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Lawsuit Over Austin Company's 3D-Printable Gun Files Heads Back To Court

Ilana Panich-Linsman for KUT
A judge has temporarily stopped Austin-based Defense Distributed from posting designs for 3D-printable guns online.

A court battle over an Austin-based company’s plans to post 3D-printable gun designs online continues Tuesday. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia are asking a judge in Seattle to block the U.S. State Department from allowing the files to be posted until the case can be argued in court.

The judge temporarily halted the posting on July 31.

Austinite Cody Wilson first published plans for a 3D-printable single-shot pistol online in 2013. The gun is mostly plastic, with a few small metal parts that can be bought at a hardware store. Shortly after the plans were posted, the State Department told Wilson that doing so likely violated federal arms export rules — and ordered him to take them down.

Wilson complied, but then sued the federal government through his company, Defense Distributed. The lawsuit claimed the government was infringing on his First Amendment right to free speech by restraining him from posting the files. An Austin-based federal judge declined to issue a temporary injunction that would allow him to upload the files. An appeals court also declined, as did the U.S. Supreme Court.

The merits of the case were never decided. In April, the government moved to dismiss the case. Then, weeks later, it began negotiating a settlement with Defense Distributed. That settlement, made public last month, says the government agreed to carve out an exemption for the company's 3D-printable gun files.

The company announced plans to post the files on Aug. 1.

It actually posted them several days earlier, and they were online for four days before a judge in Seattle issued a restraining order. In that time, the files were downloaded thousands of times and posted to other sites. (In fact, some of the files were accessible elsewhere even before Defense Distributed posted them.)

Now, the states want to block the posting until the case has a full hearing. They argue the State Department’s settlement agreement puts their residents at risk and is fundamentally illegal — mostly due to procedural failings.

For instance, they argue the State Department failed to give Congress 30-days’ notice of the proposed changes to the arms export regulations, as required by law. They also argue that the changes did not have the requisite approval of the secretary of defense. Finally, the states argue that federal law gives the president authority over arms exports — and that President Trump disagrees with the State Department’s actions. Trump tweeted on July 31 that it “doesn’t seem to make much sense!”

The State Department argues that the case should not be about states’ ability to protect their residents (which the department argues is governed by a separate law, the Undetectable Firearms Act), but should be only about whether it has the ability to regulate the export of arms — which it does.

“Plaintiffs’ allegations of harm are not reasonably attributable to the Department’s regulation of exports, but rather focus on the possibility that third parties will commit violations of the Undetectable Firearms Act or other relevant laws that are not at issue in this case,” the State Department argues.

The judge in Seattle will hold a hearing at 11 a.m. Central Time on the request to continue blocking Defense Distributed from re-posting the files.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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