SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee blocked legislation to prohibit blueprints of 3D printed guns from being posted online, and continues to argue that it's a free speech issue.
"When you talk about publishing instructions to do something rather than banning the thing itself, you run into some potential First Amendment problems," the Utah Republican said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., tried to pass a bill by unanimous consent that would make it illegal to intentionally publish a digital file that programs a 3D printer to make a gun.
Lee objected, saying he was seeing the legislation for the first time and hadn't had a chance to review it.
"It begins with the words, 'It shall be unlawful for any person to intentionally publish … ' That ought to be concerning to us, to each and everyone one of us, Democrats and Republicans alike. On that basis, I object," he said on the Senate floor.
Lee said Wednesday that he sees it as primarily a First Amendment, not a Second Amendment issue.
"When you're talking about prohibiting the release of information, when you're talking about criminalizing the publication of something, only in the rarest of circumstances can government come in and impose a prior restraint," he said on KSL Newsradio's "Dave and Dujanovic" show.
One of those circumstances, Lee said, would be crying fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire.
Nancy Halden, chairwoman of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, said she "vehemently" disagrees with Lee that it's about free speech.
"You don’t cry fire in a crowded theater and you don’t gift wrap guns for terrorists," she said.
Allowing 3D printed gun blueprints to be released on the internet opens a Pandora’s box of more gun violence at a time when the country is already seeing mounting gun-related injuries and deaths every year, Halden said.
Those guns, she said, would be available without a background check to any terrorist, criminal, domestic violence abuser or mentally dangerous person.
Lee said guns that would avoid a metal detector are already illegal under the 1998 Undetectable Firearms Act and hundreds of gunsmithing manuals are currently for sale on Amazon.
"It begs the question, 'Are those to be banned also?' There have in the past been 3D gun printing instructions available online. It didn't lead to a massive crime wave," he said.
Chase Thomas, policy and advocacy counsel with Alliance for a Better Utah, said it's "incomprehensible" that Lee would block legislation to ban the blueprints. He said putting the plans online would make it easier for criminals to get their hands on dangerous firearms.
"We deserve elected officials who are front and center in protecting Utahns, not officials standing in the way or nowhere to be found," he said.
A federal judge Tuesday temporarily blocked a settlement between the State Department and Defense Distributed that would allow the Texas-based gun rights organization to legally post blueprints for 3D printable firearms.
Under the agreement, Defense Distributed could have started publishing digital blueprints on its website at midnight Tuesday. Still, thousands were downloaded when some plans were put online early.