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3D-printed guns are a conundrum for gun lobby

The blueprints, which were supposed to go online Wednesday until a last-minute court ruling, put the NRA in a tough position.

Travis Lerol holds an AR-15 assault rifle along with a rifle's lower receiver made of ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plastic that was constructed by his 3D printer at his home on Tuesday, February 12, 2012, in Glen Burnie, MD.
(Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Travis Lerol holds an AR-15 assault rifle along with a rifle's lower receiver made of ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plastic that was constructed by his 3D printer at his home on Tuesday, February 12, 2012, in Glen Burnie, MD. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A court late Tuesday temporarily blocked downloads of 3D-printed gun blueprints after gun-control organizations, 21 U.S. state attorneys general, and Democrats in Congress scrambled this week to block a Texas company from sharing them on the internet.

The restraining order, which came just hours before the plans were to be available for download, was in response to a lawsuit filed Monday by eight state attorneys general. Earlier on Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump suggested in a tweet that he and the National Rifle Association were considering joining the eight states and others in opposition.

Gun-control advocates quickly seized on the president’s statement, pointing out that the Trump administration could quickly take action to block the blueprints from being released online.

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“To protect the public from this senseless situation, the president should direct the State Department to block any further publishing of the designs for downloadable, untraceable guns,” Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement. The State Department first ordered the plans taken down on the grounds their publication violated export law.

But the president’s statement confused people on both sides of the debate. Neither Trump nor the NRA have commented further on their position, even though it seems at odds with the administration’s previous stance on 3D-printed guns. In early July, the Trump administration sided with the blueprints’ publisher, 25-year-old radical libertarian Cody Wilson and his company, Defense Distributed. The government agreed to a legal settlement that will allow Wilson to share blueprints for a pistol called the Liberator and AR-style guns on the internet August 1st. Wilson and other fringe gun-rights advocates celebrated the victory, characterizing it as the death of gun control.

But the gun lobby wasn’t celebrating. Second Amendment advocates largely stayed silent, and when they did speak out, they argued that the debate was overblown. People won’t actually be able to make guns because the printers are prohibitively expensive, they argued, and the government will regulate any guns people might produce.

“The gun lobby is ambivalent about this whole issue,” Mike Weisser, a lifelong NRA member who runs a prominent website called Mike The Gun Guy, told ThinkProgress.

“On the one hand, it pushes them slightly out of the center of the industry in terms of who makes guns,” he said. “On the other hand, because they’re opposed to regulation, they don’t really want to really come out forcefully and say, ‘Oh yeah, we should regulate and come out and control plastic guns.’ For that reason, the industry is quiet about it. They haven’t said much at all.”

David Chipman, a senior policy advisor with Gabby Giffords’ gun reform organization and a former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), agreed that the gun lobby is struggling with this debate.

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“The NRA is probably handcuffed by their own rhetoric,” he said. “They have to be consistent, so maybe that’s why they find themselves in a tough position.”

Indeed, the NRA and gun manufacturers have largely been quiet on 3D guns. When they have spoken out, their comments have contradicted gun enthusiasts celebrating the end of gun control. On the NRA’s TV channel, spokesperson Dana Loesch ridiculed Democrats who were raising concerns about 3D-printed guns and falsely claimed that criminals and others barred from purchasing firearms cannot print 3D weapons.

“You have laws already on the books,” she said. “If you are a prohibited possessor, you can’t do any of these things.” In fact, there is no law that can currently prevent anyone, including a “prohibited possessor,” from making a 3D gun.

Cam Edwards, an NRA News host, also mocked the outrage, writing on Twitter: “Gun control will now also include support for speech control, Internet control, and 3D printer control.” NRA TV’s Grant Stinchfield felt similarly.

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The National Sports Shooting Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry, has been particularly quiet. Weisser said that the only comment from its director has been to say that the guns don’t work, but otherwise it’s been years since the group made public comments about them.

“If the technology at some point in the distant future reached the point where fully functioning and reliable firearms could be brought to market, the sales of such firearms produced with this technology would be governed by these federal laws,” NSSF wrote in 2013. “Depending on jurisdiction, state statutes and local ordinances may also apply.”

Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, have dominated the conversation. They point out that 3D-printed guns are substantially different than traditional firearms — and more dangerous — because they can be obtained without a background check, can’t be identified by metal detectors, and do not have serial numbers that can be traced by ATF. Weisser said that at least one of those arguments are factually incorrect — even plastic guns need to have metal barriers, so there would be no way to get them through TSA scanners without detection.

Still, gun-reform organizations were still scrambling this week to do everything they could to regulate the new technology before it’s too late. Chipman said the current debate over 3D-printed guns reminds him of the debates over other technology like bump stocks while he was working at ATF.

“It was presented to us as new technology that seemed pretty flimsy, didn’t work very well, broke, and seemed pretty harmless and gimmicky,” he said. “You know what? It was pretty painful to have to witness Las Vegas and come to terms with the fact that we were wrong.”

He pointed out that Trump, expressed concerns via Twitter about bump stocks after that shooting, but those accessories are still readily available. He said he worries that 3D guns will follow the same fate.

“Maybe it’s not a clear and present danger tomorrow, but what is it going to be like in five years? We already know the laws and regulatory structure moves at glacial speed — do we have to wait until something horrific happens?”