Plans for 3D-printed guns have spread across the internet over the past three weeks despite the efforts of a federal judge and some of the country’s largest social media companies to try to impose limits.
Gun rights supporters say the online explosion — one website owner who posted the plans said his site logged 1.4 million requests over the past three weeks — shows the futility of efforts to put the genie back into the bottle.
But gun control advocates are still battling and will be back in court Tuesday to ask U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik to extend his order halting a settlement between Texas-based Defense Distributed and the State Department, which struck a deal rolling back Obama-era restrictions on posting the plans.
Second Amendment supporters say it’s too late.
“The genie’s been out of the bottle for a very, very long time,” said Dave Kopel, research director of the Colorado-based Independence Institute. “There’s nothing any government in the world can do to prevent the fact that these files have been out there on the internet for five years and are going to be available to the public.”
That widespread availability could be key to the ongoing legal battle.
If the plans are out there elsewhere, blocking Defense Distributed from posting them on its website doesn’t make much sense, company founder Cody Wilson said.
He figures people have downloaded millions of the files for 3D-printed guns from his website since 2013, when he first briefly posted them. He took them down after the Obama administration said he could be violating export laws intended to control the spread of military technology.
Mr. Wilson argues that it’s a matter of free speech. He says he has a right to publish materials, including instructions for 3D printers to manufacture about 10 types of weapons or parts, including for an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle and a Beretta M9 handgun.
The Trump administration sided with Mr. Wilson and earlier this year struck the deal to lift the Obama administration’s export control objection.
A coalition of Democratic state attorneys general sued, arguing that the Trump deal was illegal.
Judge Lasnik stepped in on July 31 and ordered a halt to the deal, saying he wanted to hear full arguments.
He said the states had a “clear and reasonable fear” that the proliferation of undetectable weapons would enable people otherwise barred from possessing guns to get their hands on them. He said the states showed they would likely face “irreparable injury” if the files were posted, justifying a temporary restraining order.
Second Amendment supporters say the availability of the plans elsewhere belies the judge’s logic.
“There’s no irreparable harm — I published the [expletive] files,” said Mr. Wilson, who is also involved in legal battles over the issue in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Texas.
Brandon Combs, who helped set up one of the websites to ease some of the traffic for Mr. Wilson, said his site, CodeIsFreeSpeech.com, had surpassed 1.4 million requests as of Monday.
“No one paying any attention believes that the states have carried their burden for the issuance of a preliminary injunction,” said Mr. Combs, who is also president of the Firearms Policy Coalition.
The states say it doesn’t matter how many other sites have the plans. They fear the agreement between Mr. Wilson and the State Department could open the door for his company or other parties to push the envelope even further.
Gun rights supporters, though, say there is a difference between having the plans and creating a firearm from them.
The Trump administration has backed that distinction, arguing in court that it doesn’t have the ability to prevent private individuals in the U.S. from sharing the files. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a statement saying that making or possessing undetectable plastic guns is still illegal under federal law.
“Such firearms present a significant risk to public safety, and the Department of Justice will use every available tool to vigorously enforce this prohibition,” Mr. Sessions said.
Several gun control groups wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week asking him to issue cease-and-desist orders to anyone trying to share the 3D blueprints online.
“You are best positioned to safeguard America from the risks posed by foreign terrorists and other dangerous people gaining easy access to 3D printed guns without benefit of a background check, armed with weapons potentially undetectable by metal detectors and untraceable by law enforcement because they lack metal components and serial numbers,” they wrote.
The groups mentioned Mr. Combs’ group in the letter, as well as Illinois State Rep. Allen Skillicorn, who shared a password-protected link to Mr. Combs’ website this month.
Mr. Skillicorn said he was sticking up for free speech in sharing the link, that he didn’t see his actions as any different from a public library having copies of William Powell’s “The Anarchist Cookbook” on its shelves, and that the bigger concern should be on trying to prevent gun violence in hotbed areas such as Chicago.
“If the federal government or state governments try to censor this speech, it would be just like in ‘1984’ when the thought police would have to go out there and literally take away knowledge from the people,” he said.