When Gun Control Is Censorship
New Defense Distributed chief Paloma Heindorff on making guns, fighting lawsuits, and life after Cody Wilson
Defense Distributed launched in 2012 with the goal of making a usable plastic handgun with a 3D printer. Founder Cody Wilson fired the first of those weapons, which he dubbed The Liberator, in front of reporters in May 2013. The company and its mediagenic leader soon became the living symbol of—depending on your perspective—either the possibilities for human liberation or the threat of violent chaos inherent in the rise of affordable home 3D printing and the unstoppable spread of computer files.
For Paloma Heindorff, who took over as head of the company last year after stints as director of development and vice president of operations, these innovations are an important part of keeping the powerful in check. "We've got to be developing technologies in the independent sector to be able to counterbalance the enormous control that the government has and the enormous access to information that corporations have," she says.
From the fragile plastic of the original 3D-printed pistol, Defense Distributed soon expanded into metal weapons. Its current leading product is the Ghost Gunner, a home-use computer numerical control (CNC) mill that allows anyone to turn an "80 percent lower"—a gun part that the federal government does not legally require to be stamped with a serial number—into an essentially untraceable working firearm.
The company has always deliberately tweaked the powers that be, and the powers have often tweaked it back. Days after Defense Distributed published the software files needed to make its plastic gun, the federal government insisted that distributing such data was illegal, tantamount to exporting arms without a license. The firm obeyed a demand from the State Department's Office of Defense Trade Control Compliance to take the files off its website. It then sued, insisting its code was First Amendment–protected speech.
The company should be free, it argued, to distribute its files just as all Americans are free to distribute a book, magazine, or pamphlet that discusses how to make a gun. Besides, whatever public safety benefit the government thought it was furthering was already moot: As is inevitable in the internet age, the files had already spread 'round the world and were widely available to anyone who cared—just no longer directly from Defense Distributed.
After many twists and turns, the federal government settled the case in July 2018. Defense Distributed regained the legal ability to publish its gun-making files—but not for long. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia quickly sued to prevent the settlement from going into effect, claiming among other things that the government's concession violated an arcane aspect of the Administrative Procedure Act. A preliminary injunction in that case forced the company to again take down its data files, something Josh Blackman, a lawyer for Defense Distributed, insisted was "a prior restraint of constitutionally protected speech that is already in the public domain."
That ongoing lawsuit is only part of Defense Distributed's legal troubles. Last year, New Jersey passed a law barring the distribution of digital gun-making files to anyone who is not a licensed gun manufacturer. The state's attorney general made it explicit that the intent of the legislation was to "to stop the next Cody Wilson, to fight the ghost gun industry." Defense Distributed is now suing to overturn the prohibition.
Amid the legal fights, the company lost its charismatic founder. In September, Wilson was arrested in Taiwan and deported to the U.S. to face charges of sexual assault of an underage escort. (The law under which he was charged treats sexual contact with a minor as assault even if it was consensual; the website Wilson allegedly used certified that its escorts were of age.) He is awaiting formal arraignment.
"I watched [Cody Wilson's] videos and I was like, 'Holy shit. He just completely took my legs out from under me on that argument.' I really enjoyed that experience of having to be confronted with a new reality."
After Wilson's arrest, control of Defense Distributed shifted to Heindorff, who had kept a low media profile during her three years at the company to that point. The 30-year-old London native sat down with Reason's Zach Weissmueller in January—her very first media interview after taking the reins—to discuss her intellectual development, how firearm manufacturing specs are like a pizza recipe, and what's next for Defense Distributed.
Reason: You're a bit of a mystery. You're British, but you somehow ended up in Austin, Texas, running this controversial weapons-information company. How exactly did that happen?
Heindorff: I grew up in central London and moved to New York about five years ago. For the first 10 years of my professional life I ran a lot of events, I managed a lot of bars, and then I became an office manager for a media company [called Flavorpill]. I'd always explored alternative politics and philosophy; my mother was an actress and my father is an artist, so I was raised in a very creative household. I didn't even realize until I was 18 that people did jobs that they didn't love.
Once I was ranting in the back of a cab going over the Brooklyn Bridge about how irritated I was with people trying to just increase legislation and think that that's a way to protect themselves—just relinquishing personal responsibility, diverting blame. My friend James said, "Hey, you should really check out Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed." I did, and about three days later my flatmate told me that I should probably leave the house, because I'd been in this wormhole of discovering the work of Defense Distributed.
Then I just popped Cody an email. I told him I was going to move to Austin and he was going to give me a job. He said, "You should come and check us out first." I think everyone was a bit confused by me to begin with. I've got family in Austin, and they were very excited to hear I was moving here and then became very confused when they found out why. But it's super interesting to me.
What grabbed you about Defense Distributed?
I had an inherited opinion about guns and gun control, but I wasn't particularly passionate about it. I wasn't in the streets raving about how much I thought guns were awful. But I've learned a lot. I read one thing where someone was like, "She didn't even shoot a gun until 2015!" They also got upset that I didn't own a gun. I was like, "It would have been incredibly irresponsible of me to have not shot a gun and bought one." I think that's a very strange thing to expect me to have done. I learned how to shoot the gun and then I bought myself a gun.
A lot of people want to reject violence as part of the human condition. Push it away. It doesn't exist. I've always thought that's an odd way to approach such a fundamental human action. I'm not saying that I think violence is awesome. I think it exists, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue that it doesn't.
It was interesting to be in New York and have these kinds of natural assumptions—guns are bad—and then to [realize], like Cody often says, that however I feel about that is irrelevant now [because people will be making guns whether I like it or not]. I'm not so emotionally motivated that I watched his videos and was like, "Oh my God, this is so bad. Get it away from me. Someone needs to legislate this because I don't want to have to think about this potential future world." That's lazy, that's apathetic, and that's a relinquishing of one's own responsibility.
So I watched these videos and I was like, "Holy shit. He just completely took my legs out from under me on that argument." I really enjoyed that experience of having to be confronted with a new reality. Then I met with Cody and I was like, this is an impressive group of people doing some of the most impressive and elegant activism. It has a genuine effect and forces an interesting conversation.
It's difficult for a business like ours to move around in the traditional commercial space. You experience it firsthand as someone who's actually trying to do business operations and sales, and the obstacles encountered doing that job for this company are very interesting. I've become more and more passionate over the past years because I see example after example of what I believe to be gross mistreatment of a group of people who are perfectly within their rights to do what we were doing. So now I'm just really extreme.
Defense Distributed forced a conversation about the fact that producing a gun from the comfort of your home is now a technical reality, and it's going to become increasingly hard, if not impossible, for governments to stop people from doing it.
We can move into a new space where we're thinking differently about the way we relate to other people on a global scale. Bitcoin as well. It's running in tandem, these developments or technologies that empower the individual in a way that we've never really seen before. It's so interesting that this happens at the same time that we're also seeing control of the individual like we've never seen before—control of access to information.
Like, here's the internet. You can have everything you want, but actually, you'll go to Facebook, you'll go to YouTube, and you won't actually get real information—they're curating it for you. We've got to be developing technologies in the independent sector to be able to counterbalance the enormous control that the government has and the enormous access to information that corporations have.
So this has moved beyond just the conversation about guns, and maybe it always has been about more than that. You seem to be saying that this is about information itself, and you're trying to safeguard people's ability to access it.
What's happening with New Jersey—it's not regulating an action. It's regulating the transfer of information, the offering of information, even. Then you've got corporate censorship, and that just makes us react more aggressively. There was something said in the hearing yesterday [regarding the New Jersey lawsuit] comparing us to Amazon, as if we're just sending out guns. But [what we're doing is actually] the equivalent of Amazon sending out a pizza recipe book. That isn't doing pizza delivery. It doesn't make sense to give a narrative where there is no step that indicates human involvement from the information access to the use of information to create a physical article. To completely ignore the human component in that is super odd.
It's called Defense Distributed. We want to distribute the means of production into as many hands as possible. And this New Jersey law is really fighting against that. They want only these licensed firearm manufacturers in their state to [access the] code. They're completely removing any human interaction from the acquisition of the code to the development of the firearm. It's really the information that they're trying to stifle.
You're in a huge ongoing fight with the government on multiple fronts. But you're also fighting against other forces. You mentioned corporations. Just getting information out seems to be becoming increasingly challenging, especially for a group like you that is on the edge of what's socially acceptable.
We've experienced things that we even were shocked by. YouTube took down a lot of our videos, but even more than that, Facebook won't allow anyone to share any links to our products and any links to our pages. We're trying to protect speech that we should be entitled to make. I can't even talk about those rights being infringed without that then being censored, which is insane. These corporations are saying that this knowledge is too dangerous for people to have. The plans for this gun were downloaded like a million times five years ago, but apparently the knowledge that this even exists is too dangerous to talk about.
How disrespectful to not trust [people] with information—to say, "You the general populace cannot be trusted with this information." That alone is gross to me. And if we're not allowed to discuss these things, what's next for us to not be allowed to discuss? We're experiencing this all over the place, Facebook and YouTube and Shopify, and you can only see this certain kind of content, and there are no competitors [for many of these sites].
I think that's really scary. Where do we go as a society? What's the road, other than monotonous and increasingly narrow? The future should never be narrowed. If people can't be trusted with information, we have a really big problem.
I want to talk about the elephant in the room: Cody Wilson, who is no longer with Defense Distributed. He was indicted for hiring someone through a sex work app. How has his departure affected the company?
Certainly it wasn't a happy occasion for anyone. I was really proud of my staff during that period.
I think Cody's departure has affected us less than people might think. I understand why people would think that it would be chaos, because he was an incredibly powerful figurehead. But there are quite a bit of us working back there. The company's doing just fine. I think people miss him as a friend of ours, and I know for a fact that he's already greatly missed as a public voice.
How did you become the replacement?
I built out a lot of the day-to-day operations in the company. So from that perspective, it just made sense. I had the most connection with our remote people and vendors. I was the second most visible after Cody, internally. Anyone involved with the company would know it made a lot of sense. It's just to the outside world, who didn't know me before, that it probably is a little bit confusing.
How would you compare and contrast your leadership style with his?
I smile a lot more, but I'm a lot meaner. I guess you'd probably have to ask a staff member, but we're very different. Cody is way more comfortable in front of the camera than I am. I like business. I like managing people. Cody liked getting into the ideas and the ideology behind everything. I'm extremely passionate about ideas too, but it's more of a group discussion with me. I'm bringing people in from our community to help brainstorm. So it's more of a communal act at this point.
"How disrespectful to not trust [people] with information.…And if we're not allowed to discuss these things, what's next for us to not be allowed to discuss?"
In terms of management, I'm more of a hands-on manager when it comes to the day-to-day business running. There'll be a noticeable difference in the way the company is operating for sure. Less intimidating, and hopefully I'll get out more regular content to keep people informed. I'm less likely to do one-on-one interviews as much, but I do hope to push out blog posts and stuff like that. But the aim of the company and the goal, our mission, is not altered at all. We already had a roadmap for 2019, so nothing I'm planning on is not something spoken about previously.
There's a new product that you're helping to launch?
We've got our latest platform added to Ghost Gunner: a Glock 19–compatible frame able to be made [into a working gun] in 30 minutes. People have been waiting a long time for that. It's the first time we've done a polymer frame rather than an aluminum one. So it's moving into a new space. It's also the first time we've involved the community in our [research and development] flow. I believe it's going to lead to quicker product rollouts than we've seen in the past.
Making Glock-style weapons available to be essentially manufactured at home in half an hour seems likely to spark a whole new shitstorm. Does it make you nervous to be releasing a product like this when you're under attack from multiple angles?
Most of our lawsuits are centered around DefCad [the now—dormant software-sharing part of the business, distinct from the Ghost Gunner machine]. Still, everything makes you nervous. You know, Shopify kicked us off without notice over the summer. A lot of random stuff happens to us, which makes me lose sleep. I don't mind the problems that I see coming, but we'll see.
When New Jersey passed its law targeting Defense Distributed, the governor referenced the National Rifle Association (NRA). What's your relationship to that group, and what do you make of the focus that's always on them?
There's a lot of things to say about that, but I don't want to throw everyone under the bus in my first interview opportunity. I will say I'm surprised that we haven't gotten more funding and more support from organizations that announce themselves to be pro–Second Amendment. The Second Amendment Foundation, who's been with us through all of our lawsuits, has been incredible in that regard, and we're incredibly grateful to them. But yeah, NRA, where you at?
A lot of these gun-control laws come on the heels of mass shootings, and the argument they make is that you're enabling more of those because you're putting unregistered firearms in the hands of could-be-anybody. How do you react to those charges?
It's an emotional argument. It's not a fun subject to talk about, but just because it's not fun to talk about it doesn't mean we can just decide not to talk about it. Do I think that we massively increase the likelihood of school shootings? No, I don't. That's my response to that.
Coming into the gun world as a novice, something very interesting that one realizes is that a lot of the anti-gun or gun-control rhetoric is completely wrong. There's this narrative of the gun's gonna pick itself up and shoot itself, right? Like there's no human involvement needed. And it's funny. When you see a firearm, there's a natural reaction to it, like, "It shoots. It's dangerous." But you need to understand that a gun is a machine.
Cody was committed to the idea of "crypto-anarchy." Is that something that motivates you as well?
That's definitely a motivation for me. There always seems to be a little bit of a narrative of destruction [around crypto-anarchy], right? It's [seen as this] raw chaos of decentralized weapons. I really see it as something quite positive, an opportunity. [Wilson and I] were both going in the same direction, but I was skipping with sunshine and rainbows and he's like, rawr, and obviously that's a complete exaggeration of our personality types…but it's the same motivation. It just comes out differently because I really do see it as a beautiful opportunity for people to feel empowered and be able to exercise their own abilities and grow as an individual.
You had this high point when the federal government settled with you, and then immediately the states stepped in to sue you. How has that affected your business?
DefCad is shut down now because of the law that New Jersey is imposing. DefCad is a file-sharing website. It's always been stop-start—we'll get it up for a short period of time, and then it gets taken down again. That's still a project that's very much alive. But it can't go anywhere until we get some [legal] relief. It's a huge drain on our resources. It's a weird thing when you're working in a business mindset to have to factor in another cost like that.
I've been given a lot of advice of how it's time for us to get out of the lawsuits and concentrate on making money. And, you know, they get a middle finger. Because my entire staff would leave if we abandoned the philosophy of this company. So it's just not an option, [even though the legal fights are] a huge expense. So when we do fundraising drives, every bit helps. I really hope that out of respect for the work that [Wilson has] done in the past years people don't withdraw their support just because there's not an entertaining Twitter account to follow, you know? I really hope they realize there's a group of people here that are really trying to protect our rights, and that hasn't changed.
New Jersey would argue they have a right to control the production of firearms in their state, and Defense Distributed is undermining their ability to do that. They would say they are totally justified in passing this law. Why is that not acceptable in your mind?
I just don't think it's acceptable to say that people can't speak about things, that information is so dangerous that it can't even be spoken about. I think it's dangerous for one state to be able to say that our company, in a different state, is not allowed to use the internet for offerings of products.
It's natural, these emotional reactions. But this is important to say: There's a huge problem with people following emotional reactions rather than rational, logical arguments. I think it's natural, I think it's human, but I do think it needs to be addressed.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a video version, visit reason.com.