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.

It was a typical couple of days for Wilson, all about managing an itinerant revolutionary's life: running companies and websites, massaging far-flung collaborators and recalcitrant machinery, and-always, constantly-fending off or complying with demands and requests from an irritable government.

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."

Wilson is vexed that the IRS frowns on nonprofits dealing with open-source anything. He has come to understand that if anyone uses his open-source designs to make something to sell for profit or for any other nonexempt goal, his nonprofit exemption could be at risk. Which defeats the entire point of open-source philosophy.

The IRS also wants Wilson to explain in detail his issues and dealings with ITAR. Exactly as the post-Marxist philosophers taught him, he has willingly thrown himself into the maw of a totalizing system that wants to see, know, measure, shape, and protect every aspect of human existence.

And then there's the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). To cover his ass as a weapons maker, he sought- and received-a firearms manufacturer's license in his own name. This leaves him open to snap federal inspections of his gun-making space, which is a tiny corner of a warehouse outside Austin. The second day I was with him he received copies of the forms that he has to file with the ATF within a couple of days of making each individual gun.

Wilson's life is considerably more enmeshed with the federal government than that of most anarcho-left-libertarians. By acting forcefully in the world, you just "make yourself a bigger object of regulation," give the government one more way to get information out of you, try to control you. It's like Wilson has turned himself into a living example, acting out his crises in the public eye, just to say that he told you so. Or you could say that, like the plastic he experiments with, under pressure and heat from the government Wilson has not yet cracked. He has expanded.

Edward Snowden, the whistleblower and fugitive, was stuck in the Moscow airport that day. While we were in Wilson's apartment-a RepRap tabletop 3D printer on the kitchen counter, a rifle leaning on a brightly colored quilt in one corner, another rifle in another corner-he kept his eye on his laptop, watching that story unfold. What went right with Snowden, he wondered?

Wilson mentions a David Brooks New York Times op-ed deriding Snowden for not having gone to the right colleges or institutions to make him behave as he ought. As a fellow enemy of the state, Wilson loves it. "No one believes me, but I say, look, in the end we go to Russia or China."

That the game he's playing might eventually make him an international fugitive is never far from his mind. During our two days, he made the occasional sideways comment about how he's going to "keep moving while they let me move," and how "I'm on a multiyear process before I'm even in jail, so in the meantime I'm building up DefCad," which is his business website, a clearinghouse, search engine, and discussion zone for people interested in computerized weapons design.

Wilson spent time in Shanghai in 2008, as a student. His activism on behalf of both 3D weapons and the decentralized nonstate currency Bitcoin-which seems to interest him even more than 3D guns for its disruptive possibilities of helping human beings act and transact freely while evading the totalist carceral eye of the state-had him gallivanting around Europe earlier this year with crypto-anarchists and Occupy Wall Streeters, shady criminals and bigshot financiers. (For more on Bitcoin, see Jerry Brito, "Bitcoin: More than Money," page 34.)

He came back from one such European jaunt in February with a nest egg of $15,000 to support his gunmaking activities. "There's money for trouble out there," Wilson explains. He still has affection for America though: Despite it all, he thinks the U.S. is one of the few countries where he could still be walking around free after what he's done.

By early summer, DefCad was throwing off enough advertising revenue to keep Wilson going. As he contemplates a likely future of legal actions against, or in defense from, the federal government, the provocateur is cannily keeping his eye out for fund­raising opportunities and communities of affinity he can call on during inevitable times of trouble. Wilson has formed alliances or received help or guidance from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Second Amendment Foundation, the Institute for Justice, and Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, among others.

Despite the endless bureaucratic hassle, Wilson is cheery and reflective, not angry or frustrated. There hasn't been a roadblock in his path that he didn't in some way foresee, and none of them have yet have set back his goals. "This has been a continuous process of different levels of authority figures trying to stop it from happening and thus allowing it to happen," he says. "Of course we are going to succeed-because you all are trying to stop me. That seemed natural and ended up being true."

Wilson made The Liberator white on purpose, to make it look bizarre, otherworldly, registering to the mind as "not a gun." It's a piece of plastic, actually 15 pieces of plastic formed into one small inanimate thing in the palm of my hand. "It's crazy to say that this tiny thing threatens national security," he says.

But the state is inherently "hostile to things that can't be observed, tabulated, put in registries, become objects of expert knowledge," he says. "They conflated what we're doing with just wanting to get through airport security. No, we wanna get through your sense of security. We did challenge the security state to become real, and it couldn't. If there's a metal-detector-proof gun, OK, become real, stop it. But there's nothing they can do in any real sense. It's all theater.

"That you can choose with one click to violate the law, they cannot stand that, they cannot get between that, there is no gateway of authority between your choice and this possibility."

Diary of a Revolutionary

Cody Wilson didn't start out as a gun guy. He was a provocation guy. Before Defense Distributed, he formed a SuperPAC, since abandoned, and contemplated ways to shock the illiberal squares, including "disgusting forms of speech, roaming around the country offending the most flagrant violators of constitutional principle."

Then last summer his old buddy Benjamin Denio got Wilson thinking about plastic guns. "The optics were incredible," he said excitedly about the provocation that became his future. "It could be the most controversial thing in the country." Wilson and Denio joined forces, educating themselves in the tensile qualities of plastics and the state of the art in 3D printing.

The project that became Defense Distributed started with Wilson and a gang of friends from his old home state of Arkansas in 2012. He already romanticizes those bygone days when they'd all drink in the lobby of grand old hotels in Little Rock "pretending we were parasites of the old order, in the heart of Boomer decadence," and trying to figure out interesting ways to blow the system wide open.

That original crew has mostly moved on. Now Defense Distributed is like a revolutionary cell, a disconnected group of activists who don't all know each other. Wilson is convinced they are watched like one, too: "We have [Department of Homeland Security] and [Department of Justice] people on our website every day for 90 minutes at a time." He uses the same basic sort of private networking and encryption software-truecrypt, hushmail-that any savvy person might use, but he has no illusions that anything he's saying or doing is particularly private. He doesn't want to get into how he knows this, but insists that he and his main Austin collaborator, an engineer with a libertarian background who wants to be identified only as "John," have known since February that their phone calls and emails were likely being surveilled.

In late July 2012, Defense Distributed announced its intentions to the world with a video Wilson blasted to a 2,000-strong email list he'd cobbled together of people interested in guns. They used the crowdfunding site Indie­g­ogo to raise money, and they began spamming the press. In July and August of that year, Wilson says, he barely slept, spending all night emailing people about his plans for a 3D-printed gun. A compatriot in Germany continued to work the Internet when Wilson did sneak off to nap.

Then, in August, Defense Distributed suffered its first major setback: Indiegogo got spooked by the potential lethality of the gun and yanked the project off its site. This, however, turned out to be great news. Getting banned is always good press, and press led to more donations, now centralized on Wilson's own site. When DD met its initial $20,000 funding goal in late September without Indiegogo, this led to still more press and more money.

Then came another setback: Stratasys, a major 3D printer company, took back the machine Wilson had leased just that week over suspicion he might be using it for illegal purposes, i.e., making a gun. While do-it-yourself gunmaking is not technically illegal (yet), being an unlicensed maker of a plastic gun would likely run afoul of the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act. Indeed, Wilson's publicity campaign led Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) in April to introduce a bill to renew and update that law-exactly the sort of legislative panic that darkly amuses Wilson.

But Wilson worked his connections in the tech press hard, turning each setback into new publicity- and sympathy-generating headlines. Along the way, his plastic printed gun became one of the bigger stories coming out of the "maker movement"-the business/ideological/media configuration promoting the modern technologies of DIY, with 3D printers being their most colorful and prominent tool.

Thingiverse, the hip center of 3D-printable designs, explicitly forbade specs for weapons. While the prominent one-stop-shop to find 3D printing designs and ideas let it slide for a while, after the Sandy Hook school shooting organizers began enforcing the ban. (In the usual pattern of his enemies creating his opportunities, this made Wilson's DefCad still more valuable.)

Last fall and winter Wilson would regularly get invited to speak at conferences focused on 3D printing. There would be the normal "future of 3D" panels, but Wilson would usually get segregated into his own little show about this alarming gun stuff. At a conference in Manhattan in April 2013, when the Liberator design was nearly done but not yet public, he was amused to hear other 3D printing gurus assuring audiences not to worry about this 3D gun business, no one is there yet, it isn't really happening.

"We mainstreamed what 3D printing was, then harmed it in a way," he says. "Now when people talk about 3D printing, you'll hear: 'Did you know you can do this?' And the subversive thing is the first thing people bring up."

With buzz comes controversy and conflict. "I came to hold the Maker community in a little bit of contempt," says Wilson, "because it's insular and solipsistic, obsessed with their trinkets. They don't want it to be political, but they are willing to sell the printers as 'revolutionary,' 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."

Wilson indeed has the confident charm, even occasional arrogance, of a frat boy, which is on full display as we go to his bank to solve a dispute. Seems the income suddenly flowing in through DefCad looked suspicious, so Chase asked him to prove that it didn't come from online gambling. (For more about online gambling, see Jacob Sullum, "How Poker Became a Crime," page 62.) Wilson strides in, clearly a well-known character, to defend his company's honor. (Later in the summer Chase would suspend his account, only to reinstate it.) One clerk asks if he's staying out of trouble. "They're still letting me walk around!" he says. Wilson's teller asks him if he's on lunch break, and he cheerfully replies that every hour is his lunch break. He and his banker chat casually about Bitcoin.

Chase is connected, via a shared foyer, with a literally underground Austin political bookstore called Brave New Books. Some of the more paranoid folk who hang around there, Wilson says, insist that this whole "plastic 3D gun" thing is just a CIA mindfuck. Wilson chats with Harlan Detrich, the bookstore owner, about his recent trip to a meeting sponsored by Peter Thiel's Founder's Fund, which is a venture capital fund run by the libertarian-leaning PayPal co-founder with a yen for futuristic ideas.

Wilson is a bit appalled at how many of the high muckety-mucks in the wealthy techno-libertarian world are involved in businesses that essentially provide security technology for the megastate, believing it's better that they do it rather than someone with no civil liberties concerns. 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."

3D Guns as Museum Pieces

My second day with Wilson starts over breakfast at Austin's downtown Driscoll hotel, where he is feted by a curator from the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art and Design in London, who wants to own actual physical copies of the first couple of printed Liberators. Wilson is agreeable. He refused an earlier request from the British Science Museum because they wanted both to permanently disable the Liberator from firing and to pair it with a version made by Finnish journalists that broke after one shot.

Wilson's a bit of a conspiracy theorist when it comes to videos of failed 3D-printed weapons tests online, believing that the people who make them intentionally designed their version to fail. He is confident on one hand that correctly following his instructions with the right material will produce a usable, non-dangerous tool, at least for one or two shots, though no Liberator he's made has successfully fired more than a handful of times. Yet at the same time he is likely to let slip during his long disquisitions on hijacking history and shifting forever the relationship between citizen and state, that "to reduce it to materiality, it still is a crude plastic gun that few people can make."

After what Wilson says was months of aggravating paperwork, he thinks the legal export license should be on its way for the inert pieces of plastic, but in the meantime the London museum had to print its own Liberator for its display.

He then takes me and the curator to a tiny, 3×10 space in a walled-in corner of a bigger warehouse, largely filled with the refrigerator-like Stratasys printer that made The Liberator. (It is leased under someone else's name.) Wilson's various legal licenses are on the wall, bits of experimental plastic designs are on the floor. A metal detector sits right inside the door, bought on eBay from Korea. Wilson says he wanted to make sure he had the capacity on hand to follow the letter of the law about undetectable firearms should that become an issue. The Stratasys is on the fritz, but Wilson does get its head moving and depositing plastic. It takes about 20 hours for the machine-which now costs $6,000-8,000 in the secondary market-to make one Liberator. This printer is from 2005, no longer state of the art, but still better than most newer hobbyist models in the $1,000 range.

After the curator leaves us, Wilson and I drive about an hour outside of Austin to visit one of his colleagues, Brian Bauman, a multi-decade veteran of the 3D printing business who occasionally helps Cody with his own '90s industrial printer in his garage.

They chat about the irony that so much of the boom in cheap consumer 3D printer access arose from various patents expiring and falling out of the control of Stratasys, which is now gobbling up the fledgling companies like Makerbot (the 3D printing company that also owns Thingiverse) who took advantage of that fact. A different set of 3D printing patents are set to expire in 2014, which some analysts think will make the hobbyist industry boom even more.

Bauman and Wilson discuss one of the big pieces of 3D printing news that broke that day: A company in Denmark announced software that would prevent printers from making weapons. The two joke about making weapons out of nearly every possible shape to render such blocking devices useless. "I wrote on my blog the day Stratasys bought Makerbot, 'the first great open source production project comes to its inevitable end. To compete with 3D Systems, Stratasys buys Makerbot, Inc. Which company will prevent your retail printer from printing a gun first?' If I could still bet on Intrade I would. Oh, Obama shut that down too!" (For more about Intrade, see Katherine Mangu-Ward, "The Death of Intrade," page 44.)

Even though Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed themselves are, at least for the time being, out of the business of designing or making plastic 3D printable guns, the DefCad community-a freewheeling search engine and community space managed by Wilson for those interested in a truly open look at the potential of 3D printing-has not stopped. They are branching out into computer-controlled metal milling techniques, already widely used by hobbyists before 3D printers arrived on the scene. DefCad has also generated a working 3D-printed plastic multi-shot revolver.

As for the lead rebel himself, Wilson's public status depends partly on the State Department now. As he understands it, each foreign download from his server could potentially carry multi-year or multi-thousand dollar fines, which could make "my liability nearly infinite," he says. That, paradoxically, could play into his hands, ever mindful of the notoriety his own enemies give him. "If they come back with some heavy sanction, this has the opportunity to launch itself back into the mainstream again. Surely they know they are dealing with someone who wants to be made a star, know what I'm saying?"

The government has (for now) stopped Cody Wilson from doing what it seemed he wanted to do. But he already did what he wanted to do. The printer-provocateur wanted the world to understand one simple idea: What happens next isn't up to him or the State Department. It's up to you.