State Department Goes After Maker Of 3D-Printed Gun

The State Department tries to scrub information about the 3D-printed gun from the Internet.

3D-printed-gun-liberator-570x380

The company that made the world’s first 3D-printed gun has received a notice from the State Department warning it to remove the schematic details of the weapon from its website and submit its blueprints for review in connection with enforcement of laws against international weapons trafficking:

The battle for control of dangerous digital shapes may have just begun.

On Thursday, Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson received a letter from the State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance demanding that he take down the online blueprints for the 3D-printable “Liberator” handgun that his group released Monday, along with nine other 3D-printable firearms components hosted on the group’s website Defcad.org. The government says it wants to review the files for compliance with arms export control laws known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. By uploading the weapons files to the Internet and allowing them to be downloaded abroad, the letter implies Wilson’s high-tech gun group may have violated those export controls.

“Until the Department provides Defense Distributed with final [commodity jurisdiction] determinations, Defense Distributed should treat the above technical data as ITAR-controlled,” reads the letter, referring to a list of ten CAD files hosted on Defcad that include the 3D-printable gun, silencers, sights and other pieces. “This means that all data should be removed from public acces immediately. Defense Distributed should review the remainder of the data made public on its website to determine whether any other data may be similarly controlled and proceed according to ITAR requirements.”\

Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas in Austin, says that Defense Distributed will in fact take down its files until the State Department has completed its review. “We have to comply,” he says. “All such data should be removed from public access, the letter says. That might be an impossible standard. But we’ll do our part to remove it from our servers.”

(…)

Wilson argues that he’s also legally protected. He says Defense Distributed is excluded from the ITAR regulations under an exemption for non-profit public domain releases of technical files designed to create a safe harbor for research and other public interest activities. That exemption, he says, would require Defense Distributed’s files to be stored in a library or sold in a bookstore. Wilson argues that Internet access at a library should qualify under ITAR’s statutes, and says that Defcad’s files have also been made available for sale in an Austin, Texas bookstore that he declined to name in order to protect the bookstore’s owner from scrutiny.

Despite taking down his files, Wilson doesn’t see the government’s attempts to censor the Liberator’s blueprints as a defeat. On the contrary, Defense Distributed’s radical libertarian and anarchist founder says he’s been seeking to highlight exactly this issue, that a 3D-printable gun can’t be stopped from spreading around the global Internet no matter what legal measures governments take. “This is the conversation I want,” Wilson says. “Is this a workable regulatory regime? Can there be defense trade control in the era of the Internet and 3D printing?”

At least part of the answer to that question would seem to be no. In the days since they were first uploaded to the Internet, it’s estimated that some 100,000 people have downloaded the blueprints that Wilson posted when he first announced the successful manufacture of the gun, although it doesn’t appear that anyone as of yet has been successful at repeating Wilson’s effort. Moreover, those files were not uploaded to a server in the United States to begin with. Instead, they were hosted by Mega, a storage service based on New Zealand that was created by ex-hacker, entrepreneur, and frequent critic of the U.S. government Kim Dotcom. As the linked article notes, while the files have been removed from Defense Distributed’s site, it’s not at all clear that they’ve been removed from Mega, nor is it clear whether Dotcom would host the files elsewhere on his site. Moreover, the files have also appeared on Pirate Bay and several other well-known file sharing sites over the last couple days, all of them outside the jurisdiction of the United States. No doubt, the files will start appearing elsewhere now that the State Department has taken this action.

I know next to nothing about ITAR so I cannot comment on whether or not their actions are appropriate here,or whether Wilson is correct that he ought to be protected by the safe harbor allowed for research. At first glance, it would appear that he has a fairly good case that what he was engaging in is research, but the other side of the argument is that he’s spreading weapon’s technology to other parts of the world, including nations that we normally bar such technology to. That’s the problem with the Internet, though, and why the government’s actions here strike me as closing the barn door after the horses have left. In just the short few days that the files were publicly available, they have traveled around the world. Eventually, probably sooner rather than later, someone is going to replicate what Wilson did and others will begin to improve upon his design. Wilson started out this project to make a point about the uselessness of regulation in an era of the Internet and 3D printers. Despite the State Department’s action yesterday, I’d argue that he’s already largely succeeded.

A copy of the letter is embedded below.

Letter From Department of State to Defense Distributed by dmataconis

FILED UNDER: Guns and Gun Control, Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    An interesting legal argument, at least.

  2. john personna says:

    Interesting. I think there are a lot of CNC files out there for gun parts (that would be “reductive” creation rather than ‘additive” printing, but often in better materials). I don’t believe the CNC files have ever had a take-down???

  3. Scott says:

    Unlike physical borders, there is no barrier to information, therefore no “national” information. As we go deeper into the digital and information age, the idea of the individual state will become less and less viable. Just as here in the US where the states are less and less meaningful, countries will be less and less meaningful. One-world government, here we come whether we like it or not.

  4. This is a pretty straight forward application of ITAR. If Cody Wilson didn’t see this coming, he’s an idiot. Although there’s some speculation this is exactly the response he wanted, in order to kick off a legal battle similar to the Phil Zimmerman case in the 1990s, related to ITAR ‘s applicability to strong cryptography.

  5. @Stormy Dragon:

    And should be noted that while I’m not a lawyer, I work in defense, so I have to go through annual ITAR training to avoid doing something exactly like what happened here. ITAR is one of those law that’s so overly broad that it’s very easy to accidentally break it. Even innocuous things like handing a marketing pamphlet to the wrong person at a trade shoe can end up being considered a “illegal export”.

  6. john personna says:

    I guess it is a shot across the bows of the “let’s print a gun” crowd.

    There are pages on the Internets on how to build an arguably more capable black powder pistol. You can buy a kit here.

    If they weren’t so obviously reaching for untraceable assault weapons it would be less of an issue.

  7. legion says:

    but the other side of the argument is that he’s spreading weapon’s technology to other parts of the world, including nations that we normally bar such technology to.

    That’s a highly debatable point. He’s publishing designs that can be used on 3D printers. But he’s not doing _anything_ to change people’s access to 3D printers. My counterargument to State would be that plans & design concepts for nuclear weapons are (relatively) common and well-understood. But if Iran tests a nuke tomorrow, it won’t be because they got the plans from the Library of Congress, it’ll be because they got their hands on weapons-grade fissile material.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Wilson started out this project to make a point about the uselessness of regulation in an era of the Internet and 3D printers. Despite the State Department’s action yesterday, I’d argue that he’s already largely succeeded.

    No, the only thing he has done is show that where there is a thing that can be abused for totally nonsensical reasons (And really what is this “gun” good for? Hijacking airplanes? Assassinating heads of state? Blowing peoples hands off?), some a$$hole will do exactly that. I would like to see the first person harmed by such a weapon sue this a$$hat for everything he has, and everything he ever will have.

    But I know that the Freedom! loving people of the Republican Party will see to it that he never has to worry about that.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @legion:

    But if Iran tests a nuke tomorrow,

    Uhhh legion? There is a little bit of a difference between a nuclear weapon and a 3D printable gun.The plans are only the beginning. Just ask Iran or N Korea.

  10. john personna says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    (And really what is this “gun” good for? Hijacking airplanes? Assassinating heads of state? Blowing peoples hands off?)

    He might have done himself some damage with the naming. The original one-shot WWII Liberator was intended to be an ambush weapon, one you used to kill someone who had a real gun, before you took his real gun, and went from there.

  11. @john personna:

    If they weren’t so obviously reaching for untraceable assault weapons it would be less of an issue.

    Yep….It was obvious a week ago that as soon as Defense Distributed proved their point, it would prompt government agencies to prove theirs.

    I really don’t what they were thinking. Sure, the government can’t stop anyone from distributing these plans (not effectively), printing a 3D gun, or even firing one.

    But they sure as hell can prosecute you for it.

  12. legion says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The plans are only the beginning.

    Yeah, that’s my point. Having the plans for a nuke, but no uranium, doesn’t make you a nuclear power any more than having 3D gun plans, but no 3D printer, make you armed & dangerous.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    @legion: So what this nitwit has just done is provided the government an excuse to clamp down on all manufacturers of 3D printers and control every single purchase of said technology.

    Thanks a lot, boyo.

    (Actually, I’d think that the present gun manufacturers would be even more worried about this. If every bozo can purchase a 3D printer, download the plans off the internet, and set up his own cottage industry weapons manufacturing plant, they’re going to have a lot of competition.)

    I also really doubt that such a gun would stand up to hard usage. Unless they start making the damn thing out of top-quality ceramics. Otherwise, kaboom.

  14. john personna says:

    @legion:

    You are have Cory Doctorow storyline.

    Of course, before Doctorow there were novels about how cheap and complete Virtual Reality was going to destroy society, right?

    What makes a good story is not always, in the end, a realistic threat.

    @grumpy realist:

    You can print clay, but it takes a lot more to fire top-quality ceramics. That path is at least as hard as printing the equivalent of forged steel.

  15. legion says:

    @grumpy realist:
    So what this nitwit has just done is provided the government an excuse to clamp down on all manufacturers of 3D printers and control every single purchase of said technology.

    I think that’s exactly the issue that needs to be thought about in this debate. Here’s another one – I can already use a 3D printer to make a plastic knife out of the same substances he’s using to make a gun. That knife is a lot less dangerous to use than a printed gun, and will easily go through any metal detector, unlike gun ammunition.

    What are we actually afraid of?

    What are we actually trying to protect ourselves from?

    Does what we’re doing have any connection at all to the answers to those questions?

  16. john personna says:

    @legion:

    Always remember the low restrictions on black powder guns. They define a boundary of what exactly we are NOT afraid of. The guns are at the most repeaters with at most 6 shot capacity.

    We are not “afraid” of any plastic gun with less performance than that.

    It’s all about what the gun designers seek to build toward. And so the government (who has been reading their blogs, and knows they all want to print an AR-15) puts a legal shot across their bow, and says “slow down, knuckleheads.”

    (This despite the fact that a plans-in and guns-out system is at least 20 years away. In the meantime the knuckleheads could probably cause trouble just printing legally tracked parts and ordering non-tracked items in forged steel. Someone might even design a gun so that tracked parts have low strength requirements, and so that an internet ordered “parts kit” in forged steel completes it.)

  17. legion says:

    @john personna: Heh. You can never go wrong by following the money…

  18. Dazedandconfused says:

    Can’t imagine gun makers being terribly thrilled with this home-making stuff. Are there patent issues? I suspect they will use what influence they have with the NRA to support the government on this one, or at least not protesteth overmuch.

  19. Franklin says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    If Cody Wilson didn’t see this coming, he’s an idiot.

    As I recall from the other thread, he’s been a law student for 25 years or something.

  20. bill says:

    @grumpy realist: someone was going to do it, for every yin there’s a yang!