3D guns: Despite the complaints of gun-control advocates, these weapons are protected by the Bill of Rights

A U.S. district court judge in Seattle issued an order Tuesday temporarily prohibiting Defense Distributed, a non-profit organization, from publishing online blueprints for building mostly-plastic guns with 3D printers. Based on the reactions of gun-control advocates, an imminent public safety crisis was averted, despite the fact that similar blueprints have long been available online.

Actress Alyssa Milano called the plans “downloadable death.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., lambasted the Trump administration’s settlement with Defense Distributed, in which the government agreed not to interfere with publication in exchange for the Defense Distributed dropping its lawsuit against the federal government.

President Trump himself tweeted that the idea of approving 3D-printed guns “doesn’t make much sense.”

But the only thing that “doesn’t make much sense” is the hyperbolic response of gun-control advocates to activity protected by both the First and Second Amendments to the Constitution.

Individuals who aren’t disqualified from purchasing or possessing firearms have always been free to build or customize their own firearms, as long as those firearms are otherwise in accordance with federal law.

In fact, private gunsmithing is a time-honored tradition that predates the mass-manufacture of firearms and still stands as a favorite pastime of gun enthusiasts.

While they certainly raise some novel issues on the law enforcement front, 3D-printed guns are just that – guns. Like all guns, someone has to make them. And, like all guns, government restrictions on their manufacture, possession and sale must comply with the protections afforded by the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment doesn’t ask who made the gun, or out of what material, or how much it cost. Rather, the Second Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court (and arguably by the first 150 years of American constitutional scholarship), protects the individual right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear firearms commonly used for lawful purposes.

It’s clear from the designs themselves and from the State Department’s tacit approval that the Defense Distributed’s blueprints for firearms fall within the protections of the Second Amendment. In other words, they are the equivalent of those firearms commonly used by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.

And while the Supreme Court hasn’t directly addressed the issue of regulations for private gun manufacturing, it is – at the very least – a lawful activity. Others have long commented on the impracticality of attempting to ban it.

The publishing of these plans, therefore, hits at the core of another provision of the Bill of Rights – the First Amendment. Individuals clearly have a right to discuss and disseminate information on how to conduct lawful activities, whether it be how to drive a car, how to home-brew moonshine, or how to smith a firearm.

That others may use that information to participate in illegal activities doesn’t make its publication any less protected by the First Amendment.

Further, even beyond the constitutional protections is the reality that, for the foreseeable future, the 3D-printed gun is a relative non-issue for public safety concerns.

First, the law hasn’t changed. The same people are still prohibited from purchasing, possessing, and manufacturing firearms regardless of where or how they were made. The same types of firearms are still prohibited by federal law, whether manufactured with a 3D printer or retooled from a gun fitting legal specifications.

The Undetectable Firearms Act still prohibits the manufacture, possession, or sale of firearms that don’t contain enough metal to set off a walk-through metal detector.

Concerns over future “undetectable guns,” while valid, are tempered by the reality that those guns will still require gunpowder-filled metal bullets to be effective. In addition, advancing technology may also create better methods with which to detect even plastic weapons.

Second, politicians like Schumer and celebrities like Milano miss the forest for the trees – or, more aptly, they miss the hundreds of millions of civilian-owned guns for the small number of 3D printers.

According to the latest Small Arms Survey, which comprehensively tracks international gun ownership and armed violence, there are almost 400 million guns in the hands of people in the U.S. People who want to illegally purchase or possess firearms already have ample opportunities to do so without 3D printers, and in a much cheaper and more efficient manner.

Certainly, technological advancements can lead to new and creative ways for criminals to harm others, even as they may also one day enable law-abiding citizens to exercise their rights in more cost-effective ways.

But what’s equally certain is that the Bill of Rights restricts the government’s ability to keep citizens from possessing firearms and publishing their own blueprints for engaging in a lawful activity. This isn’t a design defect, but the sum and substance of the First and Second Amendments.

If we are to take the issue of illegal gun possession seriously – and I believe we should – we must do so while also respecting the First and Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.

Amy Swearer is a legal policy analyst in the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.