Many Americans – including law enforcement officers – were expressing fear Tuesday over the thought of guns being churned out by 3D printers on demand. That’s understandable. The thought of criminals, terrorists and mentally ill people pressing a button and getting rifles and pistols popping out of printers like candy out of a vending machine is frightening. But that idea is also fundamentally mistaken. Under a settlement reached in June between the State Department and a company called Defense Distributed, it was supposed to become legal Wednesday for the company to make blueprints for hard-plastic guns available for download on the Internet. But with only hours to go, a federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday blocking the settlement from taking effect at least until an Aug. 10 hearing. The order came in response to a lawsuit by eight Democratic state attorneys general, who argued that 3D-printed guns posed a risk to public safety. There’s a lot of misinformation floating around about exactly what 3D printing of guns is and what it’s not, so let’s get some facts straight about a pretty new technology. For starters, it’s important to understand the Justice Department settled the lawsuit with Defense Distributed because the government was certain to lose. Prior to the settlement, the government position was that sharing printing files known as CADs violated International Traffic in Arms (ITAR) regulations and thus could be censored by the government. But Defense Distributed – which pioneered using 3D-printing technology to make guns at home and eventually at stores like Kinko’s – contended that sharing information about how to make guns on the Internet was no different that sharing it in a book or instruction manual. The information-sharing amounts to speech, and is therefore protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, the company argued. The First Amendment protects speech that is unpopular as well as popular. So the argument that the amendment protects information about how to build a gun is valid. Next, you need to know that 3D-printing technology is years – perhaps decades – away from being cheap, efficient and ubiquitous enough that it will be a major source of guns. Currently, it takes days and a lot of money to print 3D guns – and that’s not going to change for a long time. More importantly, we know for a fact that having more guns in circulation and the legal right to carry them hasn’t led to increases in gun crime and violence, even when counting mass shootings.
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