WASHINGTON – Three courts on Tuesday barred the chief promoter of 3D-printable guns from posting his designs online, just hours before a midnight deadline that would have made such information widely accessible.
Courts in New York, New Jersey and Washington State issued rulings barring Cody Wilson and his company, Defense Distribution, from uploading instructions for making 3D-printable guns at midnight Wednesday – as he had planned to do under a settlement reached in June with the Trump administration
"Today Cody Wilson committed to not publish any new printable gun codes nationwide until a court hearing in September," New Jersey's attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, announced, calling it a "big victory for public safety and law enforcement safety.”
Wilson downplayed the court agreement in an email to USA TODAY.
"We agreed to maintain the status quo, keep up existing files, block (New Jersey) IP addresses, and not post new files. We gave up nothing," Wilson said.
The legal tussle came after President Donald Trump weighed in on the issue – and less than 24 hours before the technology was poised to become widely available under a settlement his own administration reached this year with Defense Distributed, a Texas-based nonprofit.
Trump said in a tweet Tuesday morning that he was "looking into" easy access to blueprints for 3D-printable guns, saying the idea "doesn't seem to make much sense."
Wilson first designed a 3D-printable plastic pistol, called the "Liberator .380," in 2012 and put the plans online. The State Department quickly advised Wilson to remove the information, saying it could be a violation of international export law.
Wilson complied but sued the State Department and its chief, John Kerry, who ran the agency in the Obama administration. The State Department has purview over the issue because it's in charge of enforcing the Arms Export Control Act and other arms trafficking regulations. The Arms Export Control Act authorizes the president to control the import and export of defense weapons and defense services and to regulate their import and export.
In June, the State Department, now led by Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, settled the case with Wilson. Under that agreement, Defense Distributed would have been able to post downloadable instructions for 3D-printable guns starting Wednesday, making such firearms available to anyone with the right machine and materials.
The printers needed to make the guns can cost from $5,000 to $600,000, according to Vice News. Would-be gunmakers also need high-quality plastic.
Defense Distributed already sells parts that help users build their own untraceable firearms, known as "ghost guns" for their lack of serial numbers. All 3D-printed guns are untraceable, and since you can make them yourself, no background check is required.
That prospect has rattled gun control advocates, who fear it could worsen the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S. and make it easier for terrorists to gain access to a raft of deadly firearms. New Jersey, along with seven other states and the District of Columbia, sued the Trump administration Monday seeking to block the 3D-printed weapons from becoming available.
Grewal said a New Jersey state court ordered that Wilson and other defendants "have agreed that they will not upload any additional files” on their websites until a hearing this fall.
"I was proud to stand up to Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed, and to make clear that their plans to share printable gun codes with everyone – including terrorists, criminals, and juveniles – was a threat to all our residents," Grewal said. "Now that Cody Wilson is stepping back from publication, the court is going to hold him to his promise not to post any new files until September."
Pompeo suggested last week that he would review the issue, in response to questions from lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But on Tuesday, State Department officials suggested Pompeo was not planning to take further action on the issue.
The agency's spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, defended the decision to settle the case, saying that move was based on legal advice from the Justice Department.
“The reason that the State Department got involved … is because of our role in controlling foreign access to U.S. defense technology,” she said. “The State Department wants to prevent the wrong people from acquiring weapons overseas.”
But, she said, “we were informed that we would have lost this case in court, or would have likely lost this case in court, based on First Amendment grounds … The Department of Justice suggested that the State Department and the U.S. government settle this case, and so that is what was done.”
Nauert said the debate has now become about domestic gun control, an issue better suited for Congress and law enforcement officials.
“At least since the year 2013 … these computer-assisted design files have been available online,” she added.
In his tweet Tuesday morning, Trump said he had talked to the NRA about the issue.
Tuesday afternoon, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said the president was "committed to the safety and security of all Americans and considers this his highest responsibility. In the United States, it is currently illegal to own or make a wholly, plastic gun of any kind – including those made on a 3D printer. The administration supports this nearly two-decade-old law. We will continue to look at all options available to us to do do what is necessary to protect Americans while also supporting the First and Second amendments."
The National Rifle Association dismissed the concerns of gun-control advocates, saying even if the blueprints are available, the plastic guns will still be illegal.
“Many anti-gun politicians and members of the media have wrongly claimed that 3-D printing technology will allow for the production and widespread proliferation of undetectable plastic firearms," Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
"Regardless of what a person may be able to publish on the Internet, undetectable plastic guns have been illegal for 30 years," Cox said, pointing to a 1988 federal law that prohibits the manufacture, import, sale and possession of an undetectable firearm.
The Wednesday deadline spurred some talk, but no real action, in Congress. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., tried to move legislation to bar the online publication of blueprints used to make functioning 3D-printed guns. But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, objected, saying the measure raised First Amendment concerns.
In a statement Tuesday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said, "Metal detectors and other security measures will be completely useless against the flood of undetectable and untraceable ‘ghost guns’ that the GOP is inviting into our schools, workplaces, airports and public buildings."
She called the move to allow 3D-printable guns a “sickening NRA giveaway" that "undermines the very foundations of public safety."