Print­ing guns: Look­ing at all the di­men­sions

The Community Connection - - OPINION - Lata Nott Lata Nott is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the First Amend­ment Cen­ter of the Free­dom Fo­rum In­sti­tute.

Are 3-D printer de­signs pro­tected by the First Amend­ment? This was the le­gal de­fense raised by Cody Wil­son back in 2015, who faced pros­e­cu­tion for vi­o­lat­ing fed­eral gun ex­port laws after he cre­ated a gun with a 3-D printer and then posted the blue­prints on­line for oth­ers to down­load and use. Wil­son claimed that this vi­o­lated his right to share in­for­ma­tion freely. The State De­part­ment set­tled its case against him in July 2018, and for a few days Wil­son was able to dis­trib­ute the blue­prints on his web­site and revel in his suc­cess at us­ing the First Amend­ment to pro­tect the Sec­ond Amend­ment. But by the end of last week, at­tor­neys gen­eral in 20 states had filed suit against both the State De­part­ment and Wil­son, in an ef­fort to force the State De­part­ment to re­scind its set­tle­ment. The states raised a con­sti­tu­tional claim of their own — that the set­tle­ment vi­o­lated the 10th Amend­ment, which gives states the right to make their own laws, in­clud­ing those gov­ern­ing gun con­trol.

Ear­lier this week, a fed­eral judge is­sued a tem­po­rary re­strain­ing or­der block­ing the gov­ern­ment from al­low­ing the blue­prints to be dis­trib­uted. A fol­low-up hear­ing will take place on Au­gust 10.

What does all this mean, aside from an amaz­ing day for Bill of Rights bingo?

The NRA’s of­fi­cial state­ments have been along the lines of, “ab­so­lutely noth­ing,” point­ing out how pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive print­ing a gun is at this time. It’s true that we’re un­likely to wit­ness the rise of a 3-D printer armed mili­tia in the next cou­ple of weeks. But this also side­steps the real is­sue.

Right now, 3-D print­ers are ex­pen­sive and clunky, but they won’t al­ways be. How should we deal with a world where the tech­nol­ogy has caught up with Wil­son’s as­pi­ra­tions?

As Se­na­tor Bill Nel­son put it, “There are many lim­its on our First Amend­ment rights of speech. You can­not say ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Why in the world would you as­sert First Amend­ment rights to pub­lish in­struc­tions to [make] a plas­tic gun that some­one could take through a metal de­tec­tor into a crowded theater and start shoot­ing in that theater in­stead of shout­ing ‘fire,’ which is clearly an un­der­stood lim­i­ta­tion upon our First Amend­ment rights of speech.”

That cuts to the heart of the is­sue — the dan­ger in­her­ent in a world where ab­so­lutely any­one can man­u­fac­ture their own gun — but it’s not quite the right anal­ogy. The First Amend­ment may not pro­tect your right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But it does pro­tect the right to pub­lish some­thing like the “An­ar­chist Cook­book,” which con­tains in­struc­tions for man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­plo­sives. It may be il­le­gal to build your own bomb, but the gov­ern­ment can’t cen­sor the in­struc­tions for do­ing so.

And to add an­other wrin­kle: At this time, mak­ing your own gun at home ac­tu­ally is le­gal, pro­vided that you don’t in­tend to sell it and you aren’t oth­er­wise pro­hib­ited from own­ing one. The law pro­tects your right to share in­for­ma­tion. It pro­tects your right to build your own gun. But put those two prin­ci­ples to­gether, add some 3-D print­ing tech­nol­ogy, and take things to their nat­u­ral con­clu­sion and the end re­sult is dis­com­fit­ing — even to staunch sup­port­ers of the Sec­ond Amend­ment.

This isn’t a loop­hole in the law that needs to be closed. This is a fun­da­men­tal shift in what it means to cre­ate some­thing. In one sense, 3-D print­ing a gun isn’t all that dif­fer­ent con­cep­tu­ally from build­ing one from a kit. It’s the same ba­sic idea — it’s just that 3-D print­ing has the po­ten­tial to be much more ac­ces­si­ble and ef­fi­cient on a mass scale. And in that sense, it has the po­ten­tial to change ev­ery­thing. (It’s kind of like how Nap­ster used to ar­gue that us­ing their peerto-peer file shar­ing sys­tem to down­load mu­sic was no dif­fer­ent than shar­ing mu­sic with a friend.)

The First Amend­ment pro­tects speech, but doesn’t stop the gov­ern­ment from reg­u­lat­ing con­duct. In this case, that might mean li­cens­ing the us­age of 3-D print­ers, or the com­po­nents and ma­te­ri­als nec­es­sary to print a gun.

There are no per­fect so­lu­tions. How could they be, when the im­pli­ca­tions of 3-D print­ing tech­nol­ogy are so com­pli­cated? The is­sue’s not go­ing away, and it’s not just about guns. It’s about how the lines be­tween speech and con­duct and in­for­ma­tion and ac­tion, are grow­ing in­creas­ingly blurry.

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