3D printer in action

3D gun blueprints available online again following four-year legal case

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The US Justice Department has ruled that computer-aided design (CAD) files for working guns are protected by the first amendment and should be allowed to appear again online.

For several years, the US State Department has been engaged in a legal battle with Defense Distributed, the organisation behind the Liberator, the world’s first fully 3D-printed handgun. This allowed anybody with access to a 3D printer or milling machine to produce ‘ghost guns’ (unregistered firearms).

After uploading the CAD files for the Liberator in May 2013, the State Department quickly requested that they be removed from the internet as they violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which restricts the export of military equipment. The files were removed, but not before being downloaded over 100,000 times.

Despite being removed from Defense Distributed’s website, the files have remained available on torrent web sites on the dark net.

Defense Distributed partnered with the Second Amendment Foundation – a pro-gun lobby group – to sue the State Department over the removal of the CAD files, as the case moved through the US judicial system. Defense Distributed argued that the removal of the CAD files was a violation of the first amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech.

Now, the US Justice Department has ruled in favour of Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation, and returned $10,000 (£7,700) from the State Department to the company. This decision will allow the organisation to restart its work and for Americans to “access, discuss, use and reproduce” the files.

Defense Distributed announced that it would upload the files again on August 1 2018, stating on its website that: “The age of the downloadable gun formally begins”.

The decision has provoked concern that the 3D printing of guns could result in virtually anyone being able to acquire an unregistered lethal weapon. This would likely be more strongly felt by countries and regions with stronger gun control laws than the US. Many downloads of the Liberator in 2013 were traced to the UK, Germany and Spain, where firearm possession is highly restricted by European law. The state government of New South Wales, Australia, has passed legislation criminalising possession of CAD files for printable firearms.

In 2016, the UK Home Office updated its guide to Firearms Licensing Law to explicitly state that 3D printing weapons is illegal under existing laws.

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