Ghost Guns: Battles in the Court System

Ghost guns have been at the forefront of the news in the firearms community for several years. The guns are manufactured by gunsmiths and hobbyists in their homes or businesses. Lawmakers object to the manufacture and ownership of ghost guns and are putting a lot of effort into banning them across the U.S.

What is a Ghost Gun?

Ghost guns are firearms that do not have serial numbers and are untraceable. Courts are battling against whether the manufacture and purchase of ghost guns is legal. Serial numbers cannot be removed from guns as it is illegal, however, it is legal to make and/or own a gun without a serial number. Ghost guns include homemade guns regardless of the material used: metal, 3D-printed plastic, or other material. Owners may not legally sell ghost guns without applying for a serial number. Laws do not prohibit the ownership of the weapons, based on the Second Amendment.

Defense Distributed

Defense Distributed is the online open-source hardware organization that creates digital schematics of weapons in CAD files, also referred to as “wiki weapons.” The files can be downloaded off the Internet and used to manufacture firearms through 3-D printing or CNC mills. Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, is credited with creating the Liberator, the world’s first 3-D printed gun.

Wilson is a gun activist and crypto-anarchist that has pushed the envelope when it comes to the right to bear arms. He has been involved in many court battles over his projects, including the release of blueprints for printing firearms as well as the sale of Ghost Gunner, a mini CNC mill designed specifically for printing guns.

The company, based in Austin, Texas, defines its vision statement: “to defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution and affirmed by the Supreme Court, through facilitating global access to, and the collaborative production of, information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms; and to publish and distribute… such information and knowledge in promotion of the public interest.”

Cody Wilson

Cody Wilson is the face of the battle against the manufacture and ownership, although he is not singled out by name in any of the court cases brought against Defense Distributed. Wilson founded and operated Defense Distributed from 2012 until 2018. He resigned from the company in September 2018 after being arrested in Taiwan for sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl he met online. Despite Wilson’s absence, Defense Distributed intends to continue its battle to distribute DIY blueprints for 3-D weapons. Paloma Heindorff, the organization’s new director, told reporters that nothing would change despite Wilson’s absence.

“I am extremely proud to say that over the past few days, the entire team at Defense Distributed have recommitted to enabling the sharing and publication of CAD and 3-D printing files.”  

Legal Troubles

In August 2012, Defense Distributed initiated the Wiki Weapon Project. Wilson wanted to raise $20,000 to design and publish blueprints for a plastic gun created with an open-source 3D printer. Gunsmiths and hobbyists will be able to use the blueprints to create an operational weapon capable of firing a standard .22 cal bullet. Stratasys, the manufacturer of Wilson’s 3-D printer, learned about the project and immediately canceled their lease contract. The printer was immediately confiscated.

Wilson didn’t set out to break any laws, in fact, he visited the Austin office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATFE) to ask about the laws relating to his project. He was issued a Federal Firearms License (FFL) six months later.

In May 2013, Wilson posted the blueprints for the Liberator on the Defense Distributed website. The State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance ordered Wilson to remove the files, stating that he was violating International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

In May 2015, Defense Distributed, along with the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), filed suit against the Department of State for violating their First Amendment rights to free speech. They lost the case and appealed to the Fifth Circuit. They attempted to take the case to the Supreme Court, but the court refused to hear the case.

In July 2018, Defense Distributed and SAF accepted a settlement from the Department of State and resumed their work. Western Washington District Court Judge Robert Lasnik immediately issued an order suspending the settlement and demanded the release of the organization’s files. Defense Distributed continues their work while lawsuits are pending from multiple state governments.

Other Sources

Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed may be viewed as the pioneers of the wiki weapons movement but they are not the only game in town. Several other manufacturers exist, and despite negative legal findings, state they will continue with the work in the spirit of the Second Amendment.

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