States Sue Over Trump Admin Rules That Could Weaken Oversight of 3D-Printed Gun Blueprints Distribution

States Sue Over Trump Admin Rules That Could Weaken Oversight of 3D-Printed Gun Blueprints Distribution
A 3D-printed gun called the "Liberator" in a factory in Austin, Texas, on Aug. 1, 2018. (Kelly West/AFP via Getty Images)
Janita Kan

A coalition of states is suing the Trump administration over new regulations that they say could allow for the online release of blueprints for 3D-printed firearms, which make it easier for anyone to access the files at home and make a functional plastic gun with a 3D printer.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is leading the effort to block the administration's rule, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington on Jan. 23, seeking an injunction to block the administration from implementing the new rules. Joining him in the federal lawsuit are 20 other state attorneys general, including from Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, New York, Colorado, and Massachusetts.

The federal government released final rules on Thursday that would shift the oversight of certain firearms and ammunition sales from the Department of State to the Department of Commerce. The rules will come into effect on March 9.

The administration says the new rules will significantly reduce the regulatory burden on the U.S. commercial firearms and ammunition industry as well as promote American exports. The rules will also prioritize national security controls and ensure that restrictions are still in place on "exports where human rights, illicit trafficking, and related issues may be of concern."

Ferguson and other state attorneys general argue that the rules are "unlawful" and will result in the deregulation of 3D-printed firearms because of "loopholes in the Commerce regulations." They claim that the department "will lack the power to regulate 3D-printed guns in any meaningful way."

According to the complaint (pdf), the rules will remove software and technology that is related to the design and production of certain types of firearms, including 3D-printed guns, from the U.S. Munitions Lists, where items on the list will be subject to federal export control under the Arms Export Control Act.
These removed items will be transferred to the Commerce Control List, according to one of the published rules, which states that it does not deregulate the transferred items. The Department of Commerce will still require authorization to export or reexport to any country any firearm or weapons that have been moved to the commerce list, including releases of related technology and software to foreign persons in the United States.

The rule also states that certain software and technology that can be used to produce firearms when posted online is still being controlled under the new rules in order to protect national security and foreign policy interests, but the "communication of ideas regarding such software or technology is freely permitted."

The departments said, in a factsheet, that their rules regulate exports and the transfer of controlled technologies to foreign persons in the United States, while the domestic manufacture or possession of 3D-printed firearms by Americans is beyond the departments' purview because it falls under the jurisdiction of existing domestic law.

The state officials are concerned about these 3D-printed weapons because they lack serial numbers, making them untraceable by authorities. They are also often made of plastic, meaning that they may not set off metal detectors at airports. They are also easy and cheap to make. Moreover, they could render current gun regulations unenforceable because people who are normally restricted from obtaining a gun could avoid background checks and other regulatory procedures. Due to these reasons, these weapons are often referred to as "ghost guns."

“Why is the Trump administration working so hard to allow domestic abusers, felons, and terrorists access to untraceable, undetectable 3D-printed guns?” Ferguson said in a statement. “Even the president himself said in a tweet that this decision didn’t make any sense—one of the rare instances when I agreed with him. We will continue to stand up against this unlawful, dangerous policy.”

The Epoch Times contacted both the Departments of State and Commerce for comment on the lawsuit. A State Department spokesperson said that they do not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.

This is the second multi-state lawsuit Washington state has brought against the federal government in order to block the administration's effort to allow these blueprints from being published online. In July 2018, multiple states filed a lawsuit in the same district court arguing against the Trump administration's decision to let an open-source organization that publishes firearms-related designs online, Defense Distributed, distribute downloadable files for the production of 3D-printed guns online. The administration had just settled a dispute, which began in 2015, with the organization in June 2018, with the agreement allowing the organization to publicly distribute the files on the internet.

In November, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration's decision to let the files be distributed online was "arbitrary and capricious," and thus unlawful (pdf).
After the states filed the lawsuit in 2018, Trump wrote on Twitter that he was "looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public" and had already spoken to the National Rifle Association about them. "[D]oesn’t seem to make much sense!" he said at the time.

Some experts say that while 3D-printed guns are currently not as effective as conventional guns, they are also far less safe to use.

"With the current state of technology, 3D printed guns aren’t nearly as effective as traditionally manufactured guns," John McAdams, a U.S. Army veteran with 25 years of hunting experience, told The Epoch Times. He currently runs The Big Game Hunting Blog that provides firearm and ammunition information and advice for readers.

"A firearm receiver must be strong enough to safely withstand extreme amounts of pressure during firing," he added. "For example, the typical chamber pressure for a 9mm Luger handgun cartridge is 35,000psi. For that reason, it’s not uncommon for 3D-printed guns to explode after a shot or two. Obviously, this can be very dangerous for the shooter as well as for anyone standing nearby."

In 2013, police officers in Australia downloaded the blueprints of a 3D-printed gun and manufactured two on a $1,700 3D printer to test the safety of the guns. In the test, the 3D-printed gun exploded upon firing, according to videos released by the police. However, ballisticians who were at the test told the police that the gun is more than capable of killing a person. The police department conducted the test in order to warn people about the dangers of these weapons.