The Legal Ramifications of 3D Printable Firearms

Efrain Alvarado III

Defense Distributed v. United States Department of State (2016) dealt with an interesting interpretation of the First Amendment that ultimately questioned whether or not the source code for 3D printed CAD (computer-aided-drafting) files that are printable guns ought to be protected as expression of free speech. Defense Distributed, a nonprofit that promotes Second Amendment rights by encouraging global access to information related to the printing of 3D firearms, published several CAD files that allowed users to print not only parts to certain weapons, but in the case of “The Liberator,” the world’s first 3D printable handgun. The State Department sent Defense Distributed a letter declaring under the Arms Export Control Act that the CAD files in question could not be “exported,” prompting Defense Distributed to file a suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas alleging that their prosecution under the AECA was a case of unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech. Defense Distributed was seeking a preliminary injunction which forbade the proposed prepublication requirements that were set forth by the State Department.

The Court found that although restrictions on First Amendment freedoms ought to be considered with the highest level of scrutiny, the public interests appealed to by Defense Distributed were deemed unworthy of overriding the interest of the government in preserving national security. The argument of Defense Distributed did not account for the authority that the President and Congress have over foreign policy (as relating to the AECA), and the Court deemed such matters “largely immune from judicial inquiry or interference.”[1] And though these regulations do implicate speech, the fact that the intention of the State Department’s measures was to preserve national security justifies this use of prior restraint as content-neutral and permissible.

The ruling was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit upon further appeal, with the Court further emphasizing that the public interest in safety and national security outweighed the plaintiffs’ interest in having their First Amendment rights protected. Also, the ruling was affirmed because the proposed injunction (if allowed) would permit Defense Distributed and others to post all the gun related and non-gun related CAD files they so desired, and due to the nature of the internet these files posted in the interim would conceivably remain online forever. The actions of both the Texas Western District Court and the Fifth Circuit (though they basically ignored the issue of whether or not CAD files in general are protected by the First Amendment) were sensible and justifiable in the long term. Allowing the printing of 3D weapons seems to be an issue deeper than simply free speech and the right to bear arms – allowing such technologies to flourish without proper safety regulations could create a previously nonexistent black market for illegally printed weapons, and the Court at least addressed this fact.

[1] “Defense Distributed v. United States Department of State.” Harvard Law Review. Accessed April 22, 2017.


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