3D-Printed ‘Ghost Gun’ Blueprints Could Soon Be Legal

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A sintered aluminum SLA (3D printed) of the Reyes dapter MkIV. Photo by Mitch Barrie via Flickr

A federal rule change could soon make it legal to put 3D-printed gun blueprints back online after being blocked from the internet twice, the Texas Tribune reports. The Trump administration has proposed transferring authority of some small arms and ammunition exports from the U.S. Department of State to the Commerce Department, a move that would relax regulations that have previously prevented the 3D-printed gun blueprints from being posted online.

3D-printed guns, otherwise known as ghost guns, can be manufactured at home from plastics and lack serial numbers, making them virtually untraceable to law enforcement. While printing the guns is legal, some states regulate the process.

The administration gave a 30-day notice of the rule change to Congress on Nov. 13, meaning the White House could announce the transfer of authority any day. That would end a long-fought battle by Cody Wilson of Texas to allow the blueprints to be made publicly available.

Last year, the Justice Department overturned an Obama-era guidance that prevented the Texas-based Defense Distributed from publishing 3D-printed gun files on its website on the grounds that publication violated the Arms Export Control Act, The Trace reported earlier this summer.

Days before the company planned to finally publish the files, a federal judge in Washington temporarily blocked their release, agreeing with a coalition of states which argued that allowing the files to be shared publicly would likely cause those states to “suffer irreparable harm.”

Gun control activists warn that the change could make firearms available to dangerous people who would otherwise be prevented from purchasing guns. Wilson created the  first fully 3D-printed gun, which made its debut in 2013.

Blueprints for the weapon, named the Liberator, were posted on Wilson’s company website, Defense Distributed.  The State Department told Wilson to take down the plans until he applied for approval for the gun’s multiple components. Wilson took the plans down, but by that point, they had already been downloaded more than 100,000 times.

The State Department argued that putting the blueprints online was the same as exporting them. Wilson responded with a 2015 lawsuit that the blueprints were a form of free speech.

The State Department agreed to settle with Wilson and the plans were published online in July 2018, but they were blocked days later after a federal judge granted a request from eight states and the District of Columbia to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the settlement agreement.

As mainstream social media and other websites roll out a ban on sharing plans for 3D-printed guns, enthusiasts say the lockouts are in vain because the community will always spring up elsewhere. “Filling me with spite only makes me work harder,” wrote a user known as IvanTheTroll, in a discussion thread about the shutdown at Reddit last summer.

But the legality of disseminating blueprints for the builds is more precarious. That litigation is ongoing. Doug Jacobson, an export controls attorney in Washington, D.C., said that until a clear federal determination is made, the files are technically illegal to share online. But he stressed that “while there may be a technical violation, it would be one a prosecutor most likely would not want to enforce, considering by the time prosecution moved forward, the law could be changed.”

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