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Sharing 3D-printed gun blueprints ruled illegal (again)

Image credit: Dreamstime

A federal judge has struck down the Trump administration’s decision to allow the online distribution of blueprints for manufacturing handguns with 3D printers.

The ruling is another reversal in a long-running legal case over the legality of distributing the computer-aided design (CAD) files online, allowing anybody to manufacture their own unregistered lethal weapon using a 3D printer or milling machine.

Defense Distributed, an organisation which develops CAD files for firearms, was engaged in a legal battle with the US State Department for several years over its distribution of CAD files for the ‘Liberator’: the first fully 3D-printed handgun.

The dispute began in May 2013 after the files were uploaded and the State Department requested that they were removed, arguing that they violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which restricts the export of military equipment. The files were removed after being downloaded more than 100,000 times, although they remained available on the dark net.

Defense Distributed partnered with a pro-gun lobby group to sue the State Department over the forced removal of the files – pleading first amendment rights – and setting in motion a years-long legal saga.

In July 2018, the Justice Department ruled in favour of Defense Distributed, allowing it to restart distribution of the CAD files. Although a restraining order was issued to suspend the free distribution of the CAD files, Defense Distributed used a legal loophole to continue distributing the designs through sales to individuals.

The government was subsequently sued by a coalition which included 19 state attorneys-general, seeking for the CAD files to be removed from distribution again.

Now, Judge Robert Lasnik of the US District Court in Seattle, Washington – who issued last week’s restraining order – ruled that the decision made by the Obama-era State Department was legitimate and the Justice Department violated federal law for failing to notify Congress before making the decision and for not providing a “reasoned explanation” of the change in policy. Lasnik characterised the Trump administration’s decision as a “arbitrary and capricious” violation of federal law, which requires the government to “do more than simply announce a contrary position”.

New York Attorney General Letitia James described the ruling as “a vindication of sound decision-making on matters that would have a profound impact on public safety”.

The ruling [PDF] is a summary judgement, meaning that the case will not go to a trial. The saga is unlikely to be over, however; a representative for Defense Distributed told the New York Times that it would be appealing and expected a “swift reversal” of Lasnik’s ruling.

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