There is an ongoing legal saga surrounding the legality of distributing computer files (or schematics) that allow individuals to 3D print functional firearms. Most recently, a federal judge in Washington granted a preliminary injunction to a group of state attorneys’ general that prohibits the dissemination of firearm schematics online. However, many believe that the proliferation of such schematics is inevitable. One justification for opposition to 3D-printed firearms is that they appeal to those engaged in criminal activity.

Two characteristics might make 3D-printed firearms especially appealing to criminals. First, they can be made entirely of plastic, rendering them undetectable by metal detectors. Although owning a firearm that can pass through a metal detector unnoticed is illegal, criminals might not be deterred. Second, 3D-printed firearms can be produced without serial numbers. Serial numbers provide law enforcement with a useful method for tracking firearms used in crimes.

It is unclear whether those unlawfully harmed by 3D-printed firearms could successfully sue the distributor of the schematic used to print the firearm. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) provides broad liability protection for participants in traditional firearm commerce. When an individual unlawfully harms another using a traditional firearm, the manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers of the firearm are shielded from civil liability so long as the product functioned as designed and intended. There are reasons to believe that the law would be applied differently to a distributor of firearm schematics.

First, a judge could find that schematic distributors do not fit into any of the categories shielded from liability by the PLCAA. Timothy D. Lytton, an expert in tort law and gun cases at the Georgia State University College of Law, posits that a leading firearm schematic distributor might be vulnerable to such an interpretation because it previously presented itself not as a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or importer, but rather as a purveyor of digital data. If not shielded from liability by the PLCAA, a plaintiff ‘s negligence lawsuit could proceed against a distributor.

If a judge rules that schematic distributors fit within the list of groups protected by the PLCAA, a plaintiff could still argue that a schematic distributor should be liable under the “negligent entrustment” exception to the statute. Negligent entrustment is defined as

“the supplying of a qualified product by a seller for use by another person when the seller knows…the person to whom the product is supplied is likely to…use the product in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury to the person or others.”

Previously, the most popular purveyor of firearm schematics allowed anyone to download the files. Arguably this did not afford them enough information about any one downloader to “know” that the person to whom the product is supplied is “likely to use the product in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury to the person or others.” However, the undetectable and untraceable nature of 3D printed firearms arguably put the distributor on notice that some individuals who download the schematics intend to use the firearms for unlawful purposes.

It is unclear whether those unlawfully harmed by 3D-printed firearms could successfully sue the distributor of the schematic used to print the firearm, however, there are at least two plausible theories of liability should such a case arise.

Christian Martin

Tagged with:
 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>