On Wednesday, Jan. 30, a federal judge in Austin threw out a
suit filed by the 3D-printed-gun firm Defense Distributed against the attorneys
general of Los Angeles, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and for good measure
the governors of New York and Pennsylvania as well. Defense Distributed was trying to get the
federal court to overrule state and city laws that prohibit the sale of 3D-printed
gun plans. It’s an interesting study in
how the much-abused principle of federalism has been turned backwards by a
libertarian-style organization to overrule states’ rights—unsuccessfully so far,
at least on the surface.
First, the backstory.
In 2013, a 25-year-old libertarian and University of Texas law student
named Cody Wilson made the news by using a 3D printer to print a working
gun. Not only did he print and fire the
thing, but he made sure the news media knew about it. Not satisfied with just showing it could be
done, Wilson forged ahead to found a company called Defense Distributed, which
tried to sell plans online so that anybody could print 3D guns out of plastic
in the comfort of one’s own domicile.
The U. S. State Department then intervened, saying this was
against export regulations, and because the Internet has no borders, Defense Distributed
had to take the plans down. They did so,
but sued to get the right to put them back up, and in the summer of 2018, the
State Department settled with the company and withdrew its objection.
As soon as the company tried to put the plans up again, here
came a gang of attorneys general from twelve states where gun control is
popular: New York, New Jersey, Delaware,
and Pennsylvania, among others. They
sued to stop Defense Distributed, and won an injunction in Federal court to
In the meantime, Wilson himself was arrested for sexual
assault on a minor, and resigned from the company he founded. But Defense Distributed is still with us, and
currently sells inexpensive milling machines that people can use to make guns
at home. Milling machines aren’t
illegal—not yet, anyway. And in the
meantime, news reports show that private websites have plenty of 3D-gun plans
available, and nobody much is going after them to shut them down.
Any time technology advances to a point unanticipated by the
legal system, trouble can arise, and that seems to be what’s happened
here. When guns were considered so hard
to make that no legislator bothered to make home gun manufacturing illegal, it
was thought sufficient to regulate the sale and manufacture of firearms by
large industrial firms. The history of
how private ownership of guns in the U. S. has evolved to the present day is
much too long to summarize here, but a thumbnail sketch of the current debate
is as follows.
On one side there are those who hope for an ideal
civilization where nobody but a few idle policemen carry firearms, and maybe
not even them. Everyone is so
enlightened that armed conflict is inconceivable, and anyway, even if somebody
did want to start a fight, there’s no guns around to use, so nobody gets
shot—accidentally or otherwise. These
folks see increasing restrictions on private ownership of guns as the right
side of history, and view 3D-printed guns as a step backward in our progress
toward a gun-free future.
On the other side, you have rugged individualists who
believe it’s every person’s right to defend him- or herself with any means
necessary. And since there are a lot of
bad hombres out there, it’s your right to own and carry a gun. If the laws in your locality don’t allow you
to obtain one legally, then go home, download the plans from Defense
Distributed, and make your own.
I exaggerate on both sides for clarity, but the libertarian
position of minimal government clearly comes down on the side of gun ownership
and makership. It’s ironic, then, that
Defense Distributed finds itself calling on that bete noir of libertarianism, the behemoth called the federal
government, to squash the states’ rights to suppress gun making at home. But at least it’s consistent with the
philosophy behind the firm, which is basically that anybody should be able to
have a gun, and if you’re competent enough to run a 3D printer, you’re
competent enough to handle a gun.
A further likely irony is that in a few years, this whole
kerfuffle will probably look as outmoded as when record companies went around in
the 1980s trying to get a royalty assessed on blank tape and tape recorders,
because they were worried about the revenue they were losing when people copied
vinyl records instead of buying new ones.
When digital recording came along, and then the Internet, the bomb
really went off under the recording industry.
And now such efforts look merely quaint.
YouTube is now on track to harbor every audio and video recording ever
made, copyrighted or otherwise, and the idea of stopping them is like trying to
convince a stampeding elephant not to trample your daisies.
In other words, the attorneys general may have won this
battle, but it looks like in their fight against the spread of digital
firearms, they’re already losing the war.
Whether this is a good thing or not depends on which side
you favor in the conflict. Personally, I
do not own any firearms and I’m not fond of hunting, but some of the nicest
people I know do and are. As for Defense
Distributed, without its colorful leader Wilson and in view of the fact that a
lot of what it was trying to sell is online already, its days may be numbered. But the time when anybody can 3D print a
whole lot of things that other folks don’t want them to print is coming fast,
and we might as well be ready for it when it gets here.