Ghost guns: Legal fight heats up over 3D-printed weapons
Amanda Coletta, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, July 31, 2018 12:00PM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, August 5, 2018 8:26AM EDT
A U.S. federal judge has temporarily stopped the release of online blueprints for 3D-printed guns, just hours before the plans were expected to be made available.
It’s the latest move in a years-long legal battle between a Texas man, Cody Wilson, and the U.S. government.
Wilson, a self-described anarchist and the founder of the non-profit Defense Distributed, sued the government in 2015 after the Obama-era State Department forced him to remove blueprints he posted online in 2013 for a 3D-printed, single-shot pistol, mostly made of plastic, called “The Liberator.”
Wilson argued efforts to stop him from publishing his plan -- which had been downloaded 100,000 times before its removal -- infringed upon his free speech rights.
The government accused him of violating federal export laws governing military hardware because his blueprints could be downloaded and used to make weapons outside of the United States.
But, in an abrupt reversal of the previous government’s position, the Trump administration changed course in June, settling its case against Wilson and giving him the go-ahead to post his blueprints again. He said he would begin doing so Aug. 1.
However, on Tuesday afternoon a federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order on the blueprints, after eight Democratic attorneys general said the guns would be a public safety risk.
Wilson’s blueprints have evolved beyond those for the Liberator to now include ones for 3D-printed AR-15 semiautomatic rifles -- the weapon of choice for those who have carried out mass shootings in the United States -- as well as for 3D-printed “bump stocks” that enable AR-15s to fire faster.
Defense Distributed celebrated the decision with a post on its website welcoming “the age of the downloadable gun.”
Alarm among gun-safety advocates
Gun-safety advocates see 3D-printed weapons as the latest iteration of so-called “ghost guns,” which are unregistered and untraceable.
In 2013, John Zawahiri, who had failed a gun background check, killed five people at a college in Southern California with a gun he made himself. To bypass California’s gun laws, Zawahiri legally bought an “unfinished receiver” -- the metal piece that holds the key mechanisms that allow guns to fire -- and built a do-it-yourself assault rifle. Unfinished receivers are unregulated, untraceable and available for purchase online, at gun stores and at gun shows.
Guns made using 3D printers are similar. They, too, are unregistered, lack the serial numbers that allow law enforcement officials to trace firearms and their plastic bodies make them undetectable by metal detectors.
Gun-safety groups, some lawmakers and law enforcement officials, reacted with alarm to news of the government’s settlement, which has stoked fears that criminals, people with a history of mental illness, possible terrorists or those like Zawahiri who might otherwise fail background checks, will be able to easily get their hands on deadly weapons.
A number of gun-safety groups, including the Brady Centre to Prevent Gun Violence, launched a last-minute attempt last week to get a federal court in Texas to block the settlement, which it described in a letter to the judge as “troubling,” “dangerous” and “potentially illegal.” But their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was questioned about this issue during his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week and promised to “take a look at it.”
Evolution of 3D printing technology
Though they are not yet ubiquitous, it is becoming more commonplace to manufacture objects -- from tooth implants to jewellery to mobile phone cases to components for jet engines -- with 3D printers.
The machines are “starting to push further and further into the supply chain,” Timothy Simpson, a mechanical engineering professor at Penn State University, told CTVNews.ca.
High-end 3D printers that an aerospace company might use cost millions of dollars, but a number of cheaper models are sold at Staples and Amazon. But Simpson doubts the inexpensive printers will be capable of making a fully functioning firearm.
“It’s not just ‘get a printer and you’re good to go,’” Simpson said, adding that there is a high level of technical knowledge and cost involved with manufacturing a usable 3D-printed gun. “If the plastic isn’t strong enough, the gun will blow up in their hand after firing. Use at your own risk.”
But as the 3D printing technology improves and the printers get cheaper and cheaper, some of the current obstacles involved with do-it-yourself 3D-printed firearms may be overcome, making access to the weapons easier.
A team at the University of Toronto’s Critical Making Lab printed a handgun using a $50,000 3D printer at the university in 2013, but it modified the gun’s blueprints so that the gun would be impossible to fire.
Police in Australia seized a number of handguns manufactured with 3D printers during a raid earlier this year. They believed the guns were capable of being fired.
Canada Border Services Agency told CTVNews.ca it includes 3D-printed firearms among “high risk commodities” and that their “interdiction is a CBSA enforcement priority.”
“Canadian firearms laws are clear. All travellers must declare any firearms in their possession when they enter Canada,” said the CBSA statement. “Anyone who does not declare them upon arrival can face prosecution and the firearms, and the vehicle used to carry them, may be seized.”
The RCMP, which says it is aware of the U.S. government’s decision, said that it is illegal in Canada to manufacture or possess a firearm without the appropriate licences.
In a statement to CTVNews.ca, Public Safety Canada said government officials are “closely monitoring developments related to 3D printed firearms, which do not change the law.”
In another statement issued Tuesday, Public Safety said that a business licence is required to produce a firearm in Canada, regardless of how it's made. It also said it's illegal to make or possess a firearm without the right licence and registration certificate.
The department commissioned a study in 2014 that would examine “3D printing technology and its implications for the manufacture of firearms, their components and ammunition and for current firearms legislation and policy.”
But the tender notice, which also asked for examples of “technological or software controls that could be put on 3D printers to prevent the production of 3D printed guns,” expired.
With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press