Future Tense

The Judge in the Latest 3D-Printed Gun Case Got 3D Printing Totally Wrong

Cody Wilson holds up a black-and-white 3D-printed plastic gun while standing in his factory.
Cody Wilson holds a 3D printed gun called the Liberator.
KELLY WEST/Getty Images

On Monday, a federal court in Washington state blocked Cody Wilson and his company Defense Distributed from putting his 3D-printed gun schematic online. The court’s order—the latest in a years-long legal tussle that has picked up this summer—largely focuses on government rulemaking procedures, but a number of times it has to consider how technology works. When it does, it manages to get the technology remarkably wrong.

Perhaps the most comical of these is when the decision considers whether letting the schematic go online will cause “irreparable harm.” Most of the files are already online, Wilson’s attorneys argued, so what’s the harm in putting them up yet again? Yet the court disagreed, saying those online copies might be hard to find—only “a cybernaut with a BitTorrent protocol” could locate them “in the dark or remote recesses of the internet.”

Put aside that those “dark or remote recesses” are websites with URLs literally written on court filings in front of the judge. Put aside that the websites are accessed by HTTP, not BitTorrent. Put aside that “cybernaut” is Web 1.0 terminology that peaked in 1999. The phrasing “cybernaut with a BitTorrent protocol” is just grammatically weird. A protocol is computer-speak for a language—not the sort of thing one can possess. One can have a BitTorrent application, but not a BitTorrent language. Plus, no one uses the indefinite article “a” in front of a language. To a computer scientist, it’s like referring to Noah Webster, armed with an English.

Other errors in the decision are deeper and more fundamental. The law that supposedly prohibits the posting of the schematic is an export control law, the Arms Export Control Act, so nothing stops Wilson from distributing the schematic inside the United States. But posting the gun schematic online necessarily exposes it to foreign countries, according to the court, because “the internet is both domestic and international.”

Yet anyone who has used the internet in the last decade knows that it is not so international today. Streaming video sites regularly have different offerings per country. Corporate websites often redirect users to different sites based on location. Indeed, there are freely available code snippets for blocking users by country. Certainly skilled users can get around location-based blocking, but they are at least at the skill level of BitTorrent-cybernauts who could also find the schematics elsewhere.

Perhaps the judge can’t be faulted for that error—none of the lawyers appear to have proposed country-based blocking—but one would expect the court to know how harmful 3D-printed guns actually are, in a case about the harm of 3D-printed guns. That does not appear to be the case. The judge assumes that once the schematic is out, plastic guns will show up everywhere due to the “portability and ease of a manufacturing process”—that is, 3D printing—“that can be set up virtually anywhere.”

In fact, making a plastic gun is not as easy as just hitting File—Print. First, most consumer-grade 3D printers currently on the market would print duds, because the plastic that they use cannot reliably handle the intense pressure created when firing a bullet. Printers that can handle the job are not cheap: $10,000 or more according to one expert. And even the schematic and a quality printer are not enough, because 3D printing is a notoriously finicky process. Without technical expertise on how 3D printers work, you’re more likely to end up with an exploding gun than a working one. In other words, Wilson’s schematic does not suddenly enable portable, easy gun-printing setups virtually anywhere.

This last mistake reflects an unfortunately systemic problem in government and society: People assume that new technology is perfect and ubiquitous for its worst uses, and unusable and rare for its best. It will be difficult to shake society of this tendency, perhaps attributable to the recent rise in dystopian literature. The best that can be done, then, may be to educate government on technology. When things like the internet and 3D printing do not feel so foreign either in Washington, D.C., or in federal courts, lawmakers and judges may be less worried that such things spell out doom for everyone except the cybernauts.