Politics & Policy

The 3D-Gun Debate: Separating Truth from Fiction

Seized plastic handguns which were created using 3D printing technology are displayed at Kanagawa police station in Yokohama, Japan, May 8, 2014. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Another staggering display of media ignorance about firearms

One of the most bizarre aspects of the modern gun debate is the extent to which it is still dominated by ignorance and misinformation. One of the most important controversies in American public life rages on, yet media gatekeepers and all too many politicians simply don’t know the most basic facts. They don’t understand the most basic constitutional issues. Even worse, many of them don’t seem to care.

If you pay attention to the news, you know that the Internet is blowing up right now with claims that the Trump administration is “now” “permitting” individuals to share plans for 3D-printed guns, and that this move will “now” allow Americans to make guns at home — including plastic guns of the sort that can be used to penetrate airport and school security. Here’s a perfect example of the kind of coverage that’s rocketing around the Web, as shared by Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey:

Note the key claims in the video:

“Downloadable guns are a real thing because of the Trump administration.”

“Individuals will now be able to log on to a website and, if they have access to a 3D printer, print fully functional and totally undetectable firearms.”

“All of this is because the Trump administration quietly settled a lawsuit with Cody Wilson, a 3D-gun creator who had sued the federal government for being forced to take down his downloadable 3D guns back in 2013.”

The video then urges federal and state governments to mandate the placement of permanent metal components on guns and to “outlaw printable guns.”

Healey says she has sued to “stop the illegal distribution of 3D printable guns.”

There is so very much wrong with these statements that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start with some basic facts. The controversy revolves around a case brought by a company called Defense Distributed, together with an advocacy organization called the Second Amendment Foundation. The plaintiffs challenged the Obama administration’s decision to apply federal International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) in order to block Defense Distributed from distributing plans that would permit individuals with a 3D printer to manufacture a plastic handgun (called “the Liberator”) and a “fully functional plastic AR-15 lower receiver” — the indispensable portion of an AR that is considered the “firearm” and that typically contains the serial number.

The Obama administration justified its decision to prevent the plaintiffs from posting the files on the grounds that the files would be available for international download and international use. It also argued that the files at issue were not “expressive speech.” As the Fifth Circuit explained, printing a fully functional plastic lower receiver or Defense Distributed’s single-shot plastic pistol “is legal for United States citizens and will remain legal for United States citizens regardless of the outcome of this case.”

(The federal Undetectable Firearms Act makes it illegal to manufacture or possess a weapon undetectable by walk-through metal detectors.)

Indeed, the international-export aspects of the case were indispensable to court rulings at the district- and circuit-court levels that denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction that would permit it to distribute its files. Specifically, the district court relied on the “public’s keen interest in restricting the export of defense articles.” The Fifth Circuit held that the district did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion, and it declined to address the question of whether the plaintiff demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits.

Despite these rulings, the federal government faced a difficult challenge on the merits. The plaintiffs’ case was fundamentally a speech case, not a gun case. The plaintiffs weren’t distributing guns, they were distributing information, and by blocking the flow of information, the Obama administration had placed a “prior restraint” on the plaintiffs’ speech. Prior restraints are among the least-favored government actions in First Amendment jurisprudence.

People have been making homemade guns since before the founding of the Republic. You don’t need a license to make a gun for personal use; you need one only if you make a gun for sale or distribution.

In fact, the Obama administration’s action was worse than the typical prior restraint in part because it was censoring further distribution of information that was already all over the Internet. That’s right, plastic-gun plans are but one Google search away for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Just before I wrote this piece, I typed a single phrase and found plans for multiple guns.

And, by the way, people have been making homemade guns since before the founding of the Republic. You don’t need a license to make a gun for personal use; you need one only if you make a gun for sale or distribution. Guns can be made at home easily and cheaply. Home manufacture is common (I’m close to someone who makes better ARs than any manufacturer). Oh, and technology for “undetectable” guns existed long before 3D printing — hence the need for the Undetectable Firearms Act.

What did the Trump administration actually do? Simply put, it entered into a settlement agreement that permitted the plaintiffs to post their designs and required the government to issue a letter indicating that the designs were not subject to the licensing requirements set forth by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. It did not alter in any way the underlying statutory or regulatory laws governing the manufacture, use, or possession of firearms.

So, let’s recap the claims above:

“Downloadable guns are a real thing because of the Trump administration.”
False
. 3D-printed guns were legal regardless of the outcome of the case, and plans for 3D-printed guns were widely available online.

“Individuals will now be able to log on to a website, and if they have access to a 3D printer, print fully functional and totally undetectable firearms.”
Misleading
. The word “now” is deceptive. Individuals were able to do this before the Trump administration’s settlement, and they would have been able to do so even if the Trump administration kept litigating the case. Moreover, it’s important to note that possessing “totally undetectable” firearms violates federal law.

“All of this is because the Trump administration quietly settled a lawsuit with Cody Wilson, a 3D-gun creator who had sued the federal government for being forced to take down his downloadable 3D guns back in 2013.”
False
. As the Fifth Circuit clearly stated, manufacture and possession of a plastic pistol or plastic lower receiver (subject to the Undetectable Firearms Act) “is legal for United States citizens and will remain legal for United States citizens regardless of the outcome of this case.”

Multiple states are now suing on their own, hoping to replace the Obama administration’s prior restraint with one of their own. Here’s Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro:

For critics of gun rights, details don’t matter because the gun debate is less a policy debate than it is a cultural conflict.

I’ve got news for Mr. Shapiro: 3D plans are still widely available. They’ve been widely available. And it’s odd to refer to the plans as an “existential threat to our state” when the original justification for the Obama administration’s action was concern over arms exports.

Why does this keep happening? Why do media outlets and politicians continue to spread false information and then — when called on it — remain proudly ignorant and instead condemn so-called “gunsplaining”?

My own view is simple. For critics of gun rights, details don’t matter because the gun debate is less a policy debate than it is a cultural conflict. The Trump administration’s settlement isn’t so much an outrage on its own terms as it is a vehicle for a different argument — a broader argument against gun culture. And in that broader attack on gun culture, other essential American liberties must be sacrificed, including freedom of expression. Prior restraints on free speech are a small price to pay when gun control is at stake.

NOW WATCH: ‘Trump Puts a Question Mark on 3-D Gun Sales’

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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