If Printing Could Kill: 5th Circuit Denies Appeal on 3D Printed Gun Injunction

By George Khoury, Esq. on September 29, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last week, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the lower court, stating that they properly denied the preliminary injunction requested by the plaintiffs in the case of Defense Distributed v. Department of State. This is the case involving the infamous Liberator, a 3D printable hand gun that cannot be detected in a metal detector. The design schematics have already been distributed over the internet and downloaded countless times.

The decision itself, while fascinating in its own right, does not even touch the most important and highly contentious questions that the district court must now decide.

What's a Preliminary Injunction?

Defense Distributed was seeking a preliminary injunction to allow them to put the designs for the Liberator back online on their website, and to make those designs available to the public for downloading again. The organization took the downloadable files down after being contacted by the Department of State and notified that the distribution of the file was a violation of federal laws regulating arms trafficking.

A preliminary injunction is a legal motion that can be brought by any party involved in a lawsuit to either request that the court immediately prevent the other party from doing something, or allow something to happen. In this case, Defense Distributed was asking the Court to allow them to put the downloadable files back on their website. To be successful on a preliminary injunction motion, a party must meet certain, very specific requirements. Defense Distributed did not meet those requirements as laid out in the Appeal Court's opinion in pages 13-14.

Free Speech or Bear Arms -- the District Court Can't Dodge the Bullet

In addition to the big question of whether free speech has been restricted, there are other narrow, specific questions that need to be answered, such as:

  • Whether distribution of these files constitutes arms trafficking.
  • Whether the massive public safety concerns of this type of 3D printed gun can be balanced against the First and Second Amendments.

As the appellate opinion points out, the case presents several novel legal questions. Among the most interesting is whether the distribution of these files constitutes free speech protected by the First Amendment.

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