The Trump administration broke a federal law when it reached a settlement allowing a small gun-technology company to post online the digital blueprints for making weapons with a 3D printer, a judge ruled.
The State Department didn’t give the public a proper explanation in 2018 when it reversed an Obama-era position that blocked Defense Distributed from publishing computer-aided design files for guns on the internet, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle ruled on Tuesday.
“Given the agency’s prior position regarding the need to regulate 3D-printed firearms and the CAD files used to manufacture them, it must do more than simply announce a contrary position,” Lasnik wrote in his decision.
Lacking such an explanation, the reversal was an “arbitrary and capricious” violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act, according to the ruling.
The administration of President Barack Obama had blocked the company’s effort to publish the files for years, arguing that it would violate an arms-export law. But the State Department in June 2018 gave Defense Distributed the green light by settling a lawsuit with the company in a Texas court. The company’s website called it “our most famous victory.”
Chad Flores, a lawyer for Defense Distributed in Houston, said the company will appeal.
“The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech from all abridgment, including indirect censorship efforts like this one,” Flores said in a statement. “And states aren’t allowed to commandeer the federal government to do their unconstitutional bidding, even under the guise of statutory technicalities.”
A State Department official said the agency is reviewing the decision.
The government accord raised alarm bells among gun-control advocates and prompted the Washington suit backed by attorneys general from several other states. Even President Donald Trump weighed in, saying 3-D printed guns don’t “make much sense.” He didn’t attempt to block the settlement.
In a court filing over the summer, the states said the evidence showed that the State Department had failed to consider the national security implications of the deal.
“Without question, the release of step-by-step instructions for the production of untraceable and undetectable firearms would threaten the safety of not only our nation’s residents, but people around the globe,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said Tuesday in a statement.
When the Seattle court issued an earlier injunction against Defense Distributed, the company said it continued to send the digital blueprints by regular mail to thousands of customers, underscoring the possible limits of Tuesday’s ruling.
“The speech these states want so badly to censor is already on the internet and always will be,” Flores said.
The case is State of Washington v. U.S. Department of State, 18-cv-01115, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington (Seattle).