Is the federal government moving to muzzle online gun blogs and forums? The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) recently blasted a move by the Obama administration that it called a “regulatory assault.” According to the NRA, a new proposed rule could change what gun owners could say or write online—or face federal charges.
In the June 3 issue of the Federal Register, the Department of State revealed that it is proposing a rule to amend the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) as part of President Obama’s Export Control Reform initiative. ITAR dictates how information regarding defense and military technologies are shared, especially with non-US entities. Part of this involves regulating technical data on firearms, such as development details, blueprints, instructions, photographs, and other documentation related to the production of guns and ammunition. Of course, this is also information commonly shared between enthusiasts online, and technical data always remains a source of interest to many gun owners.
Currently, ITAR does not regulate technical data that is considered public domain. With the new proposal, however, the NRA claims the State Department is attempting clarify that technical data posted online will no longer be subject to this rule and will instead require license from the government. Gun rights advocates say this would make it nearly impossible for enthusiasts to discuss technical information without breaking the law.
“With the new proposal published on June 3, the State Department claims to be ‘clarifying’ the rules concerning ‘technical data’ posted online or otherwise ‘released’ into the ‘public domain.’ To the contrary, however, the proposal would institute a massive new prior restraint on free speech. This is because all such releases would require the “authorization” of the government before they occurred. The cumbersome and time-consuming process of obtaining such authorizations, moreover, would make online communication about certain technical aspects of firearms and ammunition essentially impossible,” stated the NRA-ILA.
Penalties for breaking the law are also stiff. Each violation of ITAR regulations can carry up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $1 million.
“Gunsmiths, manufacturers, reloaders, and do-it-yourselfers could all find themselves muzzled under the rule and unable to distribute or obtain the information they rely on to conduct these activities. Prior restraints of the sort contemplated by this regulation are among the most disfavored regulations of speech under First Amendment case law,” the NRA-ILA said.
Some speculate that the new proposal may be a response to the advent of 3D-printed firearms and the sizable community of enthusiasts and designers behind them. In 2013, Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed posted the files for his fully functioning “Liberator” pistol online. Just days later, the US Department of Defense Trade Controls stepped in and removed the files, claiming that Wilson violated ITAR by making the files available for download. Wilson, along with the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), has filed a lawsuit against the State Department for what they say is a violation of free speech.
“Americans have always been free to exchange information about firearms and manufacture their own arms,” SAF founder and Executive Vice President Alan M. Gottlieb said in a press release. “We also have an expectation that any speech regulations be spelled out clearly, and that individuals be provided basic procedural protections if their government claims a power to silence them.”
Experts are still debating what the new proposal would mean for the average blog writer or forum user.