Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
The debate over untraceable DIY guns has alarmed state and local leaders. How worried should we really be?
The man who founded Defense Distributed, the Texas-based nonprofit that planned to legally release plans for downloadable guns this Wednesday, is not your average Second Amendment bro. Cody Wilson is more of a post-libertarian-crypto-techno-anarchist, whose mission is to bring knowledge—and the means to produce weapons—into the hands of the people.
To do that, Defense Distributed published blueprints for a plastic gun that anyone could download and build with a consumer-grade 3-D printer. But in 2013, the Obama-led State Department sued, citing this as a violation of regulations against international arms distribution. Last month, Wilson’s group won a settlement by successfully arguing that posting instructions on the internet is protected under the First Amendment’s safeguards on free speech. The company announced plans to release the info online this week.
But before Defense Distributed could post its plans on Wednesday, Seattle District Court Judge Robert Lasnik served them a restraining order, blocking the designs from being released to the public.
The case has collected a curious collection of foes and supporters, with gun-rights and gun-control advocates squaring off amid contributions from free-speech defenders like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which supported Defense Distributed on First Amendment grounds) and the usually firearm-friendly President Donald Trump, whose vaguely worded tweet on Tuesday suggested at least some measure of opposition. (Or something.)
I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 31, 2018
The court-ordered ceasefire is a temporary one: A follow-up hearing in Seattle has been scheduled for August 10. But the DIY firearm debate is only starting, and in a nation with a patchwork of gun regulation, it may be city and state governments that have to take the lead on developing the language to regulate untraceable homebrew pistols—or to stop them from getting into the hands of the public in the first place.
“When you talk about gun homicides and assaults, it’s an urban problem,” said J. Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Obviously there are a range of other concerns about these downloadable guns, particularly as it applies to national security threats and national terrorism and being able to smuggle guns on planes. But when you talk about the assaults and homicides committed with firearms, the vast majority of those incidents occur in relatively small, relatively concentrated neighborhoods in U.S. cities.”
So far, experts on urban violence seem relatively unconcerned, in part because, relative to other gun control issues, the real-world threat posted by downloadable weapons is now pretty speculative. Among the most-talked-about Defense Distributed weapons is a single-shot model called “The Liberator,” built from plastic by a standard 3-D printer. But don’t expect a wave of Liberator-toting street criminals, says Sam Bieler, a former researcher at the Urban Institute and a law student at NYU who began researching the technology back in 2013. “Criminals commonly get their weapons through theft, corrupt firearm retailers, and black markets; 3-D weapons are likely to impact none of these channels,” he wrote then.
That argument still holds today. “As far as the kinds of cries of panic that this is going to be a tool that’s going to undergird a mass crime wave, you have to consider the risk posed by 3-D-printed firearms within the broader context of how easy it is for a skilled, determined person to get a gun already,” he said.
Indeed, it’s not yet clear whether downloadable weapons made from ABS plastic would even work well enough to cause much damage. As anyone who’s made an Ikea bed can tell you, just because something is DIY doesn’t mean you, Yourself, can Do It well. “A firearm produced with ABS material could break apart or even potentially explode in the hands of the user when fired,” according to 3-D printing trade magazine All 3DP.
For now, it’s easier to just pick up a $250 pistol at Walmart. But that may change: Defense Distributed intends to sell a computer-controlled milling machine called a Ghost Gunner for $2,000; it can mill firearms parts from steel, and it amounts to a desktop DIY weapons factory. Once that cost barrier to entry is surmounted, there would be few limits to the number of untraceable guns someone could print. The company’s site also supplies blueprints for a Beretta M1911, a Ruger 10/22 and an AR-15, along with the tools to make some of their components. “As these 3-D printing technologies get better, materials get better, products get stronger, and guns will pose more and more of a risk,” said Scaggs.
And printed weapons would effectively skirt existing U.S. gun regulations: Some form of background check is required to buy one in most states, and all licensed guns sold in the U.S. must have serial numbers.
In 43 states, cities are prevented from passing local gun regulation by state preemption policies. But local leaders do have options. Columbia, South Carolina, banned bump stocks using a loophole in state policy, and Florida cities have sued their state for the right to tighten gun laws. “While a city is not going to be positioned to stop someone around the world or around the country from posting downloadable guns online, what they can do is prohibit anyone from making a handmade gun, or prohibit possession of a gun without a serial number,” said Skaggs. “They can obviously penalize or criminalize any kind of undetectable firearm.”
Counterintuitively, Bieler suggests that tightening state- and city-level restrictions could end up fueling a DIY weapons boom, by encouraging people to find alternate means of arming themselves. “As more avenues are closed off, certainly the relative risks and value of 3-D printed arms could go up,” he said.
Judge Lasnick’s ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by Washington State Attorney Ferguson, plus attorneys from seven other states plus the District of Columbia. The suit took a state’s rights tack: Allowing citizens to evade state gun laws, it argues, violates the Tenth Amendment. States have the power to regulate guns on their turf, not the federal government—and especially not a private entity. The attorneys also argue that the settlement process happened too quickly for the public to weigh in or for state regulatory bodies to keep up, violating the Administrative Procedure Act.
“I am thankful and relieved Judge Lasnik put a nationwide stop to the Trump Administration’s dangerous decision to allow downloadable, 3-D-printed ghost guns to be distributed online,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who filed the original suit, in a statement. “These ghost guns are untraceable, virtually undetectable and, without today’s victory, available to any felon, domestic abuser or terrorist.”
Though city leaders haven’t yet taken legal action themselves, several Democrats and some Republicans have been vocal in their opposition. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. released a join statement urging the State Department to reverse the settlement:
Allowing this exemption from federal rules would be an unconscionable mistake … Invisible to metal detectors, these plastic guns could easily be smuggled onto airplanes, and into concerts, festivals, and government buildings. Untraceable, they would undermine the work of law enforcement by crippling criminal investigations before they even began. The State Department must not allow this company to have a special exemption to these rules. These blueprints should not be published under any circumstances.
In response to this perceived threat, Defense Distributed has preemptively sued Feuer, along with New Jersey State Attorney Gurbir Grewal, who had sent the company a cease-and-desist letter earlier this week. Other gun rights organizations have leapt to Defense Distributed’s defense, citing both the First and Second Amendments. “Our rights do not depend on what criminals do,” said the lobbying group Gun Owners of America in a statement. “We do not shut down printing presses because someone might use it to libel.”
Chris W. Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legal Action, released a statement Tuesday that downplayed the danger of the weapons, highlighting the fact that “undetectable plastic guns have been illegal for 30 years.” The federal law he’s talking about was passed in 1988, and prohibits making, selling, or possessing a firearm that isn’t detectable by metal detectors or “of which any major component, when subjected to inspection by X-ray machines commonly used at airports, does not generate an image that accurately depicts the shape of the component.”
The Liberator, however, skirts this law, thanks to a removable metal attachment Defense Distributed added to the design. To close the loophole, a pair of Democratic congressmen are looking to modernize the law, by adding a provision with language to prohibit 3-D guns specifically.
One voice that’s been relatively quiet in the discussion so far: the gun industry. Firearm makers and sellers are, of course, typically stout defenders of gun rights, but it’s possible some are uneasy with the prospect of seeing their business model get disrupted by a digital distribution model. CityLab called eight local gun stores in Virginia, New York, and Texas. None would comment on the record, and many said they “didn’t know much about” 3-D printed anything.