The pioneer of 3D printed guns has filed suit against the State Department over the agency’s assertion that publishing gun blueprints violates the Arms Export Control Act.
The lawsuit is in response to a dispute between Cody Wilson and the State Department that reaches back several years. In 2013, Wilson's company created the world's first 3D printed gun, the Liberator, and posted its designs online. "We were the first ones to really make a durable AR-15 receiver," Wilson said. "And then we were the first ones to do the AR magazine, the AK magazine, and then we did the printed pistol."
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In May of that year, the State Department sent the company, Defense Distributed, a letter demanding they remove the plans from the Internet. The letter also said the company may be in violation of the Arms Export Control Act.
"They actually didn’t even have any process to direct me to on this part of the lawsuit," Wilson said. "There wasn’t actually even a cease and desist, it was this kind of veiled threat demanding that I make some submissions to their agency and recognize their agency’s authority to claim commodity jurisdiction over the pieces."
"So the ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] is the regulation they use. … We’re not talking about international treaty or like the UN arms trade treaty or any of these other things that are now coming in with like fast track and all that stuff. We’re talking about a set of regs."
Wilson said the State Department is expanding its power to regulate not just the international transfer of firearms themselves but any data related to firearms, regardless of whether they were privately developed or not.
"Essentially … the administration is saying that it owns all intellectual property related to guns," he said.
The stakes for Wilson and Defense Distributed are high. They may face millions of dollars in fines and, Wilson said, "up to ten years in jail" for every time someone in another country downloaded the blueprints for his pistol. "So I’d say there’s limitless liability, I mean infinite time in jail," he said.
Wilson said he is the only one who has been targeted by the State Department despite the fact that many others have shared gun blueprints online. "Large forums of gun enthusiasts share information and data all the time, home builders," he said. "It’s absurd."
"In a way I felt kind of lucky because I knew that if I was able to hang in there and resource my organization we might actually be able to bring suit one day."
In the suit, which the gun rights group Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) has joined, Wilson is arguing that the State Department is in violation of not just the Second Amendment but also the First and Fifth Amendments. "If you have speech about another right in the Bill of Rights, that speech is even more protected, just like speech about jury trials and speech about your Fourth Amendment," he said. "It's super strict scrutiny, it’s like the strictest scrutiny if its speech about another protected right."
The State Department referred a request for comment on the suit to the Department of Justice, which did not respond. However, the State Department has filed papers opposing the suit. They argue, in part, that Wilson and SAF are not suffering irreparable injury and whatever injury they may be experiencing is outweighed by "the threatened harm to the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States."
The Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) said it stands with Wilson's attempt to educate people about 3D printed guns and would like to post his blueprints on their site. It called the State Department's efforts to stop Wilson "a bureaucratic game of merry-go-round."
"The right to keep and bear arms includes the ability to acquire or create arms," SAF Founder Alan Gottlieb said in a press release. "The government is engaging in behavior that denies this company’s due process under the Fifth Amendment.
"We’re compelled to file this action because the bureaucracy is evidently playing games and it’s time for these agencies to behave."
The support from SAF may mark a turning point in how gun rights activists look at Wilson and Defense Distributed. Up until now many have been unsure of what to make of him. After interviewing Wilson in 2013 Glenn Beck told him "I don’t know if we are friend or foe."
Wilson said he thinks the warming reception is because gun rights activists "realize we have a lot in common."
"Our appreciation for sovereign individual rights, a large channel runs through this by the firearm," he said. "We all should recognize that we believe in the individual right to acquire and make firearms. I wouldn’t say the gun community is coming around to anti-state. I don’t mean to insult anyone. The gun community too much of the time has too much love of federal authority federal rules. They’ve kind of fetishized ATF rule making. It’s alright to challenge these people every now and then."
"I hope the gun community can appreciate what we’ve done here."
Wilson is less hopeful that liberals, who've named him one of the "15 most dangerous people in the world," will be able to appreciate what he's trying to do. "Those are the lifestyle leftists," he said. "There’s nothing more leftist than what we’re doing here. We’re fighting for equality of activists, equality of means of production."
Wilson said his suit against the State Department is ultimately designed to make a point. "It’s worth demonstrating that it’s important to show that you’re serious with these people or they’ll abuse you, as they’ve done to me for a couple years," he said. "You just have to show that you’re not willing to put up with it; that’s just basic social signaling, everyone should fight, right? But not many people are willing to at the end of the day when it’s not economical."
"So I’m willing to exhaust all of my resources just to show it’s important to me."