Citing the potential for danger to the public, a federal judge Monday blocked a U.S. State Department agreement that allowed Austin’s Cody Wilson and his company, Defense Distributed, to publish online the blueprints for making guns on a 3D printer.
Publishing the plans would threaten the “peace and security of the communities where these guns proliferate,” U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik of Seattle said in his order.
“A gun made from plastic is virtually undetectable in metal detectors and other security equipment intended to promote public safety at airports, sporting events, courthouses, music venues and government buildings,” Lasnik wrote.
Monday’s ruling, sought by 19 states arguing that publication of the blueprints created a danger to national security and the public, extended a temporary restraining order the judge had issued to block release of the plans July 31.
Wilson said the ruling will be appealed, calling it an impermissible, content-based restriction on speech that included “some farcical elements” that can be exploited in higher courts.
“He accepted the states’ argument entirely that there’s no reason to have these things (available online) but to circumvent their laws, that if that was a motivating reason for me to speak, then I shouldn’t be permitted,” Wilson told the American-Statesman. “It just demonstrates how slippery the slope is here. Sure, we may be talking about code, but it’s really (about) my motivations, what I want to accomplish, which are the reasons why I’m permitted to be silenced.”
Lasnik acknowledged that he was limiting Wilson’s free speech rights but said the potential for harm was a significant factor in his decision.
“The court finds that the irreparable burdens on (Wilson’s) First Amendment rights are dwarfed by the irreparable harms the states are likely to suffer if the existing restrictions are withdrawn,” Lasnik wrote.
Publishing the technical data for gun manufacture could make firearms available to those who are prohibited from owning or using guns, while the lack of serial numbers on 3D-printed weapons could have far-reaching implications, he said.
“Guns that have no identifying information, guns that are undetectable and guns that thwart the use of standard forensic techniques to link a particular projectile to a particular weapon will hamper law enforcement efforts to prevent and/or investigate crime,” Lasnik wrote.
The fight over the gun-building plans has been waged since 2013, when Wilson successfully fired the first known gun made with a 3D printer and posted the blueprints online, only to be met with a State Department order to remove the plans for violating federal law on exporting weaponry. Federal officials argued that the how-to instructions could be downloaded worldwide, possibly providing weapons and weapon parts to “embargoed nations, terrorist groups or guerrilla groups.”
Wilson sued, and the State Department under President Donald Trump relented earlier this year, reaching a settlement that allowed Defense Distributed to post design files online.
Those plans were posted July 27 and downloaded numerous times before Lasnik issued a restraining order that blocked publication five days later.
In Monday’s order, Lasnik found several significant problems with the State Department’s role in the settlement:
• The agency failed to notify Congress of its agreement with Defense Distributed, as required by federal law, or notify the secretary of defense as required by a standing presidential directive, he said.
• The agency also failed to articulate adequate reasons for dropping objections to publication of the gun-making plans and failed to evaluate “the unique characteristics and qualities of plastic guns” when making that decision, the judge said.
• Congress directed the State Department to consider how the proliferation of technical data on weaponry would affect world peace, national security and foreign policy, Lasnik said. Instead, the agency considered only whether restricting access to the gun blueprints would hurt the nation’s military or intelligence advantage, he said.
Lasnik also rejected Wilson’s arguments that there would be no harm in publishing the 10 gun files because only one contained plans for a 3D-printed weapon — blueprints that had already been downloaded more than 100,000 times in 2013 before the State Department intervened — and the nine other files were computer-aided designs that have been available online for years and are not ready for printing without extensive work.
The judge said it was unclear whether the relevant government agency had approved publishing those files or whether the blueprints were readily available outside “the dark or remote recesses of the internet.” In addition, other files have not yet been released, including any future 3D designs Defense Distributed may create, he said.
Wilson said the judge’s order ignores reality.
“Anybody, with 30 seconds of Googling, can find these files online. They’ve been republished everywhere,” he said. “He has to basically pretend that somehow I’m the only person capable of speaking about them to justify silencing me.”