Supreme Court says no to 3-D printed guns, for now

the liberator 3d pistol

Cody Wilson holds the world’s first 3D printed handgun, The Liberator. (Photo: AP Photo/Austin American Statesman, Jay Janner)

The Supreme Court turned down its chance to weigh-in on regulations for 3-D printed firearms — for now.

The high court announced its decision Jan. 8, sending Defense Distributed v. State back to the western district of Texas to be heard on its merits.

Cody Wilson, Defense Distributed’s founder, told Friday he’s undeterred by the rejection.

“I don’t know whats going to happen, but eventually the issue is going to get before a court that can really consider it, like the Fifth Circuit and the Fifth Circuit is looking pretty good,” he said. “But it still might take a year or two years to get it done.”

In 2013, the federal government demanded Wilson remove his computer-aided design file for “The Liberator” — a single-shot .380 caliber pistol — from Defense Distributed’s website as a violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulation.

Building a homemade firearm falls within the limits of federal gun laws, so long as its kept for personal use. Critics worry the ease and eventual proliferation of 3-D printing will put thousands of untraceable plastic guns into the wrong hands.

The federal takedown demand for Defense Distributed came too late, however. Users downloaded the Liberator over 100,000 times in 48 hours and blueprints of the gun still exist elsewhere across the internet.

Wilson argues sharing gun designs online breaks no laws and imposing ITAR on the files violates his free speech rights. He’s spent more than $1 million since 2015 suing the U.S. Department of State, eager for the courts to settle whether his actions amount to arms exportation.

“The issues are pretty clear,” he said. “The whole question is whether you can show that this ITAR as a regime of speech is unconstitutional when restricting gun stuff, so that’s a big issue.”

Kelsey Wilbanks, an analyst for Law360, said federal courts, so far, “have taken a modest approach in defining when technology is free speech.”

“Precedent allows for computer code to be covered speech, but is not conclusive that code is always covered speech,” she said, noting the case — or something similar — could wind its way right back up to the Supreme Court over national security concerns.

“Beyond national security, online distribution and download of CAD files has global reach,” she said. “Anyone with an internet connection and the proper tools can post, repost, download and use a CAD file for a gun.”

A Supreme Court ruling deeming CAD files free speech, Wilbanks said, would tie the government’s hands and create roadblocks for regulating everything from guns to pharmaceutical drugs to prosthetic body parts. A ruling against Defense Distributed, however, would allow the government to regulate CAD files “like the objects they digitally embody.”

“In that event, operators might be reluctant to post certain CAD files for fear they could be considered weapons under ITAR, or even CAD files subject to other regulatory schemes,” she said. “This could inhibit innovation and open sharing.”

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