When 3D printing first emerged a few years back, the tech industry’s imagineers envisioned designers crafting a digital model of the mundane in one place and printing it out for prototyping and, eventually, a finished product either at their desk or at a printer on the other side of the world. Companies have started to move into this space as the price of 3D printers have come down, and the capabilities have leaped forward. Simple plastics are no longer the only medium in which 3D printers work. They can now print much stronger materials, including metals. One company at SXSW was showcasing a 3D printed bicycle.
Wilson, a staunch advocate of the Constitution and the inherent right to self-defense but not at all a fan of government, hatched the idea in 2012 to create a group that would distribute the task of printing gun parts. The actual task had been done before at least once, by a lone operator, in 2011. Wilson and his group fundraised $20,000 and sought to lease a printer from Stratasys. That company, according to Wilson, at first leased him a printer without issue. But before he had even signed the papers to start working with it, the company made two moves: They demanded the printer back, and they referred Wilson criminally to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “They sought to mortally wound me,” Wilson says, noting that criminal convictions can result in one losing their Second Amendment rights.
Wilson insists that he had broken no law and intended to break no law. He was not engaging in the unlicensed manufacture of firearms as the law understands it. He was printing shapes via the emerging technology of 3D printing.
So he sought advice from the ATF, which determined that he was not breaking the law. Stratasys’ referral against him went nowhere.
Stratasys isn’t the only enemy Wilson has made. Government, so far, has not been among those enemies, but gun makers have, he says the NRA is wary of him, and 3D model hosting sites have not been welcoming. Thingiverse pulled Defense Distributed’s files offline after Sandy Hook, despite the fact that those files did not violate the site’s terms of service. During his talk Monday, Wilson revealed his solution to the Thingiverse problem, DEFCAD. That site will host his group’s 3D models. Users will be able to download them and print them on their own machines. Wilson hopes that it becomes the Google of 3D gun printing.
Despite the setbacks and skirmishes, Wilson says the actual progress of printing 3D gun parts has moved forward swiftly. Last year they printed a lower receiver that broke during testing, sparking media stories that they were failing and 3D printed guns were not viable. This year, DD has printed parts that can withstand firing the NATO 5.56 round. 3D printing enables rapid prototyping, slashing the time from design to test and cutting the cost of development down to a pittance. This results in a cheaper product that, at this point, runs technologically miles ahead of any legislative effort to deal with it. It’s possible, for instance, to get around New York’s new magazine sales ban by printing a magazine. The material cost of a printed AR-15 magazine, once you get past the cost of the printer itself, is cheap: $15. Defense Distributed knows who its political enemies are: It has named printed parts after Sen. Dianne Feinstein and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to memorialize their so far futile efforts to ban firearms.
Monday’s highly controversial but sparsely attended session moved to Q&A, and it was toward the end that applause rang out for the first time. The typical SXSW Interactive attendee is a bundle of contradictions, a self-conscious non-conformist who conforms strictly to a leftist political point of view. That point of view empowers government over the individual. Wilson is no Republican or conservative, but he is no friend of anyone who wants to make government more powerful over him or anyone else. He describes Defense Distributed and the wikiweapon as “practical anarchy,” and he comes across as a deeply philosophical small-l libertarian. One audience member asked him, paraphrasing from memory, “How does it feel to be the only actual rebel at a conference that is supposed to be full of rebels who all think the same way?” Wilson’s audience cheered the question.
The question now is, where is all this going? Wilson unapologetically says “I am not going to stop.” He means it. He sees the wikiweapon as expressions of both free speech and the right to bear arms. His group has freed the genie and pushed weapon manufacturing well outside current law’s ability to regulate it.
But politics is full of people like Michael Bloomberg and Mike Martinez. Busybody ban kings find a way. They always do, even though technology will always run ahead of them. Gun manufacturers, ironically, may end up siding with bans to protect their own livelihoods against a threatening new technology. The protection racket function of government is powerful, and in an age of concentration of power in the national and state capitals, it is only getting stronger.