A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order to block the online publication of blueprints outlining how to create untraceable and undetectable 3D-printed firearms.
The blueprints were originally scheduled for an Aug. 1 release after a government settlement ended five years of litigation. But word of the release prompted panic as legislators and officials scrambled to block the action. Before the federal judge’s ruling, at least 21 attorneys general filed suit to stop the blueprints from going live.
As conversation heated up, President Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter. "I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public," he said. "Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!"
I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 31, 2018
Politicians and pundits jumped at the president’s words as proof that he was unfamiliar with a decision from his own administration.
"Trump: My own administration’s latest decision ‘doesn’t seem to make much sense!’" said a July 31 headline from Addicting Info, a liberal website.
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Trump’s last-minute statement gave us pause, too, so we decided to look at the settlement. Was the Trump administration — or Trump — actually behind it?
The White House did not respond to a request for comment (though Trump's press secretary said later that he did not get a chance to weigh in). So we searched elsewhere for our answer.
On May 5, 2013, Defense Distributed uploaded blueprints online that could be used to make a working 3D-printed gun called "The Liberator," as well as a 53-second video of founder Cody Wilson firing one.
Wilson soon received a letter from the Obama administration’s State Department demanding that he remove the files from the internet. The letter said the "technical data" amounted to an illegal gun export in violation of the Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations, because it could be accessed in countries where the United States does not sell weapons.
The State Department instructed Wilson to take down the files until he applied for specific approval of the gun’s multiple components. By that point, the blueprints had already been downloaded 100,000 times.
In response, Wilson filed a lawsuit against the State Department with the help of Second Amendment Foundation, a guns-rights organization, in which he sought a preliminary injunction to allow continued publication of the gun files online.
Under both the Obama and Trump administrations, the government stuck by its assertion that the "technical data" constituted an illegal gun export. Wilson countered that the government’s intervention violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
Ultimately, district and appeals courts both rejected Wilson’s injunction request. But as the case turned to the First Amendment claim, the government made an unexpected settlement offer.
With the settlement, reached in June and announced July 10, the government waived the relevant export restrictions and allowed Wilson to post the blueprints online as early as Aug. 1.
Specifically, the State Department announced that it was "in the interest of the security and foreign policy of the United States" to temporarily modify the U.S. Munitions List to exclude the technical data for the 3-D-printed guns.
Defense-related items on the munitions list face tight restrictions, because they offer a critical military or intelligence advantage to the United States. The U.S. Commerce Department manages a separate export list with fewer restrictions.
It is not clear what role Trump or the White House played in the settlement decision, though White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during an Aug. 1 press briefing that the Department of Justice instructed the State Department to settle without White House approval. The State Department has said that its role in this issue relates solely to regulation of exports of certain types of firearms and any related technical data.
But the move to shift the 3D-printed guns’ technical data outside of the State Department’s purview was not without precedent. The government’s decision came amid a longstanding but relatively behind-the-scenes administrative project — started under the Obama administration and known as "export control reform" — to restructure the regulations governing exports of weapons and technologies.
Just as the litigation against Wilson can be traced back to the Obama years, so, too, can the export control changes that may have opened the door for the State Department’s settlement.
Beginning in 2009, the Obama administration launched an overhaul of export control in order to refine regulations for items that were subject to both the State Department’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations and the Commerce Department’s Export Administration Regulations.
The goal of the reform was to streamline export controls by transferring commercially available items — such as consumer guns — off the USML and onto the less restrictive Commerce Control List.
The State Department began reviewing the munitions list, sifting through each category and removing items that were not considered military-sensitive. By 2016, it had finished reviewing all but three categories: firearms, ammunition and artillery.
However, reform of those final categories stalled before it could become policy. A proposed rule would have handed jurisdiction of commercial firearms export controls to the Commerce Department in 2012, but it was delayed following the Sandy Hook school shooting.
That proposed rule did not regain momentum until 2018, under Trump. On May 24, the Departments of State and Commerce simultaneously published proposals in the Federal Register to amend the final three categories of the munitions list.
The proposed revisions would keep military-grade weapons under State Department jurisdiction and place commercially available firearms under the purview or the Commerce Department.
This may explain the State Department’s sudden decision to settle its case with Wilson. By recommending that commercial firearm exports move under Commerce Department oversight, the May 24 proposals would likely free Wilson’s blueprints from the International Traffic in Arms Regulations that previously restricted them.
"My guess is that it was somehow wrapped up in the movement of items from the (U.S. Munitions List) to the (Commerce Control List)," said Rachel Stohl, managing director at the Stimson Center and an expert in the international arms trade. "If you deregulate the weapons themselves, it would follow that the technical specs could be deregulated as well."
Stohl added that the settlement was "unexpected" and "the State and Commerce Departments have been less than forthcoming on these details."
For his part, Wilson has agreed to refrain from posting his blueprints for at least another month while the multi-state lawsuit travels through the courts.
A headline suggested that the government settlement that would have made 3D-printable guns available for download was actually a Trump administration decision, and that Trump said that didn't "make much sense."
We could not independently determine the extent of Trump’s involvement, although Sanders said the president was not afforded the opportunity to approve of the settlement decision. But the State Department under Trump did initiate the settlement after previously taking steps to clear a path for it.
However, the Obama administration’s export control reform made those steps possible, and it is not far-fetched to consider the Trump administration’s move a continuation of that initiative.
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