After a multiyear legal battle, the federal government last month entered into a settlement with Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson, permitting him to publish his arsenal of firearm blueprints online.

Share story

Gun-safety activist Fred Guttenberg arrived in Washington to address the Democratic caucus last week, furious that Congress had failed to prevent the potential spread of 3D-printed guns.

After a multiyear legal battle, the federal government last month entered into a settlement with Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson, permitting him to publish his arsenal of firearm blueprints online. He intends to do so Wednesday. Lawmakers’ 11th-hour efforts have done nothing to halt his plans, and on Friday, a federal judge denied a motion for an emergency injunction brought forward by three gun-control groups.

Guttenberg, who has become a powerful voice against gun violence since his 14-year-old daughter was killed in the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, said he was dismayed by his visit to Capitol Hill on Monday. Five weeks had passed since the settlement was signed, yet only a few senators were aware of it, he said. Guttenberg also said not a single House member knew, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch, both Florida Democrats.

“I don’t know how we got to this place and no one was paying attention,” he lamented. “This is the safety of this country and its citizens who are now at risk in their offices, in courthouses and on airplanes.”

Guttenberg, like other gun-safety advocates and some law-enforcement officials, are worried that this is exactly what criminals and terrorists want: guns that can’t be flagged by metal detectors, don’t have serial numbers to trace and don’t require the usual background checks.

Gun-industry experts say the guns are simply a modern-day equivalent of what already is legal and readily available: the ability to assemble your own firearm using traditional materials and methods at home without serial numbers. They argue that 3D-printed firearms won’t be a draw for criminals since the printers needed to make one are wildly expensive and the firearms aren’t very durable.

“It costs thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to acquire a printer and the files and the know-how to do this. They don’t work worth a damn. Criminals can obviously go out and steal guns or even manufacture quote-unquote real guns, not 3D printed,” said Larry Keane, executive director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers. The experts add that the 3D-printed guns normally only last a few rounds before they fall apart. They also don’t have magazines that allow the usual nine or 15 rounds to be carried; instead, they usually hold a bullet or two and then must be manually loaded afterward. And they’re not usually very accurate.

Nonetheless, with less than a week to scuttle the settlement, Wilson was bombarded with last-minute legal threats from lawmakers and advocacy groups.

On Tuesday, Sen. Edward Markey, joined by Sens. Bill Nelson, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Murphy and Dianne Feinstein, all Democrats, sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, demanding he explain the government’s decision to settle. Nelson also plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit online publication of any digital file that can be downloaded or programmed to print a 3D gun part.

Other lawmakers joined the crusade: New Jersey’s attorney general sent Wilson a cease-and-desist order, warning that making the digital files available to New Jersey residents was a violation of the state’s law. Deutch wrote a letter Thursday co-signed by 40 members of the House calling for a hearing before the looming deadline.

“Maybe when my colleagues realize that the end result is a plastic gun possibly getting through security in the Rayburn building, they’ll return to Washington and let us hold hearings on stopping this danger before it gets too far,” Deutch said.

But as time runs out, it remains unclear whether the belated efforts will succeed.

“All the letters are nice, but they do nothing,” Guttenberg said. “At 12:01 on the 1st of August, it’s going to be too late.”

Wilson manufactured the first fully 3D-printed pistol in April 2013, when he was 25. He posted the design files online, to an unregulated file-sharing website. In a few days the site saw more than 100,000 downloads for the firearms. The federal government alleged that by uploading the weapon blueprints, which constituted an export under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Wilson had violated federal law.

After years of legal fighting, the federal government stunned Wilson and gun-control advocates with a wholesale reversal of position. On June 29, it entered into a settlement with Wilson that, in addition to fronting $40,000 for his legal fees, crafted an exemption from the ITAR regulations, allowing Wilson’s company to post 3D-firearm blueprints online for unlimited international distribution.

Wilson plans to relaunch this week.

Three organizations — the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence — jumped into the fight Thursday, filing an emergency motion for a preliminary injunction. A hearing was held Friday before federal Judge Robert Pitman, who had sided with the government in Wilson’s earlier 3D-gun printing litigation.

On Friday, however, Pitman sided with Wilson, denying the groups’ motion.

The Department of Justice declined to comment.

“There is a market for these guns and it’s not just among enthusiasts and hobbyists,” said Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety. “There’s a real desire and profit motive in the criminal underworld as well.”

Days from now, Wilson will likely be able to post far more than basic handguns on a searchable database.

“Once the plans are up on the internet, it’s impossible to unring the bell,” said Jonathan Lowy, vice president of litigation at the Brady Center. “The genie is out of the bottle and you can’t put it back in.”