The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Federal Judge Launches a Futile, Unconstitutional Effort to Block Blueprints for 3D-Printed Guns

(Pixabay)

If there’s a hall of fame for futile, symbolic, and ultimately unconstitutional federal court orders, the temporary restraining order just issued in Seattle blocking Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation from posting blueprints for 3D-printed guns deserves at least a plaque, if not a full display. The court’s order temporarily overturns a Trump administration legal settlement that reversed an Obama-era policy designed mainly to limit the spread of the relevant files abroad, not here at home. I love NPR’s sardonic Twitter response:

NPR gets it. Let’s be clear about what has just happened. A federal court has issued a prior restraint on speech (it’s attempting to block the spread of information; it is not blocking the lawful home manufacture of firearms) that is already thoroughly and completely moot. The files are out. They’re all over the Internet. They’ve been copied and reproduced. The judge’s order can’t change that fact.

Moreover, Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation are hardly the only sources for online files or blueprints that enable a home manufacturer with a 3D printer to make a gun. I’m honestly unclear what the court is trying to accomplish here, aside from targeting the Trump administration and/or targeting a disfavored private company.

Earlier today I published a lengthy explainer of the factual and legal issues surrounding the 3D-printed gun controversy. I’d urge you to read the whole thing, but the bottom line is easy to understand. First, home manufacture of weapons is clearly lawful, and it has been common practice in the United States since before the founding of the nation. Second, it is thus just as lawful to “print” a gun as it is to assemble one with parts in your garage. Third, the plans to print guns are widely available on the internet — and have been for some time.

Put another way, a gun that’s lawful to assemble is lawful to print. A gun that’s unlawful to assemble is unlawful to print, and that includes undetectable plastic guns that are either printed or assembled. It’s that simple.There is no new “threat” here. There is no crisis.

The injunction thus accomplishes nothing of any meaning in the real world, but it does have legal consequences for free speech. A federal judge is trying to block the free flow of information, including instructions as to how to make entirely lawful products. I would say this is dangerous, but given the high likelihood that his order will be overturned, let’s just call it irresponsible.

One final note. Watch for an avalanche of misinformation in media reports about the injunction. I’m going to point you to a number of tweets from the Washington Free Beacon’s Stephen Gutowski. He’s a one-man fact-checking machine. For example, read this:

And this:

And this:

We are in the grips of a bizarre political panic that is disconnected from the facts and the law but is deeply connected not just to the larger culture war over gun rights in the United States but also to the deep suspicion of virtually any action taken by the Trump administration. There was a time when we could have greater confidence in federal courts to take a breath, soberly consider the issues, and introduce a measure of reason and rationality to legal debate. In some courts — especially when Trump administration actions are at issue — those days are long past.

Update: The court’s opinion is now online, and it’s a depressing read. It contains no meaningful First Amendment analysis, and its finding that there would be irreparable harm absent an injunction is — given the facts — astounding:

A side effect of the USML has been to make it more difficult to locate and download instructions for the manufacture of plastic firearms. If an injunction is not issued and the status quo alters at midnight tonight, the proliferation of these firearms will have many of the negative impacts on a state level that the federal government once feared on the international stage.

What? The information is already out there. It takes seconds to locate. His order is the equivalent of ordering the government to block a gun store’s website without touching the vast bulk of gun sales information already on the Web. And note what else the judge did. He extended federal regulations designed to deal with the proliferation of weapons abroad to apply here at home. He changed the law. He modified its purpose and scope to match the intentions of the litigants in his courtroom. Once again, a federal judge has overstepped his constitutional bounds.

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