Are 3D Printed Guns Illegal?
The invention of the printing press in the 15th century marked the beginning of a revolution in information on an unprecedented scale. As a result, education and literacy was no longer restricted to a select minority of the population. The print revolution also led to important legal developments, such as England’s Statute of Anne—the first legal regime for government-regulated copyright.
Fast-forward half a millennia, where the act of printing has broken and into the third dimension. 3D printing allows almost anyone with a computer and a 3D printer to replicate various objects, ranging from toy figurines to car parts. Early 3D printers relied on plastic filaments to fabricate objects. Today, more advanced 3D printers are more versatile, utilizing diverse materials with varying properties.
Will 3D printing spark another revolution, granting to the general public access to capabilities that were historically exclusive to an elite few? Can the public be trusted to use this newfound power responsibly?
In 2013, Defense Distributed, a small private company, uploaded one of the first blueprints to create a workable plastic firearm using a 3D printer. This development sparked concerns that resourceful, ill-willed people throughout the world could easily replicate a lethal weapon that could evade metal detectors in densely populated areas, such as airports. 3D printed firearms also implicate questions regarding free speech and Second Amendment rights.
Relevant Federal Laws
The federal Undetectable Firearms Act (UFA) prohibits any firearm that can get past a metal detector. Specifically, the UFA imposes criminal sanctions for the manufacture, possession, or transfer of any firearm that cannot be readily detected by walk-through metal detectors and x-ray machines commonly used at airports. Therefore, a 3D printed firearm made from plastic would violate the UFA’s prohibitions. However, a 3D printed firearm that integrated metallic materials to make it detectable at airports technically would not violate the UFA.
The U.S. Department of Defense demanded that Defense Distributed remove the blueprint files for its 3D printable gun pursuant to the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), which grants the U.S. government authority to control, as a national security measure, the import and export of certain firearms designs on the international stage. Under the AECA, uploading 3D printing blueprints for certain firearms controlled under the AECA would be illegal.
First Amendment Concerns
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal and state governments from abridging an individual’s freedom of speech. However, the individual right to free speech is not absolute. The government can restrict an individual’s speech through acts that are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest unrelated to the restriction of speech.
During the complicated litigation between various state governments, the U.S. Government, and Defense Distributed, the private defendant argued that being compelled to remove its design files from its website was an abrogation of its First Amendment rights. This issue raises questions as to whether the posting of computer files constitutes protected speech, and whether removal of those files under the AECA was an impermissible prior restraint or a regulatory measure that only incidentally limited the unfettered exercise of speech?
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington declined to rule on any First Amendment issues because they were irrelevant to the central issue about the federal executive’s authority to unilaterally modify AECA policy. However, the court commented that Defense Distributed’s free speech rights were “abridged, but it has not been abrogated. Regulation under the AECA means that files cannot be uploaded to the internet, but they can be emailed, mailed, securely transmitted, or otherwise published within the United States.”
Therefore, it appears, for the time being, that Americans can legally share digital designs for 3D printing firearms that won’t circumvent current public security measures. However, providing international access to such designs is subject to the U.S. government’s policies under the AECA.
Second Amendment Concerns
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantee’s an individual’s right to bear arms. Courts have held that the Second Amendment establishes an individual’s right to privately own firearms for purposes of self-defense. However, the degree to which gun rights can be regulated by the government to secure public safety remains largely within the perview of state governments.
If the government prohibited the digital dissemination of 3D printed firearms designs on the internet, it would raise questions about whether such a law would impair an individual’s ability to defend themselves, or if our Constitutional Founders even considered such a scenario when drafting the Second Amendment.
It is unlikely that the framers of the U.S. Constitution contemplated a situation where common people could easily produce their own firearms. However, if criminals would disregard any legal prohibition on 3D printed guns, would such a ban deprive law-abiding citizens of their right and ability to defend themselves? If criminals could use 3D printed weaponry to circumvent metal detectors, what should be done to keep people safe?
Need Legal Advice? Consult a Skilled Attorney from Scaringi Law
To better understand the nature and extent of your constitutional rights regarding the free exercise of speech or the right to bear arms, you should call Scaringi Law. We are a full-service law firm with experience handling various legal issues, including civil rights matters that impact your individual freedoms as guaranteed under the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions.
To schedule a free case evaluation about your legal rights and interests, call us at (717) 775-7195 or contact us online today.