Is 3D-Printing A Gun Free Speech?

Protecting the right to blueprints

Liberator Gun On Display

Cody Wilson/Defence Distributed 2013, via Victoria & Albert Museum

Are the files to print a gun protected by the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, or neither? Ever since Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed 3-D printed and fired the Liberator pistol in May of 2013, there have been legal challenges to the gun--and to sharing the files used to print it. One of the strongest comes from the State Department, which is trying to use an act regulating the export of weapons to try and control the gun files. Coming to the defense of Defense Distributed are some First Amendment advocates.

On Friday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a 25-year-old nonprofit dedicated to protecting civil liberties in new media and communication platforms, filed a brief in support of Defense Distributed, claiming that “the government has gone too far by restricting online speech generally about certain technologies, and requiring would-be publishers to ask for a license to speak--in a process with no binding standards or meaningful government deadlines and no judicial oversight.”

Here’s the key statement from their brief:

The scope of [International Traffic in Arms Regulations]’s prohibition on speech could apply to members of the press republishing newsworthy technical data, professors educating the public on scientific and medical advances of public concern, enthusiasts sharing otherwise lawful information about firearms, domestic activists trading tips about how to treat tear gas or resist unlawful surveillance, and gun control opponents expressing a point about proliferation of weapons. Innocent online publication on certain topics is prohibited simply because a hostile foreign person could conceivably locate that information, use it to create something harmful, and use a harmful device against US interests. Speech cannot permissibly be repressed for such an attenuated and hypothetical government end.

In America, which has permissive gun laws, the existence of files to 3D-print guns is unlikely to noticeably increase the potential danger from guns. And if America is, through the State Department, trying to protect people in countries like Japan and Australia with strong controls on guns, they'll find that those nations have already used local laws to penalize the weapons and arrest gunmakers. Enforcing an arms control treaty against electronic files risks squashing speech, and attempts to solve a problem that is already under control.