3D Printing

Downloadable Gun Designs Are Here To Stay, Whether Politicians Like It Or Not

Officials trying to stop people from sharing information online are still raging against Napster.


collage of Defense Distributed designs

It would be nice if the courts were to acknowledge that sharing the designs for firearms online is just like printing them up and distributing them in a book—that is, an act of free speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It would be nice, and it's a point even conceded by at least one of the state attorneys general trying to stop Defense Distributed from sharing such plans online, but the legal nod is hardly necessary. The internet is a nearly perfect medium for distributing information no matter what the law says, which is something that politicians should have learned when they declared war on Napster almost two decades ago without making a dent in file-sharing. Just like shared music and movie files, downloadable gun plans are here to stay.

"I'm sorry that some people are just waking up to the idea that the First Amendment protects scientific inquiry that doesn't advantage…what?…the gun control movement?" commented Cody Wilson, head honcho of Defense Distributed, to Fox News's Chris Wallace on Sunday.

Wilson spoke after the federal government dropped its efforts to keep gun designs off the Internet by insisting they violated munitions-export rules. In fact, the federal government hadn't actually accomplished its censorious goal at all—except in the case of high-profile Defense Distributed, which developed the first 3D-printed firearm, the Liberator. The federal settlement recognized reality and let Defense Distributed loose to do what others were already doing. Then, a gaggle of state attorneys general promptly freaked out in public and found a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) forcing Defense Distributed to take its DefCad.com file repository offline.

Wilson's point about the First Amendment would seem to have been confirmed by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, one of the would-be muzzlers who sought the TRO against Defense Distributed.

"Posting this material online is no different than driving to New Jersey and handing out hard-copy files on any street corner," huffed Grewal on a website that disseminated his musings far and wide. "The federal government is no longer willing to stop Defense Distributed from publishing this dangerous code, and so New Jersey must step up."

Well, yes; "hard-copy files" are also known as books, and you can pick up books containing gun designs at street-corner booksellers in New Jersey and elsewhere, as well as online. You can even pick up books on illegal activities (making your own gun is perfectly legal in the United States), like manufacturing methamphetamine, because publishing and sharing information on such activities is protected free speech under the First Amendment.

Perhaps Grewal let slip his comparison because, unbeknownst to many of us, Cracker Jacks not only continue to be manufactured as a tasty treat, but also occasionally include law degrees as valuable prizes. Or maybe Grewal is just uncomfortable with the whole free speech thing and would happily burn books as well as websites if he had his way

Fortunately for those of us who do favor free speech and don't especially care about the legal savvy or legislative preferences of government officials, knowledge is even harder to scrub from the Internet than it is from the printed page. Soon after DefCad went dark, the files it contained were mirrored and distributed across the Internet.

The highest-profile of the mirror sites is Codeisfreespeech.com, sponsored by the Firearms Policy Coalition, Firearms Policy Foundation, the Calguns Foundation, and the California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees. In response to gun-controllers' protests, that site was quickly booted from Amazon's hosting service. But in a demonstration of the uphill battle faced by online censors, it was back online before you could blink. All of Defense Distributed's gun design files are currently available for download, and for dropping into a cloud folder to share with friends, or attaching to emails and instant messages.

Go ahead and spread the good word.

It's difficult to believe that government officials didn't anticipate the failure of their efforts to suppress the files—if we ignore the inherent limitations of intellect and historical knowledge under which such creatures function, that is.

When the French government, in 1996, banned Le Grand Secret, a tell-all confessional by President Francois Mitterand's personal physician, it was promptly scanned and distributed around the globe to evade censorship (Reason contributor Declan McCullagh prominently participated in that effort).

When a federal court issued an injunction against the Napster music file-sharing service in 2001, the company went away, but file-sharing became more popular than ever. Enthusiasts developed peer-to-peer technology independent of centralized servers, and therefore much harder to shut down.

And BitTorrent—coupled with faster Internet connections—makes the sharing of large files, such as movies, an easy task, no matter what the law allows. Despite repeated government efforts, online sharing of music and films is reportedly bigger than ever.

"Is the genie already out of the bottle?" Chris Wallace went on to ask Cody Wilson in that Fox News interview. "Is this information already out there and we're arguing about something that's already happened?"

Well, yes! The genie absolutely is out of the bottle.

It would be best if government officials recognized that sharing gun design files is a legitimate exercise of free speech rights, just as is disseminating any other kind of knowledge. Living under a restrained regime that respects your rights is better than exercising those rights in defiance of a hostile, but generally impotent one.

But people will continue to exercise their free speech rights, with or without legal permission. And so downloadable gun design files are here to stay.