Printing your own functioning gun may have once seemed impossible, but now anyone with a 3D printer or a few thousand dollars could do it. On Aug. 1, multiple blueprints of guns were supposed to go live online. After multiple attorneys general sought to keep that from happening in their states, a federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocked the files' release nationwide.
The battle over 3D printed guns, though, is far from over.
The first thing that I thought when I read the news was: "How is this even legal?"
Answering that question took me back to Ronald Reagan's last couple of months in office. Below, you will find what I learned — a timeline of how we got here and what we can do moving forward to prevent 3D printed guns from being the next threat on our schools, churches, movie theaters, and newsrooms.
Undetectable Firearms Act signed: On Nov. 10, 1988, Ronald Reagan signs the Undetectable Firearms Act, which prohibits the manufacturing, sales, or possession of a firearm that is not detectable by "walk-through metal detectors."
When Reagan signed the Undetectable Firearms Act, 3D printers were in their infancy. Reagan probably couldn't imagine that printing of guns would be making international headlines just a few decades later.
Cody Wilson born: Also in 1988, Cody Wilson was born. Years later, he would become the key player in the evolution of 3D printed guns.
Defense Distributed founded: Wilson, a 24-year-old law student at the University of Texas, founds Defense Distributed "a nonprofit, private defense firm." Wilson wants to be for guns what Julian Assange is for journalism, an anarchist and open to any alternative to the current system. "We wanted to be the Wiki for guns."
It is hard to think of anything that fits that vision more than blueprints for DIY guns. Wilson started by experimenting with printing parts for an AR-15 — the rifle that time and again is used in mass shootings. For Wilson, this is a part of his radical agenda of disruption. Designs of 3D printed items are saved in Computer-Aided Design (CAD) files. Wilson's goal is to upload the CAD files online for anyone to access. "There are people all over the world downloading our files and we say 'good.' We say you should have access to this. You simply should."
Sandy Hook shooting: On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza enters Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., with an AR-15. He kills 20 children and six adults.
Thingiverse removes gun-related items: A few days after the Sandy Hook shooting, Thingiverse, a 3D printing website in which people can share CAD files, removes most gun-related items. The move pushes Wilson to open his own website, which then becomes the focus of controversy.
DEFCAD.org launches: In March, Wilson announces DEFCAD.org, a for-profit search engine and depository of CAD files related to guns.
The Liberator debuts: In May, he debuts the Liberator — the world's first fully printed gun. With the exception of one nail — which arguably contains enough metal to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 — the Liberator is completely made of plastic. It has no magazine and is capable of shooting a single bullet. Depending on the metal detector, a bullet may not set it off. By replacing the single nail with a plastic alternative, a gun with bullet inside could be undetectable — coining the term ghost guns.
State Department gets involved: Two days after the Liberator debuts and its CAD files downloaded 100,000 times, the State Department sends Wilson a letter asking him to remove 10 files, including the one for the Liberator. The State Department argues that by uploading the files to the internet, which is international, Wilson did not comply with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Among other things, ITAR regulates technical data about firearm development and production, including "blueprints, drawings, photographs, plans, instructions, or documentation." The letter, in essence, threatens legal action if the files are not removed. Wilson, still a law student at the time, agrees to comply.
Defense Distributed sues State Department: In May, Defense Distributed joins the Second Amendment Foundation Inc. to bring a lawsuit against the State Department, arguing that forcing the removal of the CAD files infringes on Wilson's right to free speech. After all, Wilson is sharing lines of code, not guns.
Federal judge rules: In the summer, a federal judge rules against Defense Distributed, saying that "public interest of national security outweighs" the plaintiffs' "interest in protecting their constitutional rights." Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation appeal the decision.
Decision affirmed: In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirms the lower court's decision.
Appeal: In August, Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation appeal to the Supreme Court.
Back to lower court: In November, the Supreme Court returns the case to the lower court.
State Department settles, gun files allowed: On June 29, in a dramatic legal shift, the State Department settles the case — although it was winning and had seemingly no reason to do so — conceding all of Wilson's arguments. Starting Aug. 1, Defense Distributed is allowed to upload gun files again to DEFCAD.org.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among the first states to take action: Following the settlement, 10 states — including Pennsylvania and New Jersey — rush to find ways to prevent guns from being downloaded and printed in their states.
On July 29, a federal judge holds an emergency hearing about a lawsuit brought by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Gov. Wolf, and the Pennsylvania State Police. The state argues that having access to the firearm CAD files, which includes plans for an AR-15 assault rifle, imposes "harm to Pennsylvanians [that] would have been immediate and irreversible." Wilson agrees to block the site in Pennsylvania but promises to fight a permanent ban.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal sends Wilson a cease-and-desist letter, arguing that making the CAD files available would violate his state's gun laws. Similar to Pennsylvania, Wilson agrees to block the site in New Jersey.
Files blocked nationwide: On July 31, a federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocks the nationwide release of gun files on DEFCAD.org. There are other ways to get similar CAD files but no one-stop shop, as Wilson envisions.
Law often advances slower than technology but that doesn't mean we don't need to push hard for it to keep up.
"Not everyone thinks that downloading and creating functioning firearms is a terrible idea and those supporters have already been speaking up," says Elisabeth Ryan, an attorney with expertise in gun law and public health. "So call your congressperson, call your governor. Let them know what you think because this isn't an issue that has had much public attention until now." When you call your representative, ask them to support Rep. Seth Moulton's legislation to ban 3D printed guns; ask your senator to introduce a version of the bill in the Senate.
Another measure is to demand that your state makes it mandatory for all schools to ban DEFCAD.org from their network. Many schools have 3D printers that are used for educational purposes. In fact, much of the innovation in 3D printing came in response to demand from K-12 schools and universities. There must be safeguards to prevent students from using 3D printers in schools to print guns or gun parts. All the metal detectors in the world won't matter if a gun is printed from inside the school.