Never Enough: New York Lawmaker Wants Background Checks for 3D Printers

Gun Rights

Some lawmakers hate the Second Amendment so much that they’re willing to rip up the rest of the U.S. Constitution to get to it. Such is the case in New York state where legislation has been introduced to regulate access to 3D printers by requiring retailers to run background checks on prospective purchasers.

Longtime gun rights supporters will recall that in early 2013, the already gun control-heavy Empire State hastily enacted the ill-titled NY SAFE Act. That sweeping anti-gun bill banned an array of commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms and commonly-owned magazines, criminalized the private transfer of long guns, and instituted an early red flag-type regime. The act also called for unworkable ammunition background checks, which were not implemented until this year.

Criminals never got the memo.

As it turns out, the onerous SAFE Act wasn’t much of a cure-all for violent crime. In fact, New York is less safe now than when the law was enacted. According to FBI data, the homicide rate in New York was higher in 2020, 2021, and 2022 than in 2012 or 2013. The state homicide rate was 33 percent higher in 2021 than in 2013. Overall violent crime was 9 percent higher in 2022 than 2013.

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However, from the view of New York Assemblymember Jenifer Rajkumar, the state’s experience with gun control doesn’t represent a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, it just shows New York hasn’t gone far enough.

On October 13, the Queens lawmaker introduced A08132, which would require 3D printer purchasers to undergo a firearm background check. Specifically, the bill provides,

Any retailer of a three-dimensional printer sold in this state which is capable of printing a firearm, or any components of a firearm, is required and authorized to request and receive criminal history information concerning such purchaser from the division of criminal justice services

Those found to be prohibited by the state from possessing firearms would be denied purchasing a 3D printer.

Under the bill, those planning to purchase a 3D printer would have to plan ahead. Rajkumar’s bill would give the state government a whopping 15 business days to process the background check request. However, 15 business days could be optimistic, as no retailer may proceed with the sale of a 3D printer before receiving affirmative “written notification” from the state allowing the sale to go forward.

Given that the legislation would cover printers capable of printing “any components of a firearm,” it could be interpreted as covering nearly all available 3D printers.

The bill is suspect on Second Amendment grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022) made clear that for a firearm regulation to pass constitutional muster it must fit within the text, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment right. Regulating the home manufacture of firearms for personal use is not part of “the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The bill is even more bogus on First Amendment grounds.

3D printers have an almost infinite array of uses, many of which channel the user’s artistic, creative, and expressive energy. In other words, just like computers, phones, typewriters, the printing press, or modern 2D printers, 3D printers are tools for First Amendment conduct. A quick trip to Thingiverse or Etsy demonstrates how people use 3D printers to make and share all manner of artwork and other expressive content. Quite a bit of that content is explicitly political speech.

Requiring government approval for access to 3D printing technology is akin to 17th century British press licensing law. An item summarizing the British regime explained,

The ordinance prohibited the printing, binding, or sale of books except by persons licensed under authority of Parliament and made the Stationers the agent of Parliament for the purpose of licensing printers. Anonymous publications were banned, as were the reprinting or importation of previously printed works. The ordinance authorized the Stationers to conduct searches and seizures of unlicensed publications, destroy unlicensed printing machinery, and to arrest those suspected of printing without a license.

The First Amendment rejects this type of regime and imposes the utmost skepticism on any other type of prior restraint on speech. As the U.S. Supreme Court explained in Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan (1963), “Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.”

Another way in which this may be examined is under scrutiny analysis. The 3D printer restriction should easily fail under strict or intermediate scrutiny. The measure is not narrowly tailored or substantially related to an important government interest as it imposes burdens on the vast majority of those seeking to use this technology for lawful purposes completely unrelated to firearms. Further, any computer code for 3D printing, even if it contains the blueprints for a firearm, should be protected under the First Amendment.

The legislation is also silly from a practical standpoint.

The truth is that gun offenders acquire firearms through avenues that are unlikely to be impacted by any government intervention, let alone a bizarre 3D printing law. According to the Department of Justice, 75 percent of criminals in state and federal state prison who had possessed a firearm during their offense acquired the firearm through theft, “Off the street/underground market,” or “from a family member or friend, or as a gift.”

By now no one expects the majority of the New York State Legislature to respect the Second Amendment. However, Rajkumar’s bill might provide some insight into just how much of the U.S. Constitutional they’re willing to trash along with it.

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