The Unstoppable Plastic Gun

Cody Wilson distributed plans for 3D-printable weapons to the world, got shut down by the federal government, and won anyway.

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.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • JidaKida||

    I dont think Jackkie Chan is going to like that at all man.

    www.Got-Privacy.com

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    Cool! I'll dump my 3D printed metal 1911 and try one of these new plastic zipguns!

  • UnCivilServant||

    I can't afford a laser sintering printer until someone makes a competing model with a lower sticker price (now that the patents should be expired/expiring)

  • ||

    since none of you will RTFA, here's a great paragraph

    Wilson received a letter from the IRS the day I arrived. It contained advice on how he ought to craft his pending request for 501(c)3 nonprofit status for Defense Distributed. While Wilson sees his goals as being bigger than defending the Second Amendment, he's contemplating defining the charitable class his nonprofit serves as an "unorganized militia." It might be useful, he thinks, to "make an American legal argument that will be understood by that regime in its own grid." Then he adds, "But you know, it's really about anarchism, the transcendence of the state, that's what it's about."
  • Snark Plissken||

    Way too long, what's the tl;dr breakdown?

  • Almanian!||

    Gummint pissed - be careful, WILSOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!

  • Atanarjuat||

    Just read it. It's danged interesting.

  • Ted S.||

    all the buzzwords about the 'Third Industrial Revolution' and oh my God it's going to change everything. If that's true, let's see it do this. But that became the ultimate vulgarity. I got called a 'jock' all the time."

    These are the 3D printing people who want to be invited to the cocktail parties.

    They should, of course, be fabricating their own parties.

  • Almanian!||

    Sort of like, as one of my people said when we were discussing our favorite movies: "I liked House of Wax. You can make your own friends...."

  • Ted S.||

    The original is better. Glenda Farrell is always a treat to watch.

  • Carolynp||

    It's a terrific article.

  • Ted S.||

    since none of you will RTFA,

    The H&R people deserve it for pushing the article to three pages. rather than making the single-page version the norm.

  • Ted S.||

    Oh, and:

    (For more on Bitcoin, see Jerry Brito, "Bitcoin: More than Money," page 34.)

    Where's the link? ;-)

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Sure, you can have your 3D printers and your plastic gun blueprints, but the government is going to mandate that your output tray be a steam radiator.

  • Rich||

    Obviously the solution is to require background checks to purchase any substance containing carbon, nitrogen, or sulfur.

  • Almanian!||

    Also, Brian Doherty, VERY interesting read - thanks!

    I'd say, "THIS is why I come to reason.com", but we all know it's for SugarFree's scribblings and the scent of Warty.

    Thanks again, Brian!

  • Almanian!||

    PS It suddenly struck me as kind of ironic, or meta - or something - that I click "submit" to make a comment.

    "You want to be part of HyR? THEN YOU WILL 'SUBMIT'! Literally."

    lulz

    /self amusement

  • SugarFree||

    They should change it to what it really is most of the time: "Poop Spray"

  • Atanarjuat||

    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.

    Who? From the office of what now?

  • Rich||

    I think I see where you're going with this, Atanarjuat.

    In "Office of Defense Trade Control Compliance", the last word is redundant.

    "Nothing to cut", my ass!

  • Carolynp||

    ^^^^^This!

  • The Late P Brooks||

    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."

    "We deem this to be covered, therefor, it is covered."

  • taithit||

    my co-worker's half-sister makes $81 hourly on the computer. She has been fired for 5 months but last month her pay was $20214 just working on the computer for a few hours. hop over to this website.....WWW.JOBS84.COM

  • OldMexican||

    my co-worker's half-sister makes $81 hourly on the computer.


    Yes, I have seen her, but what she does is way too tacky even for my trained eyes...

  • ||

    Your co-worker's half-sister is a camwhore?

  • np||

    Regarding his meeting with Peter Thiel:

    Thiel is a founder of Palantir, for example, a company that sells data analysis services to the U.S. intelligence community. "It's like, Peter, you fear a catastrophe so therefore you create the catastrophe," he says. "He's stopped worrying about it that way. It's like in the end I'll have to fight Peter Thiel, fight the strongest among us. I was the only person there talking about pure transcendence of the nation-state. They are all, 'good luck with that.' They were civil, but in the end they are gonna take government money, 'cause that shit pays."

    lol, I can imagine a movie or game where the last boss, the guy who's been pulling all the strings behind the scenes turns out to be your friend and compatriot who have shared your ideals.

  • Procrastinatus||

    Ha that's great. Cody Wilson is actually trapped in some Metal Gear Solid subplot.

  • Killazontherun||

    Anarchist like Cody Wilson should be purged from the libertarian movement. /cytoderp

  • Cytotoxic||

    This one actually does something useful so he can stay. The rest-purge!

  • Michael Suede||

    Wilson doesn't want to be a part of the libertarian movement, so I'm sure he would be amused at your comment.

    The "libertarian" movement is a political movement, which are always ineffectual. Real positive changes are always accomplished technologically. Absolutely ZERO progress has been made politically by libertarians since the nation was founded.

  • Killazontherun||

    In context, this is a follow up from previous discussions here. It's not so much about Wilson wanting to be part of anything as it a desire of some in the libertarian ranks to disavowal anarchist so they will not be tainted by association. I think that is a pretty silly idea, and using Wilson as an example of a socially valuable anarchist as a reason why it is silly.

  • Vincent Milburn||

    A one-shot pistol called the Liberator? Was it for suicides?

  • Procrastinatus||

    The story is, is that they were supposed to pop some unsuspecting Wermacht soldier in the back of the head and take off with his MP40.

  • meunke||

    A lot of the freak out people in the media are having doesn't seem to be based upon the plastic/undetectable nature of the firearm. It seems to consist only of "OMGOMGOMG!!! THEY CAN MAKZ GUNZ IN THAR GARAGEZ!!!!"

    THAT I don't understand. People have been able to make firearms in their garages for a LONG time, all the way from galvanized pipe 9mm to 12ga zip guns with nail firing pics, rubber band springs and 2x4 stocks, to some pretty decent improvised 9mm MPs (like this P A Luty design: http://www.youtube.com/results.....+luty&sm=3 (HORRIBLE music in the background)

    Do these talking heads not research anything?

  • DenverJay||

    Hell, they can make a zip gun in prison. Getting the ammo is the thing...

    But I liked this article. Even though it had nothing to do with it, it reminded me of a book from waaay back...maybe the 60's or 70's. It was/is my mom's, so i read it as a kid. It was called "Cities in Flight" and the premise was that somebody discovered anti-gravity, and all the cities of North America just took off and started flying around space, escaping the despotic government.
    This whole movement, like the trans-humanist movement, envisions technology finally making Government powerless against the individual, and that idea brings joy to my heart.

    P.S apparently this is/was a well known work:
    Cities in Flight is an omnibus volume of four novels written by James Blish, originally published between 1955 and 1962, which became known over time collectively as the 'Okie' novels.
    Wikipedia

  • ashdex||

    i think the technology needed to produce ammo predates the firearm. this hysteria from the anti-gun crowd and the excitement from the other side is really pretty silly. the over-dependence on 21st century technology to produce a basic tool is somewhat disconcerting. you're right that the availability of commercial ammo could limit the usefulness of this particular firearm. hi-tech ain't always better.

  • ||

    ▂ ▄ ▅ ▇ LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY ▇ ▅ ▄ ▂ ▁
    My Boy friend makes $75/hour on the internet. She has been without a job for 6 months but last month her pay was $16453 just working on the internet for a few hours. Straight from the source------------ http://www.jobs53.com

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement