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OTHER VOICES:3D printable guns: An innovation that needs to be stopped

August 7, 2018

If you believe that America’s gun laws are too lax, imagine living in an America with no firearms limits at all: no background checks, no mental health standards, no age restrictions, no serial numbers on guns, not even the basic last-resort option of metal detection. Nothing.

That nightmare scenario is at the core of the controversy over 3D printable guns. It’s a complex issue around a simple question: Do we want to make it so difficult to enforce restrictions on the manufacture and ownership of firearms as to render any restrictions meaningless? If the courts don’t immediately short-circuit this particular use of technology, Congress should.

3D printing is amazing, and useful. Gun enthusiast Cory Wilson decided to use the technology to design plastic, functional guns for manufacture on 3D printers, including AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles, and to make those blueprints available online. Suddenly, people who couldn’t get guns through legal channels — say, because they’re too young or have mental health issues or violent criminal records — would be able to create an untraceable, generally undetectable arsenal right in their own homes.

For years, President Barack Obama’s administration prevented realization of this dark fantasy, keeping the blueprints off the internet with laws prohibiting foreign distribution of firearms. President Donald Trump’s State Department last month reversed that stance, potentially allowing Wilson to inaugurate what his website calls “the age of the downloadable gun.”

Last week, a federal judge granted a temporary nationwide injunction against posting the plans. The judge said Wilson’s scheme creates “a likelihood of irreparable harm.” But he also noted “serious First Amendment issues” with blocking Wilson from posting. A follow-up hearing is set for Aug. 10.

The First Amendment is arguably the most important protection in the Constitution, but even it isn’t absolute. A century ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that shouting “fire” in a crowded theater isn’t protected speech, but rather is action that creates an imminent threat of harm. It’s a standard that should apply here. Wilson isn’t seeking to express his opinions about guns; he is, in a real way, seeking to distribute gun components — those components being his 3D printable designs — with all the real-world imminent threat that entails.

Trump tweeted last week that his own State Department’s decision clearing the way for Wilson to post the blueprints “doesn’t seem to make much sense.” He’s right. The administration’s only official stance at this point is that it supports laws prohibiting operational plastic guns, yet it’s OK with distribution of all the information needed for anyone to make them?

Members of Congress who claim to favor “sensible” gun control — or really, any gun control at all — need to step up and ban these kinds of blueprints before this dangerous genie gets entirely out of the bottle.

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