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Can New Jersey Ban the Distribution of Computer Files That Can Help Make Guns?

A hearing is scheduled on January 15 in a U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas, in a federal lawsuit over the state of New Jersey’s law that bars distributing digital information that could assist in making a gun to anyone in that state who is not a registered or licensed gun manufacturer.

Defense Distributed, a company founded by Cody Wilson, inventor of the first plastic 3D-printed pistol, and dedicated to distributing hardware and software aiding in home gunsmithing, is involved in a multi-front legal battle over the distribution of their digital files. In this particular case, they are insisting that the Jersey law violates “violates the First Amendment, Commerce Clause, and Supremacy Clause.”

Their argument in Defense Distributed and Second Amendment Foundation vs. Gurbir Grewal (New Jersey’s attorney general) seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against enforcing the law is that New Jersey has:

enacted a criminal law for the purpose of silencing one specific entity’s speech…Proof lies in the words of the New Jersey Governor that signed the bill and the Attorney General charged with enforcing it. They are not hiding from the fact that New Jersey created a speech crime for Defense Distributed in particular. They are embracing it. New Jersey’s Governor signed Senate Bill 2465 at a public ceremony with Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and the bill’s leading legislative sponsor, Senator Joseph Cryan….The official statements delivered in conjunction with Senate Bill 2465’s enactment prove that this law is an integral part of the censorship effort against the Plaintiffs…This is not a matter of inference. The Governor and Attorney General both said so expressly and repeatedly, in no uncertain terms.

Their argument is based on the principle that computer code counts as speech protected by the First Amendment. As the suit says, “New Jersey’s law obviously imposes content-based speech restrictions, in that its penalties apply only to speech with this content: ‘digital instructions’ that ‘may be used to program a three-dimensional printer to manufacture or produce a firearm, firearm receiver, magazine, or firearm component.'”