The ongoing legal battle between 3D-printed gun company Defense Distributed and states that have objected to the Austin-based company’s distribution of instructions for making untraceable guns spilled into an Austin federal courtroom Tuesday, but before it goes any further a judge must decide whether his court is the appropriate place to continue the fight.
Arguing that a new state law in New Jersey unconstitutionally criminalizes digital instructions for building the guns, Defense Distributed filed a lawsuit in July against that state’s attorney general, Gurbir Grewal. The law targeting what New Jersey officials call “ghost guns” went into effect in November, stifling Defense Distributed’s operations in that state and several others.
The company’s lawyers Tuesday argued in favor of a temporary injunction against New Jersey that would let Defense Distributed resume doing business in New Jersey and probably other states whose officials have taken action against the company. State officials from New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania and California are also defendants in the lawsuit and have filed motions to dismiss the case.
Attorney Josh Blackman, who is part of the team representing Defense Distributed, argued in court that there is nothing unconstitutional about providing instructions to build 3D-printed guns.
“I can’t know how someone may use my work,” he said.
Critics have long been skeptical of that argument and say the guns are especially dangerous because they are undetectable and can be assembled by people who are forbidden from buying conventional firearms.
Before that discussion continues, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman first must decide whether he has authority from his Austin bench to hear the case further and possibly overturn a law passed in New Jersey. Lawyers for the company say the lawsuit was appropriately filed here because the firm received a letter at its Austin offices in July ordering it to cease and desist from publishing the instructions in New Jersey. But lawyers for New Jersey say the letter is not sufficient to keep the case in Texas.
“If that’s all they have, which it is, there’s no jurisdiction here,” said Casey Low, an Austin antitrust lawyer, who is representing the New Jersey attorney general.
Pitman gave no clues about how he’s leaning, remaining mostly silent and only asking occasional questions. The issue, he said, is “fascinating and important” and complicated by nuances. He said he’d announce his ruling soon.
The debate comes as Defense Distributed tries to move beyond two events that rocked the company last year: the resignation of its founder Cody Wilson after his arrest — and eventual indictment — for sexual assault, and a ruling in August from a federal judge in Seattle to block the distribution of online instructions for building the guns.
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik voided a U.S. State Department agreement with Defense Distributed that allowed the publication of online blueprints, saying the plans would threaten the “peace and security of the communities where these guns proliferate.” His earlier temporary order in July, sought by 19 states, came days after the Trump administration relented to a 2013 lawsuit and let Wilson publish the instructions online.
Wilson noted at an August news conference that Lasnik’s ruling did not cover the sale of the blueprint and the company announced it would allow customers to name their own price and would mail instructions to them on USB drives.
But the law that New Jersey passed forbids mail transactions, effectively broadening Lasnik’s order. Defense Distributed has complied with the law and stopped shipping the instructions to residents of some other states, too, Blackman said.
“The plaintiffs are trying to have injunctive relief to ship material they’ve already agreed not to distribute,” said Low, the attorney for New Jersey.
Grewal, the New Jersey attorney general, did not attend Tuesday’s proceedings, but was patched into Pitman’s courtroom by phone.
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