3D printed handguns seized in Japan. Photo: Kyoto/Reuters
In the past decade, 3D printing has gone from a specialized laboratory tool to one available to all. Simple training classes can be taken online, and in the course of a few short hours, a single person can learn to create almost anything. In recent years, the cost has dropped significantly; one can now purchase a 3D printer for under $1,000. The danger of this technology being used to create some form of weapon was present from the beginning, so the Undetectable Firearms Act was passed in 1988 to ban the creation or use of a wholly plastic 3D printed firearms. Even so, this story is back in the news yet again.
A company called Defense Distributed recently revealed plans to release 3D printing blueprints for various firearms. They originally tried to distribute plans for a single shot handgun called the Liberator in 2013, but were blocked by a federal law. A settlement reached in June allowed for Defense Distributed to release the 3D printer plans for these guns starting on August 1st. In blatant disregard for the ruling, they began releasing the files early, and by July 31st, 2018, over 1,000 plans for one of seven different firearms had been downloaded.
These plans would allow for an individual to create any of these weapons with only a 3D printer and some plastic. According to the company’s CEO, Cody Wilson, Defense Distributed isn’t acting illegally because they aren’t printing or using the guns, only distributing the plans for them. The early downloads prompted panic from lawmakers, and a reactionary ban was placed on the distribution of printable gun plans. Eight states, including New York, New Jersey, and Washington, are currently suing the company to stop the plans from being released. Cody Wilson has agreed not to distribute any other plans until he has his hearing in September. Until then, the state of these guns remains in limbo.
The decision of the hearing is critical, and the ban on the distribution of these guns must be upheld. Allowing for individuals to download their own plastic weapons is a question of national security for all Americans. The guns that one can download from Defense Distributed are not only undetectable, but also untraceable since they have no serial number. According to the ATF, a gun’s serial number is the first step police use to determine where a gun was purchased, and more importantly, where the gun originated. Without a serial number, illegal dealers can distribute these guns to anyone they want with impunity, and with less risk than by illicitly selling conventional guns. Dealers don’t need a source of illegal weapons to sell and distribute these weapons—they only need plastic and access to a 3D printer.
Furthermore, allowing for individuals to have access to these files can undermine state and federal laws on gun ownership and distribution. Each state requires gun owners to follow a series of state laws and federal regulations. California, for example, has a complex series of gun laws and restrictions that a legal gun owner must follow. First, all weapons, including handguns and automatic rifles, must be registered. In order to purchase most weapons, an individual needs to pass a written test, provide valid ID, and pass a background check. By allowing an individual to download these blueprints, anyone, including people who otherwise would be unable to purchase a conventional gun due to prior convictions, can easily avoid all restrictions and illegally make weapons without ever leaving their home.
AR-15 semi-automatic rifles for sale. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
A ban on the distribution of the files allows for the federal government to stop this problem before it begins. Whether or not this ban is in place, it is illegal to build, distribute, or use a plastic firearm. With this ban in place, consumers wouldn’t be able to legally download the blueprints for these weapons, ending the possibility of mass production of cheap and untraceable weapons for criminals. A legal consumer has no reason to fear this ban since the production of said weapons are already illegal. Legal consumers can continue to purchase conventional weapons by following the state and federal requirements. As such, the ban only affects illegal gun owners, ensuring that these criminals don’t have easy access to an untraceable firearm.
This debate is not one of liberties. The laws are already in place to block the creation and use of one of these guns. One more step toward stopping the distribution of these blueprints doesn’t infringe on individual rights any more than the laws that have been in place for 30 years. Other critics of this ban have been calling it a violation of Cody Wilson’s First Amendment rights, as the government is censoring content he is posting on the internet. Americans need to remind themselves that the government has the ability to limit First Amendment rights when it comes to public safety.
It’s common knowledge that one can’t shout fire in a crowded, public place. The government reserves the right to stop an individual because such a limitation protects the people around them; on the same principle, the government needs to uphold the ban on distributing the plans. Should these blueprints be released, thousands of criminals could easily mass produce cheap, untraceable, and undetectable weapons. This represents a clear and present danger for all Americans. As such, a federal law to censor this content isn’t violating Cody Wilson’s First Amendment rights, but rather protecting the American citizens from danger.
In the coming days, federal and state jurisdiction over these blueprints will likely change. In order to protect lawful Americans from criminals having easy access to cheap weapons, more states need to join this lawsuit. States must band together to uphold indefinitely the ban on the release of these blueprints to protect citizens in the years to come.