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Federal court extends block on 3D-printed gun blueprints

Experts and advocates worry the blueprints could open the door to a new wave of easily accessible, untraceable firearms.

Cody Wilson, a libertarian activist and owner of Defense Distributed, holds up his 3D-printed gun.
Cody Wilson, a libertarian activist and owner of Defense Distributed, holds up his 3D-printed gun.
Kelly West/AFP via Getty Images

A federal judge in Seattle on Monday extended a previous block on the publication of controversial 3D-printed gun blueprints, imposing a preliminary injunction in the case.

US District Judge Robert Lasnik’s order blocks the federal government from allowing the publication of 3D-printed blueprints that detail, among other things, how to make a fully 3D-printed firearm — which experts and advocates worry would open the door to a new wave of easily accessible, untraceable guns.

After the federal government agreed to allow the publication of the blueprints, several state governments sued to reimpose the federal block. In his new order, Lasnik wrote that “the States will likely suffer irreparable injury if the technical data for designing and producing undetectable weapons using a commercially-available 3D printer are published on the internet.”

The court had already issued a restraining order last month, which this preliminary injunction effectively extends.

Since making a 3D-printed gun only requires a 3D printer, the right materials, and a blueprint, the concern is that 3D-printed guns will make it easy to bypass a host of state and federal laws. Printing a gun doesn’t require a background check or any documentation, offering a workaround for people who are legally prohibited from buying a gun now due to, say, a criminal record or a history of mental illness. A 3D-printed gun can also be made without a serial number or anything that would make these firearms easily traceable if they’re used in a crime.

The wide release of the 3D-printed gun blueprints, however, has only become an issue now in large part due to President Donald Trump’s administration.

The previous administration, under President Barack Obama, had forced libertarian Cody Wilson to stop publishing these blueprints on his website, Wilson sued the administration in hopes of republishing his schematics. The case seemed like an easy win for the government, with multiple courts initially ruling in the government’s favor.

But once the Trump administration came in with its gun-friendly politics, the Justice Department abruptly agreed to a settlement — giving Wilson and his nonprofit, Defense Distributed, “essentially everything they wanted,” Andy Greenberg reported for Wired. The deal allowed Wilson to publish his blueprints starting in August and paid him $40,000 for his legal costs.

The federal court, however, put Wilson’s plans on hold. The court argued that the burdens placed on Wilson’s First Amendment rights by not allowing him to publish the blueprints weren’t sufficient enough to overcome the public interests in the case — at least until the litigation proceeds.

“The Court finds that the irreparable burdens on the private defendants’ First Amendment rights are dwarfed by the irreparable harms the States are likely to suffer if the existing restrictions are withdrawn,” Lasnik wrote, “and that, overall, the public interest strongly supports maintaining the status quo through the pendency of this litigation.”

It remains unclear what happens next. Will the district court’s order survive appeals? And even if the court’s order holds up, how long can the government really stop 3D-printed guns from becoming mainstream — given that the internet has, from piracy to blueprints for other kinds of weapons, always found a way to quickly spread information?

In fact, there already are websites hosting 3D printer designs for guns, and sites dedicated to hosting Wilson’s files, even as Wilson’s own ability to republish the documents is held up in court.

For more about the battle to stop 3D-printed guns, read Vox’s explainer.