Posted Aug 10, 2018 at 3:01 AM
Editorial: A Blueprint, a printer, and a ghost gun – Issues, dangers and responses to print-your-own plastic weapons
While a federal judge in Seattle has temporarily blocked an attempt to post internet instructions capable of producing guns through 3D printers, officials in Massachusetts are taking a belt and suspenders approach on an issue that may ultimately turn not on Second Amendment rights but on First Amendment freedoms.
Attorney General Maura Healey was among eight state attorneys general who sued to prevent Texas libertarian Cody Wilson from posting online his computer code for producing a gun via 3D printers. The temporary injunction was required to block any online posting after the Trump Administration settled Mr. Wilson’s suit against an Obama-era finding that his posting the computer codes would represent the exporting of weapons without a license. A hearing on a preliminary injunction is scheduled for Aug. 21.
We should note that this cat’s already out of the bag. As Bloomberg Opinion columnist Elaine Ou, in the Sunday Telegram, noted, Mr. Wilson’s plans were published about five years ago before he took them down after the Obama Administration acted. And as we know, once posted online, nothing ever really dies on the internet, even if it brings death to our streets. And while Ms. Ou wrote that the guns, printed in plastic, are not very sound and very likely to misfire and explode, she overlooks the arc of technology in which clunky first mover innovations keep getting better. And that will likely happen with Mr. Wilson’s design or those of others he inspires, as well as with printer technology. Think of how early flip phones morphed into the mobile devices that have since taken over our lives. And how an undetectable plastic gun, even a primitive one, might be used.
So it’s important to address the issues now. Once online – and frankly the First Amendment question is compelling whether posted by Mr. Wilson or some future developer in Romania or Turkey, for instance – this form of weapon will come, even if right now it’s more about making a “you-can-never-control-guns” statement. And, except for undetectability, why anyone would bother right now when real guns are so readily obtainable is yet to be determined.
Officials in Massachusetts, which already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, laws that we support, are attempting to address this new reality. As clunky as they are now, these “ghost guns,” named for their home-made unaccountability and untraceability, are coming at some point, whether by hobbyist or terrorist. It only takes a supply of material, a high-end printer, and access to the internet.
In the first place, there doesn’t appear to be anything illegal about making a homemade gun for personal use under federal law, whether a traditional weapon or, apparently, a printed plastic one. But weapons made entirely from plastic or other material undetectable by X-ray or metal detector can’t be possessed, transferred or sold. It’s one reason why Mr. Wilson’s nonprofit Defense Distributed blueprints include small and in some instances nonfunctional metal pieces.
Among the issues listed in a “public safety notice” yesterday from AG Healey, Secretary of Public Safety Daniel Bennett, Massachusetts district attorneys and two Massachusetts associations of police chiefs, are that such undetectable weapons are unlawful. The notice also includes that “no firearms made with 3D printing technology are approved for sale in Massachusetts.” And that any weapon meeting “the definition of an ‘assault weapon’ under Massachusetts law,” regardless of how it’s made or what it’s made of, is prohibited. This would stem, in part, from Ms. Healey’s announcement two years ago of stepped up enforcement of a 20-year-old state law banning the sale of assault weapons as well as “copies or duplicates” or having interchangeable parts with banned weapons, a move that was challenged in federal court, dismissed and then appealed.
In addition to this is a bill filed this week by state Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, that no one except a federally licensed firearm manufacturer could make a gun with a 3D printer. The bill also would require these weapons to have a serial number, and require the same licensing requirements for possession as other firearms. An even stronger bill banning 3D printed guns has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, although its chances of passage there are far less than what’s proposed in Massachusetts.
While the issue of printable guns, at this point, appears to be more about making statements than threats. It’s important to address now. Remember what became of those flip phones.