Future Tense

What to Make of Trump’s Tweet About 3D-Printed Guns

Defense Distributed developed the first 3D-printed gun, the Liberator pistol, in 2013.
Defense Distributed developed the first 3D-printed gun, the Liberator pistol, in 2013. Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump suggested on Twitter on Tuesday that he has doubts about the wider availability of 3D-printed plastic guns, also known as ghost guns.

His tweet seems to reference a June settlement between the government and Defense Distributed, an organization that designs and disseminates schematics for plastic guns that can be manufactured with a 3D printer. In accordance with the settlement, the government will allow the organization to post the schematics online starting tomorrow. On Monday, attorneys general from eight states and D.C. filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration to prevent it from allowing Defense Distributed to publish the information.

Anyone who owns a 3D printer can download the schematics, which include a code that users can input into their devices to make the gun. There is also the option to buy 3D-printing kits with guns that are 80 percent finished, which allows users to buy them without having to undergo the legal procedures associated with buying finished guns. Indeed, so-called ghost guns do not require serial numbers, background checks, sales records, or seller’s licenses to print, which renders them virtually untraceable. People can build anything from handguns to AR-15-style rifles, which has been the weapon of choice for mass shooters in Parkland, Florida; Las Vegas; and Newtown, Connecticut. According to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, more than 1,000 people downloaded Defense Distributed’s designs for such assault rifles between Friday and Sunday, even though they aren’t supposed to be legally available until Wednesday.

The issue of printing guns has been a concern since the Obama administration. In 2013, Defense Distributed developed what is widely regarded as the world’s first 3D-printed firearm, a handgun called the Liberator. Schematics for the Liberator were downloaded 100,000 times in the first two days after Defense Distributed had made them available online. The State Department soon demanded that Defense Distributed take down the designs, noting that its actions could be a violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which regulates the export of defense data and services. The organization agreed, but designs for 3D guns began popping up elsewhere on the internet.

Cody Wilson, the founder and director of Defense Distributed, sued the government in 2015 for the right to post the information, arguing that the State Department had restricted his First Amendment free speech rights. He further argued that the censorship infringed on his Second Amendment rights. “I understand why the State Department acted the way that they did; I just think that this is the way it is now,” Wilson said in an interview with Slate’s If Then podcast in March. He added, “It made Liberator popular. People actually wanted it at that point.”

When asked about Trump’s tweet on Tuesday, Wilson told Slate in an email, “I don’t sell guns. I publish the plans for free into the public domain.” This distinction is salient because the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits people from manufacturing and selling firearms without a license. However, it is legal to make a gun and keep it, a loophole that has allowed the 3D-printed gun sector to flourish.

NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch also responded to Trump’s tweet:

The White House has not offered any additional comments or clarifications regarding Trump’s tweet. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that he would review the settlement, though a State Department official told USA Today that Pompeo was not planning to take any further action on the matter. The administration reportedly has the option to delay the settlement so that the courts will have time to consider the lawsuit from the state attorneys general.