The landmark lawsuit against the United States State Department filed by gun rights advocate Cody Wilson and the creator of the 3D printed Liberator pistol continues to gain steam, even after a recent setback. Earlier this month, District Judge Robert Pitman denied Cody Wilson’s preliminary injunction against the State Department’s order that he stop disseminating the Liberator’s files online, stating that any potential violations of his Constitutional rights did not outweigh the public interest. However, yesterday Wilson took to Twitter and announced that he successfully filed his appeal to that decision and the case was on its way to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Guess who has a date with the Fifth Circuit? pic.twitter.com/On3PFDSalE
— Cody R. Wilson (@Radomysisky) August 25, 2015
Two years ago Wilson and Defense Distributed released the digital files for the Liberator pistol, an entirely 3D printable, one shot handgun, online. After successfully test firing a working version of the Liberator, the response from the United States government was swift. Wilson was ordered to remove the files from the internet, citing two obscure regulations that prevented the international export of unapproved firearms. Despite the legality of their order being questionable at best, Wilson complied and spent the next two years trying to get the proper documentation to allow his files to be put back online.
Unfortunately Wilson was not able to work things out amicably with the State Department, something that he and many on his side blame on politics as his gun debuted around the time of the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Wilson filed a lawsuit claiming that the State Department’s order was a violation of his First Amendment rights. His lawsuit was backed by the Second Amendment Foundation, and along with his lawsuit he requested an injunction against their order. The injunction claimed that Wilson had already lost two years of potential revenue due to their order. When he gave his decision on the injunction, Judge Pitman was quite clear that he did not believe that Wilson and his legal team had proven their case.
“In this case, the inquiry essentially collapses because the interests asserted by Defendants are in the form of protecting the public by limiting access of foreign nationals to ‘defense articles.’ Plaintiffs rather summarily assert the balance of interests tilts in their favor because ‘[I]t is always in the public interest to prevent the violation of a party’s constitutional rights.’ They further assert that an injunction would not bar Defendants from controlling the export of classified information. The Court finds neither assertion wholly convincing. While Plaintiffs’ assertion of a public interest in protection of constitutional rights is well-taken, it fails to consider the public’s keen interest in restricting the export of defense articles,” Judge Pitman wrote in his judgement.
This wasn’t a very good sign for the eventual outcome of Wilson’s larger lawsuit, especially considering that Judge Pitman is also presiding over that case. But it is possible that could change if he manages to successfully convince the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Pitman’s judgement and grant him his injunction, allowing Wilson to place his files back online. The 5th Circuit Court serves several gun-friendly Southern states, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and could potentially be more sympathetic to his case than Pitman.
While many see Wilson’s lawsuit as primarily a Second Amendment issue, the case is far larger and could have a potentially massive ripple effect within both the United States and the 3D printing industry. Wilson is claiming that by preventing him from distributing the digital files of the Liberator that his right to free speech is being denied him, and honestly I have a hard time disagreeing with him. Wilson isn’t distributing weapons, he is simply giving away digital files that can be used to make weapons. Contrary to the belief of many, it is perfectly legal to manufacture weapons at home without a license for personal use, and it is perfectly legal to post plans to make your own firearms online. So why are 3D printed weapons any different? That seems to be the issue that needs to be settled, but considering the entire argument seems to be that 3D printing simply makes something that is already legal slightly easier, the State Department is probably not especially confident in any satisfactory outcome.
“…significant advances in three-dimensional (3D) printing capabilities, availability of free digital 3D printer files for firearms components, and difficulty regulating file sharing may present public safety risks from unqualified gun seekers who obtain or manufacture 3D printed guns. [P]roposed legislation to ban 3D printing of weapons may deter, but cannot completely prevent their production. Even if the practice is prohibited by new legislation, online distribution of these digital files will be as difficult to control as any other illegally traded music, movie or software files,” stated a memo released in May 2013 by the US Department of Homeland Security.
While that sounds very ominous it doesn’t really take into account the precedent that banning digital files could represent. Digital files are, after all, simply information and data; will plans to home manufacture firearms be next? If the State Department is successful in preventing specific types of information from legally being distributed, who will be held responsible when that proves impossible to control? Will 3D printer manufacturers be required to block certain files from being printable on their machines?
Regardless of how well Wilson does with the 5th Circuit Court , his appeal is only one small legal battle in a much larger and enormously complicated legal battle. The case probably seems simple from Wilson’s point of view–he just wants to distribute his files online. Files that, it should be noted, are available to this day on torrenting site Pirate Bay. The final outcome of the lawsuit could have some unfortunate effects on everyone from amateur DIY gun enthusiasts to 3D printer manufacturers, and even affect copyright and trademark laws. More importantly, it could very well redefine what we think of as freedom of speech.
You can follow the progress of Wilson’s lawsuit over on Defense Distributed here, and you can let us know what you think of this case over on our Defense Distributed Vs State Department forum thread at 3DPB.com.