Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

3D-Printed Plastic Guns: Five Reasons to Worry

Mary B. McCord
Friday, August 31, 2018, 10:55 AM

This week saw law and common sense unite in opposition to the widespread availability of dangerously untraceable, undetectable guns.

Vases made of 3D prints of Defense Distributed's Liberator gun, by artist Addie Wagenknecht (Flickr/Addie Wagenknecht, courtesy of bitforms gallery, New York)

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

This week saw law and common sense unite in opposition to the widespread availability of dangerously untraceable, undetectable guns. A federal judge in the state of Washington issued an order barring the State Department from allowing Defense Distributed, a self-described “private defense firm,” to make the blueprints for 3D-printed plastic guns freely available on the internet. The judge’s order may not eradicate the threat posed by Defense Distributed’s attempt to widely share recipes for lethal violence, given that the blueprints have—regrettably—already found their way to certain corners of the internet. But it’s an important step, both for protecting citizens at home and abroad from gun violence and for reasserting the rule of law.

The State Department’s International Trafficking in Arms Regulations sensibly ban the “export” of technical data, i.e. blueprints, related to the design, manufacture and assembly of certain firearms. Because publishing those blueprints online would make them available worldwide, such publication was an “export” prohibited under the regulations until last month, when the government dramatically reversed its legal position. After successfully defending the regulations against a lawsuit brought by Defense Distributed several years ago to permit it to publish the blueprints—arguing that the blueprints’ publication was protected by the First Amendment—in July 2018, the government abruptly settled the lawsuit by agreeing to change State Department regulations and authorizing the company to publish the blueprints while the regulatory change is pending. It even agreed to pay Defense Distributed $40,000.

This unexpected about-face caused an immediate outcry from federal and state elected officials, law enforcement, and even the president, who tweeted:

Mary B. McCord is currently Legal Director and Visiting Professor of Law at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law School. She is the former Acting Assistant Attorney General and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the U.S. Department of Justice and was a long-time federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

Subscribe to Lawfare