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Case over 3D-printed guns likely to raise more legal questions

Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, shows a plastic handgun made on a 3D-printer at his home in Austin, Texas on May 10, 2013. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)

Eight states — led by Washington — have sued the federal government over 3D-printed guns, arguing that it’s too dangerous for the homemade instructions to be available online.

But the plastic-printing method isn’t the only option for crafting firearms. In fact, it’s not illegal to make your own gun, as Cody Wilson — the man at the center of the controversy — has argued.

Wilson has argued that the information for 3D-printed guns should not be restricted on the internet. The case is opening up a range of issues surrounding firearms from free speech rights to the ability to make your own homemade gun. Those issues will likely land in court.

Does Wilson have a free-speech case?

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“No,” former Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna told Seattle’s Morning News. “I don’t think Wilson has a particularly strong First Amendment claim here. He’s engaged in commercial activity; he receives a lower level of protection than political speech. That doesn’t mean it’s completely unprotected. There is protection for commercial speech. But there are all kinds of regulations that limit it.”

In Wilson’s case, there are many factors to consider. For example, it’s illegal to export weapons of war. Transferring such information over the internet where it could end up in Jordan, North Korea, or San Marino. The question then is whether a 3D-printed plastic gun is of strategic use.

“Unless you want to give it to your enemies so they will blow their hand off when they try to use it,” McKenna said.

“Now, the company Defense Distributed, the subject of this lawsuit, has greater ambitions than that little one-shot pistol we’ve all seen pictures of – that was back in 2013,” McKenna said. “They now say they want to release plans for an AR-15 receiver, which is the heart of any gun … It’s possible that as technology improves with 3D printing … that more sophisticated weapons could be easier to produce. Of course, the big concern with plastic weapons is they are hard to trace or be detected in a metal detector.”

Homemade 3D-printed guns

On the other hand, people have been making their own guns at home without printers for a long time. Wilson also sells milling kits which allow users, legally, to make their own — serial number free — receivers for AR-15s and handguns.

He’s not the only one in the ghost gun market. As long as a person makes their own gun and keeps it, that’s legal. If they sell it, that’s when they break the law.

“People have been making their own weapons without 3D printers for a while,” McKenna said, further noting that the 3D-printer option does add another layer to the issue — they are very, very expensive.

“… after all, it’s probably a lot easier to buy a firearm for a lot less money than to buy all the equipment it would take to make one at home,” he said.

The next battleground between gun rights and gun control could very well be over 3D-printed guns, asking questions over how much access should people have to making their own firearms at home.

“It arguably is the most fundamental right, which is to protect yourself,” McKenna said. “If you need to make your own weapon to do it, you should be allowed to do so. It gets a lot trickier when you talk about how you keep people from transferring those weapons to other folks. At that point, you are committing a federal crime, so hopefully, it doesn’t happen that often.”

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