Printing guns: Looking at all the dimensions
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.