The First Amendment is many things. One thing it is not is the Second Amendment. A Unites States senator from Florida introduced legislation that would ban the publishing of instructions on how to make a 3D-printed gun. Utah’s Senator Mike Lee blocked the bill from being considered. The 3D gun is a Second Amendment issue. Instructions on how to build it are a First Amendment issue.
The differences are so clear that I need to invoke a tag line of the cartoon dog, Droopy: “What’s all the hubbub, bub?”
Many progressives and anti-gun advocates are going nuts. Senator Lee’s office phones are ringing off the hook with complaints. “What? Is he stupid? Doesn’t he know that sharing instructions on the Internet about how to build a plastic gun is extremely dangerous?” But, is it?
Plastic guns already exist and they are heavily regulated and criminalized in certain instances, such as trying to get on an airplane with one. But this controversy is not about the gun. The controversy is about instructions on how to make the gun. The instructions are not a “thing.” The instructions are words. So the real question is this: Do you want to regulate words?
In some cases we do regulate words. Shouting fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is a crime. As are the many printed forms of child exploitation and abuse. And this very short list would include highly sensitive government documents that, if published, could jeopardize our national security or the lives of Americans around the world. But, beyond those special cases, the First Amendment allows pretty much everything else.
If you can learn how to make a bomb on the Internet, why are we so upset about publishing instructions to make a 3D-printed gun? That is one argument. Another argument is equally sane: Why are instructions about how to make a bomb legal?
And then the Internet presents its own complications. Ban something in the United States and somebody will just produce it from another country.
Senator Lee is right. Legislation to ban the publishing of instructions to build a 3D-printed gun is unwise. The downside could tear apart the First Amendment. And the upside is what? No 3D-printed plastic guns? Good luck with that effort. Banning guns does not work for commonly manufactured guns. Do you really think it will work for 3D guns? Weird.
But let’s wander down that road. For something to be banned legally under the First Amendment, it must meet certain legal criteria. First, the government must show a compelling state interest. Second, if there is a compelling state interest, the ban must be tailored narrowly to avoid excesses under the law. And, third, any ban must utilize the least restrictive means possible to implement the ban.
What is the compelling state interest? That someone might get shot with a 3D-printed gun? In other words, it is constitutional for a person to get shot with a Smith and Wesson but not with Pete’s Printing and Publishing? That is crazy.
If words used to create 3D-printed guns are banned we might as well ban any word that hurts someone. And, of course, that is where all of this snowflake-driven censorship on college campuses is headed.
So let’s just stop it right now. We can loathe lots of bad behavior through the spoken and printed word and still allow it because one day your vocal opinion could be deemed harmful and then criminal.