Court rules 3D printing not protected under First Amendment

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that designs of firearms to be used on 3D printers are not protected by the free speech provisions of the First Amendment.  The court, siding with the State Department, found that such designs could constitute an export, given the lack of borders on the Internet, and as such would pose a danger to national security.

The State Department has a complex web of regulations about what may be exported and what levels of controls apply to the thing in question.  But Defense Distributed, the organization that wanted to provide the design of their Liberator pistol on-line, was not trying to sell firearms across international borders.  Now if the design had been for the infamous “dual use” technologies—something that has use both in commerce or some other civilian application but could also be employed in making weapons of mass destruction—the case would be much more obvious.  Though perhaps not, since the information required to build a nuclear weapon, for example, isn’t hard to find.  It’s not primarily through a lack of knowledge that terrorists groups and hostile states have been denied nukes, but rather the difficulty in securing the nuclear fuel and other physical objects.

And this is the key problem with the court’s ruling and the State Department’s policy.  Trying to keep designs for firearms off the Internet is a fool’s errand.  Guns are a mature technology.  Their parts are easy to make, even for hipsters, and many firearms are no longer under patent.  Notice how it seems that every handgun manufacturer offers an M1911, a polymer-framed and striker-fired Wonder Nine, and something that fits in a pocket?  Even if we believe that the blueprint of a handgun poses a national security threat—and that’s an extraordinary claim—it’s too late now.  We might as well say that the internal combustion engine is too sensitive to let people see.

Or rocket designs.  Last May, a group of students from the University of California San Diego launched a rocket whose engine had been printed. How long will it be before the State Department decides that the ability to make rocket motors in your own home is too dangerous a skill to be acquired by the Bolsheviks or the Ottomans or some other entity that was a concern back when we could—somewhat—control the flow of information?

I can see why 3D printing gives control freaks the vapors.  It’s an expression of potential—potential that isn’t constrained in advance and that may not even reach the awareness of those who yearn to meddle in the actions of others.  Such printers are expensive today and limited in the materials that they use, but imagine where we could be in the not too distant future.  A 3D printer is a realization of the replicators featured in Star Trek, and when we can make everything from screws to hip joints to interplanetary shuttles in the convenience of our own homes, regulators and manufacturers will have to offer us something better than what we can make ourselves if they expect us to act as they wish.

Distributed power is a dangerous choice, but it’s the only way to make a free society work.  And it’s futile to attempt to call back secrets that have circled the world at the speed of light more times already than the agents of our government can count.  It would be grand to see this bad ruling overturned by the Supreme Court, though I don’t have high hopes for that, but such a result isn’t necessary.  This is a ruling over the permitted type of harness for carriages while jet planes roar overhead.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of