Supreme Court Rejects 3-D Printed Gun Case

Cody Wilson, owner of Defense Distributed, at SHOT Show 2018.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case earlier this month involving 3-D printed gun instructions that would have had far-reaching implications for both First and Second Amendment rights. The case will now be sent back to the Fifth Circuit Court to be heard on its merits.

In the case, Defense Distributed v. State, the State Department ordered a Texas-based non-profit called Defense Distributed to remove a file from its website that contained instructions for printing a .380-caliber single-shot pistol.

Defense Distributed and its owner, Cody Wilson, sued the State Department for what they said was a violation of the company’s First and Second Amendment rights. The computer-aided design (CAD) file constitutes free speech, Wilson argued, and the manufacture of a pistol is protected by the 2008 Heller decision.

In their letter to Defense Distributed, the State Department claimed that the instructions could be “ITAR-controlled technical data” released “without the required prior authorization” from the State Department, according to a report from ITAR stands for “International Traffic in Arms Regulations,” a set of policies that govern the import and export of munitions.

SEE ALSO: FedEx Refuses to Ship Perfectly Legal DIY AR-15 CNC Machine

Whether CAD files fall under the State Department’s jurisdiction or First Amendment protections would have profound implications for the future of 3-D printing technology.

Wilson’s opponents worry that allowing the free promulgation of 3-D printed gun instructions will cause the widespread use of untraceable plastic guns by criminal elements. Plastic guns, while fragile, are also immune to metal detectors. The only security measures in place at many locations.

It may be too late, however. Defense Distributed’s design files were downloaded over 100,000 times in the two days after it was posted. And the blueprints can still be found online. Even if posting gun-related CAD files becomes illegal, it may be impossible to regulate them effectively.

While SCOTUS declined to hear this case, they’ll likely be forced to rule on CAD files at some point in the future. Kelsey Wilbanks, a lawyer at the Virginia-based firm Smith Pachter McWhorter PLC, notes that if the Court designates CAD files as a form of speech, the government will be restricted in its ability to regulate their publication.

“Every 3-D-printable object in its CAD file form would be subject to constitutional scrutiny,” she says. “Beyond guns, for instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would be restricted in its ability to regulate CAD files for a pharmaceutical drugs or prosthetic body parts.”

If, on the other hand, the Court does not designate CAD files as speech, those files could be regulated in the same manner as the object they digitally embody.

“In that event, operators might be reluctant to post certain CAD files for fear they could be considered weapons under ITAR, or even CAD files subject to other regulatory schemes,” she said. “This could inhibit innovation and open sharing.”

Editor’s note: We meet with Cody at SHOT Show 2018.  We talked about the case.  Needless to say, with the support of the Second Amendment Foundation, he is not giving up.  He is in it for the long haul.  Stay tuned for more from Defense Distributed.

About the author: Jordan Michaels has been reviewing firearm-related products for over four years and enjoying them for much longer. With family in Canada, he’s seen first hand how quickly the right to self-defense can be stripped from law-abiding citizens. He escaped that statist paradise at a young age, married a sixth-generation Texan, and currently lives in Waco. Follow him on Instagram @bornforgoodluck and email him at

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Bob January 28, 2018, 10:20 pm

    Oh no, the secret of firearm manufacture may fall into foreign hands!
    It’s only going to get easier, folks. 100 year old tech.

  • Will Drider January 27, 2018, 1:57 am

    There are two primary issues. The biggest I see is censorship. Remember, the State Dept has to censor it within the U.S. so it can’t be accessedby anyone that could export the material. How about the “How To” section of a firearms magazine or Net Blog? What about that set of gun smithing videos? Plans for a simple black powder would also fall into this wide open technology trap. The smaller issue is that someon outside the U.S. would print (make) the pistol in violation of that countries laws and worse use it for additional criminal activity. That person would also need to get ammo from another source too. I don’t see this as starting 3rd World crime waves. Could a guy in gun restrictive countries like the U.K. print one, sure. The printed single shot could be used in the same manner as the .45ACP Liberator: use it to get a better firearm from those that carry them. Okay but a knife, little skill can do the same much quieter. But its the “gun” they want to stop. People have been building Zip Guns since the 50’s. The gun is easy to make, only access to ammo mey be difficult.

  • Adam Jeppson January 26, 2018, 3:03 pm

    Just remember my fellow firearm enthusiasts; “Guns don’t kill people! It’s mostly the gaping holes in vital organs that kill people.” Have a sun-shiny day!

    • ej harb February 11, 2018, 11:49 pm

      I’m almost interested in what killed the majority of your brain cells.almost

  • Boss January 26, 2018, 2:58 pm

    “ITAR-controlled technical data” ? “International Traffic in Arms Regulations,” a set of policies that govern the import and export of munitions.

    So a United Nations rule, law trumps the U.S. Constitution!???

    • Andrew January 26, 2018, 8:56 pm

      Sadly, ITAR is US based law enacted in 1976 and has nothing to do with the United Nations. It was originally intended to prevent export of nuclear warheads and missile guidance systems, but its scope has been expanded every year by the ATF, US Department of State, and US Department of Commerce. It has big impact on Canadians like myself: I want to purchase quality firearm parts and accessories made in the USA, but even parts that are legal to own on both sides of the border without a license are often impossible to legally export. So because I can’t buy US, I’m stuck with whatever country is willing to export in Canada (usually sub-par Chinese junk).

  • mike January 26, 2018, 12:16 pm

    just one more way that criminals may potentially get a gun……another reason to concealed carry and protect yourself. be safe out there folks! it is a mad mad world1

  • Chum Lee January 26, 2018, 9:22 am

    So you can put the toothpaste back in the tube.

    Yeah, terrorists outside of this country are incapable of designing a single shot pistol and getting their hands on 3D printing technology. And forcing them to resort to convention firearms means they’ll be foiled because it’s been proven time and again that it’s impossible to smuggle a pistol past the department of junk jigglin.. er, TSA.

    Oh, the opposite of everything I just wrote.

    • deanbob January 26, 2018, 12:12 pm

      SCOTUS is likely just kicking the can down the road. They WILL have to deal with this issue. Like the old commercial used to say, “You can pay me now; or you can pay me later.” Why not get on top of it before suffering the consequences of ‘paying later?

  • Andrew January 26, 2018, 8:41 am

    DoS has completely screwed up ITAR. It was supposed to keep vital Defense technology from being exported without a license. Now every firearm-related item seems to be ITAR-controlled….even my COTS MagPul stock. It’s absurd and Congress needs to fix it.

    • SuperG January 26, 2018, 12:04 pm

      The more items a department can control, the more power they have, and then they get a larger budget.

  • JiminGA January 26, 2018, 7:56 am

    Seems like the same hyperbole around “plastic” Glocks decades ago. History really does repeat itself.

  • Wayne Baker January 26, 2018, 4:21 am

    The first time a terrorist gets on a plane with a CAD pistol and kills a few hundred or thousand folks, I hope this jerk fries in hell…

    • Mike V January 26, 2018, 6:52 am

      I doubt a terrorist could manage to kill that many via this guys design.
      Whole thing is an exaggerated hyperbolic limp wristed fear fest.

    • KenW January 26, 2018, 7:09 am

      How did you get your string and tin can to connect to the internet ?
      Oh , so technology is fine for you but not everyone huh … ?
      In your eyes as shut as they may be , you think that everyone with a milling machine should burn in hell.
      Anyone could take a block of HDPE and mill out a working firearm for one time use. I’d even be willing to shoot one made from milled HDPE WITHOUT the steel barrel that a printed gun requires.
      The printed guns cannot pass a metal detector no matter what this write up says. They have to have a metal barrel as the printed plastic is not as strong as a single milled piece of HDPE.
      And furthermore ammo is still made in BRASS cases !

      I’d be more worried about a sling shot as they have no metal and can fire non metal projectiles that could kill.

      • deanbob January 26, 2018, 12:17 pm

        I saw a pistol created by Defense Distributed in an interview with the owner. The printed pistol did not have a metal barrel. However, it did have a metal firing pin and the casing of the round that was fired was brass.

    • Jared Mevissen January 26, 2018, 7:23 am

      CAD pistoles are not immune to metal detectors, they still need a metal firing pin to set off the primer in the ammunition they fire, and a spring to move something to hit the firing pin. Furthermore there a 1 shot item they basically destroy themselves after the first shot not to mention sniffer dogs in airports would smell the gunpowder in the cartridge and activate on it, a terrorist would be better off with a plastic/composite knife that really would be immune to the metal detector/sniffer dogs.

    • Patriot January 26, 2018, 9:57 am

      hey Wayne,,the problem is clueless idiots like you who dont have a clue what they are talking about,,but still want to show the world how uneducated you are by spewing bullshit,please loosen your tinfoil hat,your brain is suffocating,

    • ej harb February 11, 2018, 11:57 pm

      Pretty sure today’s cockpit doors will stop a 380 quite well.

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