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Federal judge maintains ban on posting files for 3D-printed guns

A federal judge effectively extended a ban that keeps Defense Distributed, the makers of the 3D-printed gun, from posting files for 3D-printed guns online until a court case is resolved.

FILE – In this Aug. 1, 2018, file photo, Cody Wilson, with Defense Distributed, holds a 3D-printed gun called the Liberator at his shop in Austin, Texas.
FILE – In this Aug. 1, 2018, file photo, Cody Wilson, with Defense Distributed, holds a 3D-printed gun called the Liberator at his shop in Austin, Texas.Read moreEric Gay

The federal judge who last month temporarily blocked a Texas group from posting more files for 3-D-printed guns on its website decided Monday to keep the ban in place until the court case is resolved, meaning Defense Distributed still cannot publish any "blueprints" for making guns with a 3-D printer.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik in Seattle granted a preliminary injunction in the case brought by the Washington state attorney general — along with the attorneys general of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and 17 other states — against Defense Distributed and the U.S. State Department.

"Plaintiffs have a legitimate fear that adding undetectable and untraceable guns to the arsenal of weaponry already available will likely increase the threat of gun violence they and their people experience," the judge wrote, listing participating states that have been the sites of school and workplace shootings or attempts.

His decision follows a week of drama last month when gun-control groups and Democratic politicians scrambled to find a way to stop Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson from posting the files on his website. Wilson had advertised his publication date as Aug. 1 but posted them a few days earlier; thus the files were copied, shared, and reposted before Lasnik's order on July 31 blocking their release.

After a five-year legal battle over the publication of the data, which began during the Obama administration, the State Department in April reached a settlement with Wilson that allowed him to post the files beginning on July 27.

The state prosecutors are arguing that the federal government didn't follow the proper procedure for making the rule change that allowed the files to be posted. They asked the court to declare that change invalid and issue an injunction in place that will last until the proposed modification has gone through the "proper" procedure.

Of the 10 files Wilson posted in July, one was a blueprint that allows users to 3-D-print a working firearm — without passing a background check or using a licensed gun dealer. Made of plastic, such guns don't have serial numbers and can't be detected by a metal detector unless they have metal parts. The guns shoot bullets, just as conventional guns do.

Lasnik's ruling followed written and oral arguments by both sides. In it, he concluded Wilson's posting of the data "would subvert the domestic laws of states with more restrictive firearm controls and threaten the peace and security of the communities where these guns proliferate."

The judge was also dismissive of Wilson's argument that the files are already available online, saying that didn't apply to any he might create in the future or files owned by others.

Wilson responded to the decision Monday afternoon with a tweet highlighting part of the judge's decision accompanied by a single word of commentary: "FARCE."

Wilson contends he has a First Amendment right to publish the files and says his initial effort succeeded because the files were released into the public domain. In recent days, he has sought donations for his organization on Twitter.

Lasnik said the First Amendment argument raises many questions, but he "decline[d] to wade through these issues," instead saying that Wilson's constitutional right to disseminate the files has not been taken away because the files can still be transmitted in any other way. It was this section that Wilson appeared to disagree with on Twitter.

The ruling was a setback not just for Wilson but for the State Department.

Lasnik dismissed the federal government's argument that the injunction was unnecessary because there is already a federal law, the Undetectable Firearms Act, that prohibits guns that don't set off metal detectors.

"The very purpose for which the private defendants seek to release this technical data is to arm every citizen outside of the government's traditional control mechanisms of licenses, serial numbers, and registration. It is the untraceable and undetectable nature of these small firearms that poses a unique danger," he wrote.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who led the case against the State Department and Defense Distributed, praised the decision, as did gun-control groups.

"Once again, I'm glad we put a stop to this dangerous policy," Ferguson said in a statement. "But I have to ask a simple question: Why is the Trump administration working so hard to allow these untraceable, undetectable 3-D-printed guns to be available to domestic abusers, felons, and terrorists?"

The State Department had originally banned Wilson from posting with an export-law argument, saying the blueprints posed a national security concern if downloaded by people in other countries. Now, the department says it does not regulate the spread of such data within the United States and argued in court filings that the states couldn't prove that they would be irreparably harmed by Wilson's posting of the files.

Trump has not weighed in on the debate beyond a July tweet saying he would look into the issue and that he didn't think printed guns made much sense. His press secretary said at the time that the Justice Department had made the decision to allow the files to be published without consulting Trump.

At a hearing early last week, Lasnik expressed frustration with the case, saying Congress should take action.

Wilson had already agreed to make the downloads inaccessible within Pennsylvania and New Jersey after the attorneys general of those states each sued him. The case in Pennsylvania was on hold while the Washington case proceeded.

The judge's ruling on Monday was also hailed by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. "This nationwide injunction is a tremendous win for public safety and common sense," Shapiro said in a statement. "These 3-D-printed guns represent an immediate threat to our communities, and we will continue the legal fight to ensure they don't end up in the hands of children, criminals, terrorists, and others who cannot legally possess firearms."