The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Data allowing people to print out their own guns temporarily blocked from Internet in Pa. after legal pressure

Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed. (Courtesy of Cody Wilson)

Defense Distributed, the Texas nonprofit providing online schematics for producing firearms with a 3-D printer, agreed to temporarily block Pennsylvania Internet users from its website in an emergency hearing Sunday. The move followed threats of legal action from Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro.

“These downloadable firearms were just about to be widely available online,” Shapiro said on Twitter. “It’s an existential threat to our state and we stepped in to stop it. The site is — and will remain — dark throughout” Pennsylvania.

Defense Distributed, founded by gun rights advocate Cody Wilson, has long faced litigation from the federal government and now state government and other groups over its plans to make computer-aided design files available for building firearms, including semiautomatic weapons, using 3-D printing technology.

In June, the State Department settled a lawsuit ending five years of litigation over Defense Distributed’s “printable guns.” The federal government had previously argued that Wilson’s weapons blueprints amounted to exports under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), in violation of federal law. But in June, the State Department authorized Defense Distributed to go forward with its plans as part of the settlement, opening the door for the company to provide access to its gun-making instructions by Aug. 1. A department spokesman told The Washington Post that proposed rule changes for U.S. munitions “would eliminate ITAR requirements at issue in this case.”

Nine states filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration to block the online dissemination of designs for 3-D printed guns. (Video: Reuters)

In turn, lawmakers and state officials across the country have frantically sought to find their own ways to block Defense Distributed, fearing homemade firearms, untraceable because they lack serial numbers, could end up in the wrong hands and escape state gun ownership restrictions.

According to Shapiro’s office, more than 1,000 people had already downloaded the instructions for building an AR-15 since Friday.

“Defense Distributed’s mission, and the federal government’s abdication of their responsibilities, forces my hand into fighting an obscene proposition,” Shapiro said in a string of tweets. “We have laws in place to keep people safe, and during a time when students aren’t safe in their own classrooms, we need more help — not less. [Pennsylvania] lawmakers have spent decades carefully crafting our gun laws. They’ve imposed rules about background checks, age restrictions, the licensing process, etc. This would bypass all of that — and once they are out on the streets of PA, we’ll never get them back.”

Shapiro, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and the Pennsylvania State Police’s attempt to block Defense Distributed on Sunday came after New Jersey’s attorney general tried to stop it with a cease-and-desist letter and the city of Los Angeles threatened legal action. Defense Distributed responded by suing the latter two in federal court Sunday, citing its license from the federal government. Three gun regulation groups also attempted to intervene, including Everytown for Gun Safety, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. But a federal judge threw out their motion, questioning their standing in the case.

Josh Blackman, an attorney representing Wilson, Defense Distributed’s founder, said he agreed to block Pennsylvanians from accessing the website to avoid a broader injunction. But the Pennsylvania website blackout will only be temporary, he said.

Blackman claims governments such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey are infringing on the First Amendment rights of Defense Distributed and Wilson to freely publish information, particularly because the State Department has already authorized it.

He compared the legal battle to the Pentagon Papers case, in which the Nixon administration unsuccessfully asked the Supreme Court to block the New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing a secret report about the Vietnam War. As in that case, Blackman believes the government’s claims are outweighed by the First Amendment.

“This is a First Amendment case. It’s a free-speech case. They’re asking to take information off the Internet,” Blackman told The Post. “We have a license from the federal government to [publish it]. … If the federal government is okay with putting these files online, then the states don’t have another option. The states can’t regulate the Internet.”

The attempts by local and state government to block Defense Distributed also amount to a violation of Wilson’s rights to participate in intrastate and interstate commerce and his and the public’s Second Amendment rights, Blackman argued.

Wilson said the government’s position was a “logical fallacy” based on an assumption that access to the information represented a public safety risk.

“There’s all kinds of websites I can go to right now to learn how to make all kinds of dangerous chemicals and other weapons that they” haven’t tried to block, he said.

Blackman said he believes his client is being targeted for “ideological reasons.”

He said Shapiro’s office is expected to file an amended complaint in federal court Monday.