One state is at least temporarily succeeding in curbing online sales of blueprints and parts for plastic guns.
Defense Distributed, a company based in Texas, reportedly has granted Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's request to stop making 3D plans for AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles available to the state's residents.
Shapiro, along with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and the State Police, sued Defense Distributed after the firm boasted that more than 1,000 customers had downloaded its 3D plans for the weapon. The buyers' identities are unknown to law-enforcement officials, creating a situation that “is too daunting to stand by and not take action,” Wolf warned.
“The harm to Pennsylvanians would have been immediate and irreversible,” the governor said, according to CBS Philadelphia. “Defense Distributed was promising to distribute guns in Pennsylvania in reckless disregard of the state laws that apply to gun sales and purchases in our commonwealth. Once these untraceable guns are on our streets and in our schools, we can never get them back. The decision tonight to block Pennsylvania users from downloading these 3D gun files is a victory for public safety and common sense.”
Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson, a gun-rights crusader who admits he is an anarchist, won a settlement with the State Department in June that gave him the right to sell firearm blueprints. In addition, the government paid about $40,000 of the company's legal fees.
The Second Amendment Foundation crowed that the case dealt “a devastating blow to the gun-prohibition lobby.” Defense Distributed proclaimed: “The age of the downloadable gun begins.” Wilson shared with his Twitter followers a picture of a gravesite labeled “American gun control.”
Five years ago, the State Department ordered Defense Distributed to stop offering the plans on its website. Officials cited a foreign arms-trafficking law. Wilson, in his lawsuit appealing the decision, alleged that officials were violating his First Amendment right to free speech.
A coalition of gun-control groups (the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence) filed suit in federal court in Texas to challenge the settlement. They described the agreement as “troubling,” “dangerous” and “potentially illegal”; and cautioned that it might have a “significant and permanent impact” on public safety and national security.
Last week, a federal judge ruled against the organizations, claiming they lacked legal standing in the case. David Cabello, a Brady Center attorney, had told the court that if Defense Distributed won its suit the result would be “the death knell for gun control” in the United States.
Failing to regulate and trace gun-part sales is an example of “technology unchecked,” according to David Chipman, a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We are basically handing the keys to the store to terrorists and armed criminals,” he told CBS News.
USA Today pointed out that the AR-15 rifle is “the gun of choice in American mass shootings.” Because the blueprints allow individuals to make the guns themselves, there are no registration or background-check requirements.
The technology has come as a surprise to many people, even though it is not new. Six years ago, Wilson created a 3D-printable plastic pistol he called the Liberator .380. More than 100,000 customers downloaded blueprints for the weapon, until the government used an international export statute to halt the sales. Defense Distributed also has offered plans for the AR-15, as well as the VZ-58 assault rifle from Czechoslovakia.
While marketing printable firearms online is still prohibited, customers can now “legally manufacture unserialized rifles and pistols in the comfort and privacy of home,” one website explained. The weapons are called “ghost guns” because they bear no serial numbers.
“Criminals have started using ghost guns as a way to circumvent assault-weapon regulations,” Chipman told Vice News. The retired ATF agent, a consultant to the Giffords Law Center, added: “I imagine that people will also start printing guns to get around laws.”
Lawrence Keane, a lawyer representing the National Shooting Sports Foundation, downplayed the danger. “I don’t see it likely at all that criminals will use this clunky and expensive technology,” he said in a Reuters interview.
Vice News noted that making firearms at home can be expensive. In addition to the cost of the blueprints and parts, customers must purchase printers that cost as much as $600,000. However, some printers are available for as little as $5,000.
While the quality and effectiveness of the plastic guns vary, some law-enforcement authorities are worried. “Measures are needed to ensure these weapons are safely built and to prevent access by children or those prohibited from owning a firearm,” Boise, Idaho, Police Chief William Bones cautioned in an interview with the Idaho Statesman.
He added: “Hopefully, we see some safe and responsible legislation soon, as well as manufacturers taking measures to prevent access which might lead to tragedy.”