By now, you’ve probably seen all the news regarding Defense Distributed, company founder Cody Wilson, and 3D-printed guns. As of last week, his story has showed up everywhere from ‘ podcast to Comedy Central’s . Issues surrounding 3D-printing firearms and firearms parts have recently come up in the Senate and been addressed by White House officials.
But it’s easy to get lost in all of this new coverage of his saga, so we thought we’d try to help clarify the major details and the current state of it all. Similar to the beginner’s guide to bitcoin we put together at the height of cryptocurrency hype, we’ve gathered the most common questions that come up in comments section or over a cup of coffee. Hopefully, these nine topics can help clear up some confusion regarding this strange intersection of technology and the law.
1) What happened legally with 3D-printed gun files this month?
Wilson’s Defense Distributed company runs DEFCAD, perhaps the best known online repository of gun files. On July 31, a federal judge in Seattle granted a “temporary restraining order” (TRO) preventing Defense Distributed from publishing its 10 firearms files. Previously, the company was set to release the files on August 1 after a surprising settlement with the Department of Justice seemingly ended a five-year legal battle.
But in his TRO, US District Judge Robert Lasnik seemed to ignore the fact that DEFCAD had jumped the gun (pardon the pun): the company made its files available early, on July 27, despite initially promising to release them on August 1.
Nevertheless, DEFCAD complied with the new order and removed the files. However, like many things that are uploaded to the Internet, these files have been mirrored on other websites. Other sites hosting the files do not appear to have been targeted by legal authorities.
The TRO had initially been requested by attorneys general from eight states, including Washington’s AG, Bob Ferguson. On August 2, that lawsuit was formally expanded to include 19 states and the District of Columbia.
The states argued that allowing Defense Distributed to release the files violated both the 10th Amendment (which allows states to regulate activity not specifically described in the Constitution) and also a federal administrative law.
In essence, they were concerned that if Americans could access these files and make anonymous, untraceable weapons, it would be circumventing state-level firearms laws that, for example, prevent people convicted of domestic abuse from legally obtaining a gun.
“We must do whatever we can to keep criminals from acquiring and creating these guns,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee said in a statement. “The Attorney General’s actions today are an important step in developing common-sense gun measures that will help to protect public safety.”
2) Back up, how did we get here?
Defense Distributed’s five-year legal battle began in 2013 when Wilson first published designs for the “Liberator,” the world’s first 3D-printed handgun.
Within months, Defense Distributed received a letter from the US Department of State’s Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance. The letter stated that 10 files, including the designs of the Liberator, were in violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
In essence, Defense Distributed was accused of violating American export law. So while domestic publication of the files was not at issue, Defense Distributed removed them all the same, fearful of facing criminal prosecution or a lawsuit.
But again, information on the Internet does not typically go away instantly. Immediately, these files began to circulate on foreign BitTorrent websites and domestically on sites like GitHub, where they remain.
Defense Distributed next re-submitted a “commodity jurisdiction request” to the Department of State, which the company hoped would formally clear the way for publication of the files. After waiting for two years, Defense Distributed, along with the Second Amendment Foundation, sued the State Department and argued that the government’s action constituted “prior restraint”—preventing publication before it occurs. In the United States, the Supreme Court has generally rejected the concept of prior restraint.
This became the basis for the lawsuit , which was filed in federal court in Texas.
In February 2016, the State Department even said that it was unconcerned if Wilson published the files and limited them to Americans. The case really continued to center on whether Defense Distributed could and would legally publish files worldwide and comply with export law, which forbids publication of military equipment like rocket launchers.
Ultimately, the federal district court denied Defense Distributed’s attempt at a preliminary injunction while not getting to the heart of the matter (or what lawyers call “on the merits”). This denial was upheld on appeal at the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2016.
The appellate court sent the case back down to the district court to resolve the dispute, and so on it went.
Then in June 2018, the Department of Justice, representing the Department of State, came to an agreement with Defense Distributed that opened the door for the company to recently publish.
The feds essentially agreed to change the relevant export laws. Defense Distributed would be allowed to publish, the DOJ would pay $40,000 of DD’s legal fees, and the case would be over. The Second Amendment Foundation announced the settlement on July 10. DEFCAD then announced that it would be putting the files back online on August 1.
That announcement, first reported by , resulted in a number of lawmakers, attorneys general, and activists sitting up and taking notice of this situation for the first time. As the self-imposed August 1 deadline approached, they rushed to throw legal obstacles in Wilson’s path.
In addition to the Seattle case, New Jersey brought a similar case in state court and Pennsylvania brought its own in federal court. On top of that, Defense Distributed preemptively sued both New Jersey and the City of Los Angeles in federal court in Austin. For now, the Seattle TRO seems to have put a freeze on all of those cases.
Josh Blackman, the lawyer who represents Defense Distributed in the Austin case, told Ars that no new lawsuits have been filed. “Once the TRO hit, things slow down.”