Two years ago, Texas gun enthusiast Cody Wilson experimented with the burgeoning 3-D printing technology that, following coded instructions, manufactures products from plastic. NASA recently used the process to create a wrench aboard the International Space Station with instructions sent from Earth.
But Wilson printed out a plastic gun that can fire a single bullet. Then he posted the plans online, drawing a “cease and desist” letter from the State Department, which, because the files could be downloaded anywhere, accused him of violating International Traffic in Arms Regulations that limit when and how Americans can sell weapons overseas. That was overreach: He published plans, he didn't ship a weapon. But in the process, Wilson and the government have raised important questions about the nature of free speech and what limits the government may impose.
Through his nonprofit Defense Distributed, and backed by the Second Amendment Foundation, Wilson has filed a legal challenge raising several issues. But the pivotal argument is whether his 3-D printer instructions constitute speech, and whether the State Department's order crossed into the realm of prior restraint. Courts have held in previous cases that computer code is speech even if its intended audience is a machine. Under that principle, it shouldn't make a difference that Wilson's files can lead someone to create a lethal weapon. The government cannot proscribe speech based on its content unless that's the least restrictive way to achieve a compelling state interest.
The government has a legitimate interest in regulating who can own and sell guns. When the Supreme Court ruled in the 2008 Heller case that the “2nd Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms,” we disagreed, believing that the amendment's reference to “a well-regulated militia” limits the right to keep and bear arms to organized military units.
But the issue here is not gun ownership. It is the ability of an individual to say what he wants on the Internet, the modern-day version of the Revolutionary-era pamphlet. Granted, the advent of the Internet has significantly broadened an individual's audience to, potentially, the entire world. But speech is speech, and the government's efforts to limit Wilson is wrong.
If the government thinks creating plastic guns on home 3-D printers is a bad idea — as we do — the solution isn't to stifle the knowledge but to regulate the product. Yet there the government has a different problem. Under current federal law, individuals are allowed (in most cases) to make their own guns as long as they don't sell them.
Ultimately, the government ought to lose this case and Wilson ought to be able to post whatever he wants online. If it is in society's interest to not have people printing out guns in their dens, then Congress should address that as part of a more robust regimen of gun control.