AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Late today, a federal judge ruled that online 3D blueprints of guns should be halted. The judge said these untraceable weapons which can be printed from directions downloaded off the Internet could end up in the wrong hands. But it's unclear how the temporary restraining order can be enforced because the plans have been on the Internet for days now after the federal government allowed them to be. The ruling came after several states sued. Matt Largey of member station KUT visited the company in Austin, Texas, that's at the center of the debate.
MATT LARGEY, BYLINE: This is a story about guns, but we're not going to hear any guns - no shots fired - because it's not a story about an actual gun. It's a story about the recipe for a gun and what that recipe means before the weapon is made into something real.
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CODY WILSON: That strange screeching sound is milling of a pocket in an AR-15.
LARGEY: This is Cody Wilson. He chews a toothpick as he walks around his machine shop at Defense Distributed in Austin. His company builds automated milling machines that people can use to make guns at home. Wilson's real goal is to design all kinds of guns, untraceable with no serial numbers, that can be made using a 3D printer or a milling machine. He put the blueprints online for anyone to download, and in the past few days, thousands of people have.
So I guess my question is why.
WILSON: Why provide the right to keep and bear arms for all time on the Internet?
WILSON: Well, let's say you're a radical and you actually believe that the individual should have the capacity to own this type of weapon. One way of ensuring that he has at least the measure beginning is to make sure that the digital content, this intellectual property is always available to him, but further, in the public domain, not something that's for sale but, like, literally part of the commons.
LARGEY: This all started back in 2013 when Wilson made his first 3D-printed gun. It was a single-shot pistol, mostly plastic with a few metal parts purchased at a hardware store. He called it the Liberator. Then he put the plans on the Internet. Soon the State Department told him he needed permission from the government to post those files because of international arms export rules. So he took files down and then sued the government.
KIT WALSH: Part of the issue in this case is the question of whether a computer file can be speech that's protected under the First Amendment.
LARGEY: Kit Walsh is an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on civil liberties online. Walsh argues computer code is no different than a recipe.
WALSH: Traditionally, under the First Amendment, we don't keep people from talking about things just because they might be used in an illegal way.
LARGEY: The case wound its way through the courts. Gun control groups weighed in.
JONATHAN LOWY: We have laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands and to require background checks when you buy guns at gun stores.
LARGEY: Jonathan Lowy is with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
LOWY: That can be completely undercut if somebody can simply buy a 3D printer and crank out an AK-47 or AR-15 in their basement.
LARGEY: After three years of legal wrangling, something unexpected happened. The government agreed to a deal with Defense Distributed and would allow Cody Wilson to publish the gun designs online. Now he's done just that.
Do you understand why this all makes people uncomfortable?
WILSON: I do. I do. But sometimes it's uncomfortable to be responsible or, you know, move into a new age of technological possibility. I suppose then people's feelings are kind of beside the point.
LARGEY: Keep in mind it's always been legal to make your own guns at home. All you need is the right equipment and skills. What Wilson's doing is nothing new. He's just brought it into the 21st century. For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey in Austin.
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