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Federal judge blocks release of blueprints for 3-D-printed guns

Federal judge blocks release of blueprints for 3-D-printed guns
Cody Wilson with the Liberator, the first completely 3-D-printed handgun, in 2013 at his home in Austin, Texas. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman)

A federal judge on Tuesday stopped the release of blueprints to make untraceable and undetectable 3-D-printed plastic guns as President Trump questioned whether his administration should have agreed to allow the plans to be posted online.

The company behind the plans, Austin, Texas-based Defense Distributed, had reached a settlement with the federal government in June allowing it to make the plans for the guns available for download on Wednesday.

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The restraining order from U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik in Seattle puts that plan on hold for now. "There is a possibility of irreparable harm because of the way these guns can be made," he said.

Washington state Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson called the ruling "a complete, total victory."

"We were asking for a nationwide temporary restraining order putting a halt to this outrageous decision by the federal government to allow these 3-D downloadable guns to be available around our country and around the world. He granted that relief," Ferguson said at a news conference after the hearing. "That is significant."

Eight Democratic attorneys general had filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to block the settlement, arguing the 3-D guns would be a safety risk.

Congressional Democrats have urged Trump to reverse the decision to publish the plans. He said Tuesday that he's "looking into" the idea, saying making 3-D plastic guns available to the public "doesn't seem to make much sense!"

Trump tweeted that he had already spoken with the National Rifle Assn. about the downloadable directions a Texas company wants to provide for people to make the guns. They’re made of a hard plastic and are simple to assemble, easy to conceal and difficult to trace.

"We don't agree with President Trump very much," Washington state Assistant Atty. Gen. Jeff Rupert told Lasnik, "but when he tweeted 'this doesn't make much sense,' that's something we agree with."

After a years-long court battle, the State Department in late June settled the case against Defense Distributed.

The settlement, which took gun-control advocates by surprise, allowed the company to resume posting blueprints for the hard-plastic guns at the end of July. Those plans were put on hold by the Seattle judge's decision.

During the hearing in Seattle, Eric Soskin, a lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department, said they reached the settlement to allow the company to post the material online because the regulations were designed to restrict weapons that could be used in war, and the online guns were no different than the weapons that could be bought in a store.

Since the weapons "did not create a military advantage," he told the judge, "how could the government justify regulating the data?"

But Rupert said a restraining order would keep the plans away from people who have learned about the technology and want to use it to get around gun laws.

Hours before the restraining order was issued, Democrats sounded the alarm, warning about "ghost guns" that can avoid detection and pose a deadly hazard.

The company's website had said downloads would begin Wednesday, but blueprints for at least one gun — a plastic pistol called the Liberator — have been posted on the site since Friday. A lawyer for the company said he didn't know how many blueprints had been downloaded since then.

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Outrage over the administration decision is putting gun control back into the midterm election political debate, but with a high-tech twist.

The president seemed surprised by the decision, and Democrats said he had the power to stop it.

Some Republicans also expressed concern.

"Even as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment — this is not right," Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski tweeted, linking to a news story on the guns.

The NRA said in a statement that "anti-gun politicians" and some members of the news media wrongly claim that 3D printing technology "will allow for the production and widespread proliferation of undetectable plastic firearms."

In truth, "undetectable plastic guns have been illegal for 30 years," said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's political arm. A federal law that passed in 1988 — crafted with NRA support — bars the manufacture, sale or possession of an undetectable firearm.

Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley made much the same point, saying the administration supported the law against wholly plastic guns, including those made with a 3-D printer.

But Democrats called the law weak and said gun users can get around it by using weapons with a removable metal block that the gun doesn't need in order to function.

Democrats filed legislation that would prohibit the publication of a digital file online that allows a 3-D printer to manufacture a firearm. Democrats also filed a separate bill to require that all guns have at least one nonremovable component made of metal so they can be discovered by metal detectors.

Industry experts have expressed doubts that criminals would go to the trouble of using the blueprints to manufacture plastic guns using a 3-D printer, since the printers can cost thousands of dollars, the guns themselves tend to disintegrate quickly and traditional firearms are easy to come by.

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