a professional mold, many corporations are going to freak out.

It will be possible to perfectly duplicate plastic model kits (cars, planes, ships, etc) or create replicas of movie props. The corporations aren’t going to stand for that. I’m not sure what kind of regulation could put a stop to this, but I’m sure they’ll try. I’m also sure that the government will end up passing some truly horrible laws to try and control it.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Think Of CG Child Porn

Even though no actual children were harmed in the making of synthetic images of children, there is still considered to be a potential for harm in the viewing and dissemination of these images. Hence they are illegal.

The same with 3D schematics for printing weaponry. There is the same sort of potential for harm from their dissemination.

If one is deemed dangerous enough to ban, then so is the other.

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