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Federal judge grants preliminary injunction in 3D-printed gun case

August 27, 2018 GMT

A federal judge on Monday granted a preliminary injunction to a coalition of states seeking to block a Texas-based company from posting online blueprints for how to make 3D-printed guns.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik followed an initial temporary restraining order he granted in late July that blocked the federal government from implementing terms of a settlement the company, Defense Distributed, struck with the State Department earlier this year that would have allowed founder Cody Wilson to start posting the files again.

The ruling Monday means the blockade will continue while the judge considers the broader merits of a lawsuit brought by a group of state attorneys general who argued the online posting of the files threatens public safety.

“Plaintiffs have a legitimate fear that adding undetectable and untraceable guns to the arsenal of weaponry already available will likely increase the threat of gun violence they and their people experience,” Judge Lasnik said in his 25-page ruling.

The judge said he would presume that Mr. Wilson does have a First Amendment right to publish the files, but that the burdens on those rights are “dwarfed” by the harms the states are likely to face and that it’s in the public interest to keep the ban in place while the case is being heard.

Mr. Wilson had started posting some of the files online several days before what had been an expected Aug. 1 relaunch date, and gun-rights advocates have created alternate websites to share the files since Judge Lasnik issued the temporary injunction on July 31.

Mr. Wilson had first posted the the blueprints online several years ago but in 2013 the State Department said they could be running afoul of export control rules. Mr. Wilson agreed not to post more plans but sued the Obama administration to try to overturn the policy.

He and President Trump’s State Department settled the case earlier this year, agreeing to terms that would allow him to post the plans again.

But a group of Democratic state attorneys general sued at the last minute to block the posting of the plans, arguing that the blueprints interfered with their ability to set their own gun restrictions and that the Trump administration cut corners when it reversed the Obama administration’s export objections.

Some security experts have expressed concerns that the guns could circumvent metal detectors, while Defense Distributed has maintained it’s simply releasing information protected by free speech and that the states can’t be facing “irreparable harm” if so many of the files are already online anyway.

But Judge Lasnik said in his ruling that many of the files have yet to be released or even developed, and that there’s a distinction between the files getting circulating on the dark web and getting posted on the company’s website.

“The private defendants’ dogged pursuit of the right to publish these files and the evident alarm with which the proposed publication has been met in the Congress, in the White House, amongst advocacy groups, and in state houses all over the country suggest that further publication is not harmless,” he said.

Mr. Trump said via Twitter on July 31 that he had spoken to the National Rifle Association about 3D plastic guns being sold to the public and that the idea “doesn’t seem to make much sense!”

The White House said earlier this month that Mr. Trump was glad the effort was delayed to allow more time for review and that the Justice Department had made a deal without the president’s approval.

Congressional Democrats had also called on the president to reverse course, saying he would be responsible for 3D-printed guns that ended up on the street in the future.

In granting the initial restraining order Judge Lasnik had said the states had a “clear and reasonable fear” that the proliferation of undetectable weapons would enable people otherwise barred from possessing guns to get their hands on them.

The Trump administration has also asked the lawsuit to be tossed, saying the State Department doesn’t have the authority to regulate person-to-person transfers of the files within the United States.

But Judge Lasnik rejected that line of thinking in his ruling Monday.

“Whatever defendants’ statutory authority, the fact is that the internet is both domestic and international,” he said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions clarified earlier this month that undetectable, plastic firearms are already illegal under federal law and that his department would vigorously enforce and prosecute violations.

Judge Lasnik said he appreciated the argument that the administration is committed to enforcing the 1988 law, but that the “untraceable and undetectable nature of these small firearms” pose a “unique danger.”

“It is of small comfort to know that, once an undetectable firearm has been used to kill a citizen of Delaware or Rhode Island or Vermont, the federal government will seek to prosecute a weapons charge in federal court while the State pursues a murder conviction in state court,” he said.