Democrats urge Trump administration to reverse its reversal on 3D-printed gun instructions

The Democrats blasted the Trump administration on Tuesday over its decision to allow a Texas company to publish downloadable blueprints for a 3D-printed gun, contending the hard-to-trace plastic weapons are a boon to terrorists and criminals, and threaten public safety.

State Department settled last month with 3D designer, but Trump seems skeptical

Cody Wilson holds what he calls a Liberator pistol that was completely made on a 3D printer at his home in Austin, Texas. Eight states filed suit Monday against the Trump administration over its decision to allow Wilson's Texas-based company to publish downloadable blueprints for a 3D-printed gun, contending the hard-to-trace plastic weapons are a boon to terrorists and criminals and threaten public safety. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/Associated Press)

The Democrats blasted the Trump administration on Tuesday over its decision to allow a Texas company to publish downloadable blueprints for a 3D-printed gun, contending the hard-to-trace plastic weapons are a boon to terrorists and criminals, and threaten public safety.

"These ghost guns are the new wave of American gun violence," said Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut.

Blumenthal was among five senators who held a news conference, claiming the weapons would not be detectable and be available to those who hadn't passed background checks. They said they were "totally surprised" by the federal government's late June settlement with Defence Distributed, which had been told in 2013 by the Barack Obama administration to cease making instructions to print the guns available.

The company will now be able to make the plans available online effective Aug. 1.

"It seized defeat from the jaws of victory," said Blumenthal of the reversal.

President Donald Trump, in a tweet early Tuesday, said he was "looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public" and had already spoken to the NRA about it. Trump said the prospect "doesn't seem to make such sense," though it wasn't clear if he knew that his own State Department had reached a settlement last month with the designer who first published downloadable instructions.

"The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," said Chuck Schumer, Senate minority leader from New York. "It has real and important consequences for the American people."

The National Rifle Association, beholden to gun manufacturers, has been relatively silent on the issue, although spokesperson Dana Loesch has hailed the development as an example of American "freedom and innovation."

Trump, for his part, has spoken at the NRA's annual conference in each of his two years as president and has resisted gun control after a number of high-profile mass shootings. Trump proposed the idea of arming teachers after a deadly Florida school shooting in February.

"This is Trump's chance to stand up to the NRA," said Sen. Bill Nelson from Florida.

Schumer expressed skepticism that would happen, predicting legislation would be needed instead.

"This idea that he'll look into it — we've been down this road before. Remember bump stocks?" said Schumer, referring to the device that came to widespread attention after last year's Las Vegas shooting in which 58 were gunned down.

Trump has backed regulations from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to effectively outlaw bump stocks, a device that can allow a semi-automatic weapon to approximate the firing capabilities of an automatic. But the administration and congressional Republicans have balked at a legislative ban.

Designer says it's a free speech issue

Shortly before the news conference on Tuesday, Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, a Democrat, said he would introduce a bill in the House that would seek to include the 3D-printed weapons in the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988.

People can use the blueprints to manufacture a plastic gun using a 3D printer. But gun industry experts have expressed doubt that criminals would go to the trouble, since the printers needed to make the guns are very expensive, the guns themselves tend to disintegrate quickly and traditional firearms are easy to come by.

Cody Wilson, founder of Defence Distributed, first published downloadable designs for a 3D-printed firearm in 2013. It was downloaded about 100,000 times, and it is not clear that a 3D-printed firearm was ever used in the commission of a crime as a result. The State Department ordered him to cease, contending it violated federal export laws since some of the blueprints were downloaded by people outside the United States.

Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, shows another plastic handgun made on his 3D printer. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

At the time, the NRA voiced its opposition to expanding the Undetectable Firearms Act.

The State Department reversed course in late June, agreeing to allow Wilson to resume posting the blueprints.

On Monday, eight states filed suit in Seattle, asking a judge to block the federal government's late June settlement with Defence Distributed that allowed the company to make the plans available online. 

"I have a question for the Trump administration: Why are you allowing dangerous criminals easy access to weapons?" Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, said in a statement Monday. "These downloadable guns are unregistered and very difficult to detect, even with metal detectors, and will be available to anyone regardless of age, mental health or criminal history."

Joining the suit were Democratic attorneys general in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Maryland, New York and the District of Columbia. 

Separately, attorneys general in 21 states urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday to withdraw from the settlement with Defence Distributed, saying it "creates an imminent risk to public safety."

Defence Distributed filed its own suit in Texas on Sunday, asserting it's the victim of an "ideologically fuelled program of intimidation and harassment" that violates the company's First Amendment rights.

The company's lawyer, Josh Blackman, called it an "easy case."

States are free to enact gun control measures, but "what they can't do is censor the speech of another citizen in another state, and they can't regulate the commerce of another citizen in another state when that commerce is authorized by a federal government license," Blackman said in an interview Monday. "It's a violation of the First Amendment, it's unconscionable and we're going to fight it to the very end."

Defence Distributed agreed to temporarily block Pennsylvania residents from downloading the plans after state officials went to Federal Court in Philadelphia on Sunday in search of an emergency order. The company said it has also blocked access to users in New Jersey and Los Angeles.

With files by CBC News

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