Skip to content
Noah Feldman

If Printing Guns Is Legal, So Is Distributing the Plans

An appeals court stopped the release of files to make AR-15s at home. That's not how the First Amendment is supposed to work.
The Liberator.

The Liberator.

Photographer: Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

Can the government block the online publication of files that let anyone make an assault rifle on a 3-D printer? In a defeat for free speech and a win for gun-control advocates, an appeals court has said yes. The court declined to suspend a State Department regulation that treats posting the files as a foreign export of munitions. Although the impulse to block the easy creation of untraceable weapons is admirable, the court got it wrong. The First Amendment can’t tolerate a prohibition on publishing unclassified information -- even if the information is potentially harmful.

Defense Distributed is a nonprofit group devoted to “promoting popular access to arms guaranteed by the United States Constitution.” It wants to distribute free online the computer-aided design and text files that would enable anyone with access to a 3-D printer or a computerized mill to make the crucial component of an AR-15 rifle, the semi-automatic version of the military’s M16.