It was a shot heard 'round the world.
In early May, you could sit in front of a computer in Manhattan or Moscow or New Delhi and watch a 53-second video. In it, a young man in shades and a baseball cap stands purposefully among hilly scrub. He's holding a weird-looking white toy. Then he fires it, just once. He turns and looks at the camera, defiant.
That video, which documented the first time a plastic gun manufactured by a 3D printer was successfully fired by a human hand, was watched 3 million times the week after it was released. The ghostly weapon, made entirely of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene thermoplastic polymer (except for a small metal nail used to strike the primer on the .380 caliber bullet) was crafted by a moving machine head on a Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer, depositing resin in layers in accordance with computer instructions, the same way an inkjet printer churns out two-dimensional documents.
To make this gun, you don't need to be a gunsmith or have access to a large industrial operation. It would be very easy to make the gun without having to notify the state in any way. Designing, printing, and firing the gun could have been done in the shadows had the shooter not documented it on video and invited reporters from Forbes and the BBC to watch.
Cody Wilson, the 25-year-old man with the plastic gun, called his invention The Liberator, after an abandoned World War II plan to drop single-shot pistols by that name over occupied Europe. The idea back then was to make the Germans fear that anyone they were lording over might be armed. Wilson aims to do the same thing via the everyday magic of the Internet and 3D printing, theoretically depositing a gun in the hands of any rebel who wants one.
"We put a lot of world governments on notice," Wilson told the Brown Political Review, "And I think that's good in the history of the balance of power between sovereigns and subjects."
Wilson may have ushered in a new world of individual sovereignty, but it's one whose borders are still patrolled by the same repressive forces as the old one, as he well knows. Three days after the video went live, a letter was sent from the federal government addressed to Wilson and Defense Distributed, the name under which he and his associates design and produce 3D weapons. It was signed by Glenn Smith, chief of enforcement for the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Defense Trade Control Compliance.
Smith warned Wilson that the technical specs he made publicly available may be "ITAR-controlled technical data" released "without the required prior authorization" from the State Department. ITAR stands for International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which are the U.S. government's set of rules controlling the import and export of munitions.
In other words, by releasing CAD (computer-aided design) files allowing anyone with access to a 3D printer to make a somewhat fragile plastic pistol, Wilson may have become an illegal arms trafficker. The State Department didn't say for sure that this information (some might call it speech) fell under its jurisdiction. But while regulators pondered the question-and four months later, at press time, they were still pondering-they demanded that Wilson "treat the above technical data as ITAR-controlled," meaning that "all such data should be removed from public access immediately."
Cody Wilson was already a media star prior to that first successful test shot. He and his chatter about 3D-printed guns were all over the place in the eight months beforehand, from Forbes to Wired, from The New York Times to Glenn Beck. Wilson sold himself as a rebel, doing what both the authorities and many of his fellow citizens thought shouldn't be done: handing out the means to individually manufacture unlicensed, unregistered, and undetectable guns.
After receiving the state's menacing if vague letter, the rebel then did the unexpected: He complied. Instantly. The servers Wilson controlled would no longer host CAD files instructing 3D printers on how to produce The Liberator or any other printable weapon. Maybe the files were acts of free speech, maybe not; Wilson wasn't going to press the issue just now.
But by that point, more than 100,000 people had already downloaded the blueprints. The CAD files were, and still are, available all over the Internet. Wilson had already won.
A Rebel Enmeshed in Bureaucracy
As a well-read amateur political philosopher with a yen for European post-Marxists and other radical left thinkers, Wilson is comfortable in the territory of ambiguity and paradox. He may be the only prominent gun rights activist more likely to talk about Foucault, Baudrillard, and Marcuse than to quote the Second Amendment. He's also just cheeky enough to wonder aloud if his lefty musings are a red herring, "just to muddy the waters, throw off interviewers because I don't want to be seen as a rightist or a conservative." While he doesn't consider himself to be a member in good standing of the libertarian movement, he does declare inspiration from libertarian heroes such as Frederic Bastiat and Anthony de Jasay.
I spent two days in June with Wilson in Austin, where he was, until recently, a law student at the University of Texas. He has put his formal education on hold now; being the traveling apostle of 3D printed guns is a full-time job. His apartment is filled with old and sometimes broken evidence of past experiments with plastic receivers, magazines, and the full Liberator. Bits of graphite-riddled plastic litter his kitchen counter. He is obsessed with measuring the expansion of various types of plastic under explosive pressure before they break.