A federal judge in Washington state ruled Monday that the government needs to keep in place a ban effectively blocking a Texas-based company from posting online plans for 3D-printed firearms, ruling that the Trump administration likely cut too many corners in its decisions.
U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik extended his ban, first issued late last month, saying concerns about public safety and a potential spate of downloaded plans outweigh Americans’ First Amendment rights to post the files online.
“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,” Judge Lasnik, a Clinton appointee, said in his 25-page ruling.
He said the case raises complicated questions about whether computer files can be protected speech — but said for now he presumes Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, has a First Amendment right to publish the blueprints. But he said that is “dwarfed” by the potential harm.
The judge said extending the ban on publication keeps things as they are, while he continues to review the situation.
The case arose out of a settlement Mr. Wilson reached earlier this year with the Trump administration, which reversed Obama-era objections based on military technology export laws.
Justice Department officials sided with Mr. Wilson in the case.
But Judge Lasnik said the government ignored steps in the regulatory process, including a requirement to notify Congress before removing items from the restricted export lists, and failed to do a full analysis of the effects of having 3D-printed firearms plans available online.
The Democratic state attorneys general who brought the lawsuit praised the ruling, saying they feared terrorists and other dangerous people barred from buying guns would have been able to circumvent the law and produce their own untraceable plastic weapons.
“Once again, I’m glad we put a stop to this dangerous policy,” said Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “But I have to ask a simple question: Why is the Trump administration working so hard to allow these untraceable, undetectable 3D-printed guns to be available to domestic abusers, felons and terrorists?”
Josh Blackman, one of the lawyers for Defense Distributed, said they were reviewing the court’s decision and weighing all their options.
In the weeks since Judge Lasnik’s original temporary restraining order, gun-rights advocates started posting some of the 3D blueprints to other websites, saying they weren’t bound by the court case or the Obama administration’s actions against Mr. Wilson.
Defense Distributed’s lawyers said with those plans available elsewhere, it made little sense to continue blocking Mr. Wilson from publishing.
Judge Lasnik said the outcry from gun control activists proved to him that there is a danger in allowing Mr. Wilson to post the files.
“The private defendants’ dogged pursuit of the right to publish these files — and the evident alarm with which the proposed publication has been met in the Congress, in the White House, amongst advocacy groups, and in state houses all over the country — suggest that further publication is not harmless,” he said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions clarified earlier this month that undetectable, plastic firearms are already illegal under federal law and that his department would vigorously enforce and prosecute violations.
Judge Lasnik said he appreciated the argument that the government is committed to enforcing the 1988 law, but the “untraceable and undetectable nature of these small firearms” poses a “unique danger.”
“It is of small comfort to know that, once an undetectable firearm has been used to kill a citizen of Delaware or Rhode Island or Vermont, the federal government will seek to prosecute a weapons charge in federal court while the State pursues a murder conviction in state court,” he said.