Are These Weapons Protected by Free Speech?

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With the advent of 3-D printers, we will someday soon possibly be able to print almost anything from the convenience of our homes. With that technology in place, it was only a matter of time before some enterprising individuals figured out how to print guns. But now the government is going after the developers of these printable guns, in the form of legal action. It’s not just about the printed guns though, the implications of this legal battle could have a big affect on the interpretation of the First Amendment.

Back when the news of printable guns first came out, the leading force appeared to be a company called  Defense Distributed, led by a man named Cody Wilson. The company was the first to publish printable gun instructions online, in the form of a 3D-printed pistol. At the time, I wrote about how various different areas were outlawing the use of 3D-printed guns.

After Defense Distributed first put the directions up on its website, the State Department sent a letter to the company asking it to take down the website. The State Department claimed that Defense Distributed was violating US Arms Export control laws, particularly the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) The latter threatened that if the directions weren’t taken down, the state would prosecute Wilson  would be prosecuted. It’s now that letter that has sparked the court battle between the State Department and Wilson.

Wilson has filed a lawsuit against the State Department, as well as individuals high up in the department, such as Secretary of State John Kerry. The lawsuit specifically names the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) as the section of the State Department, who sent the letter. Defense Distributed is working in conjunction with the Second Amendment Foundation on the lawsuit.

The argument that Defense Distributed is making is truly fascinating–the company is arguing that by trying to restrict it from posting the instructions online, the State Department is restricting its First Amendment right to free speech. Alan Gura, the lawyer for Defense Distributed stated about the lawsuit:

The internet is available worldwide, so posting something on the internet is deemed an export, and to [the State Department] this justifies imposing a prior restraint on internet speech. That’s a vast, unchecked seizure of power over speech that’s…not authorized by our constitution.

It makes some sense, but whether or not this argument will actually be successful seems to be more doubtful. It appears to come down to whether or not gun blueprints are viewed as speech, or, “technical data,” which the U.S. government can certainly make a strong argument for being able to control.

As technology continues to improve on multiple fronts, these are questions that will continue to come before the courts. Whether or not Defense Distributed is successful could affect the use of printable guns moving forward.


Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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