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Blueprints For 3D Printed Guns Could Go Back Online Soon, Thanks To A Federal Rule Change

Gun parts at Defense Distributed, a Texas-based company developing and publishing open source gun designs for 3-D printing and manufacture, surround a copy of The Liberator, a 3D printed plastic gun.
Bob Daemmrich
The Texas Tribune
Gun parts at Defense Distributed, a Texas-based company developing and publishing open source gun designs for 3-D printing and manufacture, surround a copy of The Liberator, a 3D printed plastic gun.

A federal rule change could soon make it legal to put 3D printed gun blueprints — first introduced by a Texas man — back online after being blocked from the internet twice.

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 effectively relax regulations that have previously prevented the 3D printed gun blueprints from being posted online.

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

Meanwhile, gun control activists warn that the change could make firearms available to dangerous people who would otherwise be prevented from purchasing a gun.

Wilson created the world’s first fully 3D printed gun, which made its debut in May of 2013. Blueprints for the 3D printed weapon, named the Liberator, were posted on Wilson’s company website, Defense Distributed. Within days Wilson received a letter from the State Department telling him to take down the plans until he applied for approval for the gun’s multiple components — or else go to jail. Wilson took the plans down, but by that point, the blueprints had already been downloaded more than 100,000 times.

The State Department argued that uploading the blueprints online was the same as exporting them internationally. Wilson responded with a 2015 lawsuit that the blueprints weren’t a product, but a form of free speech.

After multiple appeals, the State Department agreed to settle with Wilson and nearly allowed the plans to go live again, in addition to agreeing to pay Wilson’s company $39,581.

The plans were published online July 27, 2018 after the company received a license from the State Department, 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 from going into place.

Wilson is a gun-rights activist and self-described anarchist. Originally from Arkansas, he moved to Austin in 2012 to study at the University of Texas School of Law. It was that year when, inspired by the work of WikiLeaks, he founded Defense Distributed to create the “WikiLeaks for the second amendment.” Within a year Wilson created and released blueprints for the world’s first fully 3D printed gun.

Pushback against 3D gun blueprints goes against the “American spirit,” Wilson said.

“If you have the right to keep and bear arms then you have the right to make arms,” Wilson said.

Wilson saw the buzz around 3D printers in the early 2010s and wanted to make a statement about the future of gun technology, shape public understanding of digital fabrication technology and help people understand that it’s “trivial and easy” to make a gun.

“It’s actually really easy to understand the issue, but people want to cloud it in public safety and security as an imagined talisman that will make all your civil rights go away,” he said.

Last September, Wilson was sentenced to seven years of probation after he pleaded guilty to injuring a child following accusations that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl. He was required to register as a sex offender, according to the Travis County district attorney's office.

Under the terms of his plea deal and state law, Wilson can own a gun while on probation and his felony charge will be wiped as long as he fully meets the court’s terms. But, Wilson could violate federal law if he registers new firearms, KUT reported.

In Texas it's legal for a person to make and own a firearm as long as it's for personal use and they don't intend to sell it. The person doesn't need to get a license to make a gun and they do not need to register a gun they make, according to the federal firearms code.

After his arrest, Wilson said he’d step down as Defense Distributed’s CEO, but he is currently the company’s director, he said Tuesday.

The main concerns about 3D printed guns are that because of the plastic composition wouldn’t be picked up by metal detectors and since they’re homemade officials can’t trace who owns a 3D printed gun.

“Allowing gun blueprints to be posted online will enable convicted felons, terrorists and domestic abusers to acquire untraceable guns and that puts all of us at risk,” said Rob Wilcox, deputy director of policy and strategy for Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group.

Wilcox said the rule change undermines laws and background check systems that regulate gun sales. But Wilson said people have been making their own guns, without 3D printers, for decades and have never been required to serialize them.

Larry Arnold, legislative director for the Texas Handgun Association, said if the plastic is dense enough the gun would be picked up by detectors or X-ray machines. Even if it isn’t, the bullets are made of metal and would show up in a metal detector.

While blueprints for Wilson’s gun aren’t on his website, Arnold said those blueprints and others are widely available online. A quick Google search confirms this.

“For the government to do all they can to keep something from happening that’s happening anyway seems futile,” Arnold said.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.