The panic over 3D printed guns
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik issued a temporary restraining order preventing the firm Defense Distributed from hosting blueprints for 3D printed guns on its website. While one can debate whether a printed firearm is worth the plastic used to make it, the larger legal issues are worth debating. As National Review's David French writes, Judge Lasnik's order is an elaborate exercize in futility:
Let’s be clear about what has just happened. A federal court has issued a prior restraint on speech (it’s attempting to block the spread of information; it is not blocking the lawful home manufacture of firearms) that is already thoroughly and completely moot. The files are out. They’re all over the internet. They’ve been copied and reproduced. The judge’s order can’t change that fact.
Moreover, Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation are hardly the only sources for online files or blueprints that enable a home manufacturer with a 3D printer to make a gun. I’m honestly unclear what the court is trying to accomplish here, aside from targeting the Trump administration and/or targeting a disfavored private company.
It wouldn't be the first time a federal court has been caught grandstanding. But let's get back to the legal issues:
First, home manufacture of weapons is clearly lawful, and it has been common practice in the United States since before the founding of the nation. Second, it is thus just as lawful to “print” a gun as it is to assemble one with parts in your garage. Third, the plans to print guns are widely-available on the internet — and have been for some time.
Put another way, a gun that’s lawful to assemble is lawful to print. A gun that’s unlawful to assemble is unlawful to print, and that includes undetectable plastic guns that are either printed or assembled. It’s that simple.There is no new “threat” here. There is no crisis.
The injunction thus accomplishes nothing of any meaning in the real world, but it does have legal consequences for free speech. A federal judge is trying to block the free flow of information, including instructions as to how to make entirely lawful products. I would say this is dangerous, but given the high likelihood that his order will be overturned, let’s just call it irresponsible.
As are all political and moral panics. This one may get worse, as Judge Lasnik has decided to rewrite the law to support his order:
The court’s opinion is...a depressing read. It contains no meaningful First Amendment analysis, and its finding that there would be irreparable harm absent an injunction is — given the facts — astounding:
A side effect of the USML has been to make it more difficult to locate and download instructions for the manufacture of plastic firearms. If an injunction is not issued and the status quo alters at midnight tonight, the proliferation of these firearms will have many of the negative impacts on a state level that the federal government once feared on the international stage.
What? The information is already out there. It takes seconds to locate. His order is the equivalent of ordering the government to block a gun store’s website without touching the vast bulk of gun sales information already on the web. And note what else the judge did. He extended federal regulations designed to deal with the proliferation of weapons abroad to apply here at home. He changed the law. He modified its purpose and scope to match the intentions of the litigants in his courtroom. Once again, a federal judge has overstepped his constitutional bounds.
Stay tuned, because this is going to get very interesting.