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Government Fires Back at 3-D Printable Gun

It's been an eventful week for Cody Wilson, the 25-year-old University of Texas law student, self-described crypto-anarchist and creator of a 3-D printed handgun called The Liberator. Wilson's organization, Defense Distributed, has garnered much media attention for its Wiki Weapon Project, a "nonprofit effort to create freely available plans for 3D printable guns." Wilson's crusade has now landed him in the government's sights -- and his legal troubles may just be beginning.

After Wilson made headlines for unveiling and successfully test-firing the plastic weapon, Defense Distributed last week posted downloadable blueprints for creating the gun on a 3-D printer. Several days later, Wilson received a letter from the State Department ordering the removal of the designs from the site pending review of whether publishing them constituted distribution of "technical data" in violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

The problem? The plans had already been downloaded more than 100,000 times and published to numerous file-sharing sites. Meanwhile, Defense Distributed's endeavor is getting more notice than ever, and Wilson seems undaunted (to say the least).

The issue has caught the attention of lawmakers, including U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, who has argued for a ban on 3-D printable guns. "A terrorist, someone who's mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage," with the 3-D printing process, Schumer said. There's also the concern that the plastic weapons would not set off metal detectors. London's Daily Mail published an article over the weekend in which two reporters documented their experience printing and assembling The Liberator, then smuggling it successfully onto a Eurostar Train.

Discussion will no doubt continue over what Wilson's crusade -- and the government's response -- might mean for the gun-control debate and the regulation of the sale of firearms. And in a post on Jonathan Turley's blog, guest blogger Gene Howington writes that the most interesting legal question is whether Wilson and his organization might be found to be providing "material support" to terrorist organizations under the Patriot Act.

Howington examines the issue in light of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. In that decision -- which has been criticized by some as hostile to free speech rights and humanitarian efforts -- the justices found that a Patriot Act provision that prohibits providing "material support" to designated foreign terrorist organizations could be applied to conflict-resolution advice and legal services provided by human rights organizations to groups such as Turkey's Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The Supreme Court’s conclusion was based in part on the category of “expert advice or assistance," in the law's definition of "material support." Might this definition be found to apply to Defense Distributed's efforts to disseminate plans for, as Howington describes it, "a weapon whose fairly described design advantage is covert action and assassination"? Howington calls it a "real possibility."

It's certainly an interesting question, especially in light of Defense Distributed's stated purpose, as outlined on its site, which includes the goal of "facilitating global access to, and the collaborative production of, information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms."

Posted by Laurel Newby on May 14, 2013 at 04:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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