Distributed v. U.S. Dep't of State, No. 15–50759

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtW. EUGENE DAVIS, Circuit Judge
Citation838 F.3d 451
Parties Defense Distributed; Second Amendment Foundation, Incorporated, Plaintiffs–Appellants v. United States Department of State; John F. Kerry, In His Official Capacity as the Secretary of the Department of State; Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, Department of State Bureau of Political Military Affairs; Kenneth B. Handelman, Individually and in His Official Capacity as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Defense Trade Controls in the Bureau of Political–Military Affairs; C. Edward Peartree, Individually and in His Official Capacity as the Director of the Office of Defense Trade Controls Policy Division; Sarah J. Heidema, Individually and in Her Official Capacity as the Division Chief, Regulatory and Multilateral Affairs, Office of Defense Trade Controls Policy; GLENN SMITH, Individually and in His Official Capacity as the Senior Advisor, Office of Defense Trade Controls, Defendants–Appellees
Docket NumberNo. 15–50759
Decision Date20 September 2016

838 F.3d 451

Defense Distributed; Second Amendment Foundation, Incorporated, Plaintiffs–Appellants
v.
United States Department of State; John F. Kerry, In His Official Capacity as the Secretary of the Department of State; Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, Department of State Bureau of Political Military Affairs; Kenneth B. Handelman, Individually and in His Official Capacity as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Defense Trade Controls in the Bureau of Political–Military Affairs; C. Edward Peartree, Individually and in His Official Capacity as the Director of the Office of Defense Trade Controls Policy Division; Sarah J. Heidema, Individually and in Her Official Capacity as the Division Chief, Regulatory and Multilateral Affairs, Office of Defense Trade Controls Policy; GLENN SMITH, Individually and in His Official Capacity as the Senior Advisor, Office of Defense Trade Controls, Defendants–Appellees

No. 15–50759

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

Filed September 20, 2016


Alan Gura, Gura & Possessky, P.L.L.C., Alexandria, VA, Joshua Michael Blackman, Houston, TX, Matthew Goldstein, Washington, DC, William Bryan Mateja, Esq., Polsinelli, P.C., Dallas, TX, David Scott Morris, Fish & Richardson, P.C., Austin, TX, for Plaintiffs–Appellants.

Daniel Bentele Hahs Tenny, Esq., U.S. Department of Justice, Michael S. Raab, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Division, Appellate Section, Eric J. Soskin, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Division Federal Programs Branch, Washington, DC, for Defendants–Appellees.

Bruce D. Brown, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Washington, DC, for Amici Curiae Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

Ilya Shapiro, Esq., Randal John Meyer, Cato Institute, Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae Cato Institute.

Raffi Melkonian, Wright & Close, L.L.P., Houston, TX, for Amici Curiae Representative Thomas Massie, Representative Brian Babin, Representative K. Mike Conaway, Representative Jeff Duncan, Representative Blake Farenthold, Representative John Fleming, Representative Paul Gosar, Representative Walter Jones, Mike Kelly, Representative Steve King, Representative Raul Labrador, Representative Jeff Miller, Representative Bill Posey, Representative Todd Rokita, Representative Daniel Webster.

Leif A. Olson, Olson Firm, P.L.L.C., Humble, TX, David T. Hardy, Tucson, AZ, for Amicus Curiae Madison Society Foundation, Incorporated.

Kit Walsh, Electronic Frontier Foundation, San Francisco, CA, for Amicus Curiae Electronic Frontier Foundation.

John Devereux Kimball, Esq., Martin Simon Krezalek, Blank Rome, L.L.P., New York, NY, for Amicus Curiae Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Robert E. Henneke, Joel Stonedale, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Austin, TX, for Amicus Curiae Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Before DAVIS, JONES, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges.

W. EUGENE DAVIS, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs–Appellants Defense Distributed and Second Amendment Foundation, Inc. have sued Defendants–Appellees, the United States Department of State, the Secretary of State, the DDTC, and various agency employees (collectively, the “State Department”), seeking to enjoin enforcement of certain laws governing the export of unclassified technical data relating to prohibited munitions. Because the district court concluded that the public interest in national security outweighs Plaintiffs–Appellants' interest in protecting their constitutional rights, it denied a preliminary injunction, and they timely appealed. We conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion and therefore affirm.

838 F.3d 454

I. Background

Defense Distributed is a nonprofit organization operated, in its own words, “for the purpose of promoting popular access to arms guaranteed by the United States Constitution” by “facilitating global access to, and the collaborative production of, information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms; and by publishing and distributing such information and knowledge on the Internet at no cost to the public.” Second Amendment Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit devoted more generally to promoting Second Amendment rights.

Defense Distributed furthers its goals by creating computer files used to create weapons and weapon parts, including lower receivers for AR–15 rifles.1 The lower receiver is the part of the firearm to which the other parts are attached. It is the only part of the rifle that is legally considered a firearm under federal law, and it ordinarily contains the serial number, which in part allows law enforcement to trace the weapon. Because the other gun parts, such as the barrel and magazine, are not legally considered firearms, they are not regulated as such. Consequently, the purchase of a lower receiver is restricted and may require a background check or registration, while the other parts ordinarily may be purchased anonymously.

The law provides a loophole, however: anyone may make his or her own unserialized, untraceable lower receiver for personal use, though it is illegal to transfer such weapons in any way. Typically, this involves starting with an “80% lower receiver,” which is simply an unfinished piece of metal that looks quite a bit like a lower receiver but is not legally considered one and may therefore be bought and sold freely. It requires additional milling and other work to turn into a functional lower receiver. Typically this would involve using jigs (milling patterns), a drill press, other tools, and some degree of machining expertise to carefully complete the lower receiver. The result, combined with the other, unregulated gun parts, is an unserialized, untraceable rifle.

Defense Distributed's innovation was to create computer files to allow people to easily produce their own weapons and weapon parts using relatively affordable and readily available equipment. Defense Distributed has explained the technologies as follows:

Three-dimensional (“3D”) printing technology allows a computer to “print” a physical object (as opposed to a two-dimensional image on paper). Today, 3D printers are sold at stores such as Home Depot and Best Buy, and the instructions for printing everything from jewelry to toys to car parts are shared and exchanged freely online at sites like GrabCAD.com and Thingiverse.com. Computer numeric control (“CNC”) milling, an older industrial technology, involves a computer directing the operation of a drill upon an object. 3D printing is “additive;” using raw materials, the printer constructs a new object. CNC milling is “subtractive,” carving something (more) useful from an existing object.

Both technologies require some instruction set or “recipe”—in the case of 3D printers, computer aided design (“CAD”) files, typically in .stl format; for CNC machines, text files setting out coordinates
838 F.3d 455
and functions to direct a drill.2

Defense Distributed's files allow virtually anyone with access to a 3D printer to produce, among other things, Defense Distributed's single-shot plastic pistol called the Liberator and a fully functional plastic AR–15 lower receiver. In addition to 3D printing files, Defense Distributed also sells its own desktop CNC mill marketed as the Ghost Gunner, as well as metal 80% lower receivers. With CNC milling files supplied by Defense Distributed, Ghost Gunner operators are able to produce fully functional, unserialized, and untraceable metal AR–15 lower receivers in a largely automated fashion.

Everything discussed above is legal for United States citizens and will remain legal for United States citizens regardless of the outcome of this case. This case concerns Defense Distributed's desire to share all of its 3D printing and CNC milling files online, available without cost to anyone located anywhere in the world, free of regulatory restrictions.

Beginning in 2012, Defense Distributed posted online, for free download by anyone in the world, a number of computer files, including those for the Liberator pistol (the “Published Files”). On May 8, 2013, the State Department sent a letter to Defense Distributed requesting that it remove the files from the internet on the ground that sharing them in that manner violates certain laws. The district court summarized the relevant statutory and regulatory framework as follows:

Under the Arms Export Control Act (“AECA”), “the President is authorized to control the import and the export of defense articles and defense services” and to “promulgate regulations for the import and export of such articles and services.” 22 U.S.C. § 2778(a)(1). The AECA imposes both civil and criminal penalties for violation of its provisions and implementing regulations, including monetary fines and imprisonment. Id. § 2278(c) & (e). The President has delegated his authority to promulgate implementing regulations to the Secretary of State. Those regulations, the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (“ITAR”), are in turn administered by the DDTC [Directorate of Defense Trade Controls] and its employees. 22 C.F.R. 120.1(a).

The AECA directs that the “defense articles” designated under its terms constitute the United States “Munitions List.” 22 U.S.C. § 2778(a)(1). The Munitions List “is not a compendium of specific controlled
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46 practice notes
  • Denton v. City of El Paso, EP-20-CV-85-KC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Western District of Texas
    • July 28, 2020
    ...injunction bears the burden of making a clear showing on each of the four elements. Defense Distrib. v. United States Dep't of State , 838 F.3d 451, 456–58 (5th Cir. 2016) ; Hood , 822 F.3d at 220. Because Plaintiff has not shown a likelihood of success on the merits of his claims, the Cour......
  • State v. United States Department of State, No. 20-35391
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • April 27, 2021
    ...Defense Distributed's motion for a preliminary injunction, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. See Def. Distributed v. U.S. Dep't of State , 838 F.3d 451, 458–61 (5th Cir. 2016). The Fifth Circuit determined that "[DOS's] stated interest in preventing foreign nationals—including all manner of e......
  • Rodriguez v. Swartz, No. 15-16410
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • August 7, 2018
    ...for judicial intervention.").177 Hernandez , 885 F.3d at 830 (Prado, J., dissenting) (quoting Def. Distrib. v. U.S. Dep't of State , 838 F.3d 451, 474 (5th Cir. 2016) (Jones, J., dissenting) ).178 Governments of Mexico and the United States of America, Joint Statement on the U.S.-Mexico Bil......
  • Hernandez v. Mesa, No. 12-50217
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • March 20, 2018
    ...of ... ‘foreign affairs’ interests do not suffice to override constitutional rights." Def. Distrib. v. United States Dep't of State , 838 F.3d 451, 474 (5th Cir. 2016) (Jones, J., dissenting).The majority also points to Congress's failure to provide a damages remedy as an additional factor ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
47 cases
  • Denton v. City of El Paso, EP-20-CV-85-KC
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Western District of Texas
    • July 28, 2020
    ...injunction bears the burden of making a clear showing on each of the four elements. Defense Distrib. v. United States Dep't of State , 838 F.3d 451, 456–58 (5th Cir. 2016) ; Hood , 822 F.3d at 220. Because Plaintiff has not shown a likelihood of success on the merits of his claims, the Cour......
  • State v. United States Department of State, No. 20-35391
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • April 27, 2021
    ...Defense Distributed's motion for a preliminary injunction, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. See Def. Distributed v. U.S. Dep't of State , 838 F.3d 451, 458–61 (5th Cir. 2016). The Fifth Circuit determined that "[DOS's] stated interest in preventing foreign nationals—including all manner of e......
  • Rodriguez v. Swartz, No. 15-16410
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • August 7, 2018
    ...for judicial intervention.").177 Hernandez , 885 F.3d at 830 (Prado, J., dissenting) (quoting Def. Distrib. v. U.S. Dep't of State , 838 F.3d 451, 474 (5th Cir. 2016) (Jones, J., dissenting) ).178 Governments of Mexico and the United States of America, Joint Statement on the U.S.-Mexico Bil......
  • Hernandez v. Mesa, No. 12-50217
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • March 20, 2018
    ...of ... ‘foreign affairs’ interests do not suffice to override constitutional rights." Def. Distrib. v. United States Dep't of State , 838 F.3d 451, 474 (5th Cir. 2016) (Jones, J., dissenting).The majority also points to Congress's failure to provide a damages remedy as an additional factor ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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