We are in the midst of a belated moral and legal panic about homemade, 3D-printed guns that will likely do nothing besides make them more popular.
Nine state attorneys general filed a lawsuit Monday against the Trump administration and Defense Distributed, an Austin, Texas company that uploads designs for 3D-printed guns to its website (the gun designs are free, but it sells the “Ghost Gunner” tabletop gun-milling machine.)
The lawsuit seeks to prevent Defense Distributed from distributing CAD designs for homemade guns or from selling the Ghost Gunner.
This is happening because, in 2015, Defense Distributed and its founder, Cody Wilson, sued the Department of Justice after the US government demanded that the company remove its 3D-printed gun designs from its website. Last month, Wilson and Defense Distributed reached a settlement with the DOJ that allows them to resume distributing their files legally; this latest lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order that would remove the files from the internet and seeks to more broadly prevent the distribution of the files.
“It is, simply, crazy to give criminals the tools to build untraceable, undetectable 3D-printed guns at the touch of a button. Yet that's exactly what the Trump administration is allowing,” New York attorney general Barbara Underwood said in a statement. “We won't stand by as New Yorkers’ safety is jeopardized by this abrupt about-face by the federal government.”
Trump, for his part, doesn’t seem to have any idea that his administration stopped defending itself against Wilson’s lawsuit in the first place. He issued a tweet Tuesday that doesn’t make immediately clear whether he believes people should be allowed to distribute 3D-printed gun files.
Throughout the day, lawmakers have begun weighing in, and we’re now officially having a National Conversation about the legality of distributing 3D-printed guns.
This latest attempt to prevent Defense Distributed from operating freely is probably self-defeating. It’s already had a demonstrable impact in furthering the spread of Wilson’s CAD files. A screenshot in Underwood’s lawsuit shows that 3D-printed gun CAD files had been downloaded from Defense Distributed’s website 1,702 times as of July 28th. As I’m writing this, they have been downloaded 21,345 times, and the files are already floating around on torrent sites and elsewhere. Wilson is already using the lawsuits as a rallying cry around his cause.
This is called the “Streisand Effect” and is one of the most predictable rules of the internet. Whenever the government (or a celebrity, or a company) tries to censor something, they immediately make it exponentially more popular and widespread than it was in the first place.
The lawsuit itself seems to be on shaky ground: In settling Wilson’s lawsuit, the Department of Justice has already cut-and-run on this issue, and there are strong First and Second Amendment defenses. Some experts consider CAD files code (which many scholars believe could be protected by the First Amendment), but, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in an amicus brief in Wilson’s case against the DOJ, these files could also be considered art, or technical information, or scientific information.
“The design files at issue here, for example, are not ‘functional’ software that can be ‘run,’ ‘launched,’ or ‘executed,’” the EFF wrote. “They are storage files for text, images, and three-dimensional shapes, having “functional” consequences only after a third party interprets and implements them with software, hardware (such as a 3D printer), and raw materials. Even under the government’s flawed view that ‘functionality’ diminishes First Amendment protection, files here are, if anything, less ‘functional,’ and at least as protected, as the computer instructions for encrypting data.”
Even if the new lawsuit succeeds, there are very few practical steps that anyone could legally take to prevent people from getting 3D-printed gun design files, or from making their own 3D-printed guns. The design files for 3D-printed guns have already been distributed far-and-wide; since it was released in 2013, more than 100,000 people have downloaded the design files for Wilson’s first 3D-printed gun, the Liberator. The files are still available on The Pirate Bay and other decentralized torrent sites, as well as on a host of 3D printing design file repositories. Anecdotally, I’ve seen files for the Liberator on a host of web archival sites such as the Internet Archive, on random open directories scattered throughout the internet, on torrent sites, on forums, in subreddits, and bundled with other would-be censored documents, like The Anarchist Cookbook.
Despite the fact that many thousands of people have 3D-printed gun files saved on their hard drives, there have not been any reported instances of a 3D-printed gun being used for a crime (last year, a mass-shooter did assemble the guns he used in a shooting, but those guns were not 3D-printed.)
There’s simply not much evidence that large numbers of people are actually making these things, perhaps because 3D printing has failed to take off, and “regular” guns are so easy to get. It isn’t clear that many people even want to print their own gun. But having a bunch of politicians and lawyers saying that you can’t do it is a surefire way to create a problem where none previously existed.