Gutenberg’s Rifle: The Downloadable Firearm Is Almost Real
Defense Distributed clears a hurdle in its race to be the first to print a working firearm.
March 25, 2013 - 6:41 pm
It’s an oppressive spring afternoon in Austin, Texas. Low clouds threaten to unleash a gullywasher. After a couple of emails and phone calls I’m at an apartment complex off to the west of the University of Texas campus. A pair of young men pull up and pop the lid on the trunk of their car. One pulls a flat metal case from the trunk and I jokingly ask, “Is that a gun or a guitar?”
The lead man could blend in with the musicians and hipsters all over Austin who recently dominated the city during SXSW, but he isn’t one and what he has in the case is an instrument, but it’s not musical.
He lays the case on the parking lot pavement and opens it up. Inside are several of the objects for which he has become famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view. The dark parts are a conventional AR-15 rifle. Sen. Dianne Feinstein would ban them from personal ownership if she could, based not on their collective firepower, but on what they look like. The white parts are plastic. Wilson printed them and has test fired them at his range near Austin.
As he pulls the firearm from the case to show it to me, a woman walks by with her dog. I hope that we’re not alarming her. She didn’t seem to be surprised in the least. This is Texas, and guns are everywhere from the local Walmart to the state capitol building, every day.
The man with the strange rifle is Cody Wilson, 25, the co-director of Defense Distributed. That’s the group that in the past year has gone from not even existing to being on the verge of changing everything.
Or nothing. The fact is, neither Wilson nor anyone else knows what effect realizing his idea will have. But we’re very close to finding out.
Defense Distributed is about to create the world’s first fully functional, fully printed gun. The wikiweapon will be real.
We go into his apartment and he shows me around. It’s a typical male college student’s place — he’s a law student at UT — a bit messy and unkempt. Up in his bedroom he has a huge American flag on one wall and the famous “Come and Take It” flag opposite. It’s a replica of the flag that flew at Gonzales, Texas, on October 2, 1835 when Texians dared the Mexican army to retrieve a cannon. Wilson is from Arkansas, but the Gonzales spirit of defiance is evident in nearly everything he says and does. The American flag is ironic. He bought it to be his bedspread, but it didn’t work for that, so up on the wall it went.
Over the next hour, we converse about everything from the methods and mechanics of printing a gun, to the why of it, to the philosophy of Democratic politicians like Dianne Feinstein, Andrew Cuomo, Chuck Schumer, and Steve Israel, who believe that there is a legislative solution to everything, and that they have those solutions or are smart enough to come up with them.
Wilson is no fan of any of them. And they may not be smart enough to come up with a legislative solution to Defense Distributed. Distributing printed firearms via download may be a case of politics failing to stop the signal.
He is also no conservative in the typical sense. He’s either a libertarian or an anarchist or believes in “socialism from below,” but mostly he’s just a young man who “wants to remain a human being” by realizing an idea that up to now has only lived in the mind. That idea is printing a gun, not for hunting or for self-defense against criminals, but to defend himself against government.
Wilson has just obtained his federal firearms license. He underwent a process that normally takes about 60 days, but his took 6 months. He showed me his FFL like a “proud papa.”
“I don’t know why I got it,” he allows, “other than this is still supposedly a country of laws and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have gotten it.” The process took so long, he says, partly because Defense Distributed lost its manufacturing locations a couple of times during the process. Printer manufacturers became nervous when they found out what he was up to. He says that one, Stratasys, referred him criminally to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That referral has been resolved in his favor.
“There’s no reason for us not to get it,” Wilson continues. “I have no criminal record, my intent is to make money with the license, so okay, you can’t not give it to me. Even knowing that like, yes, I helm a project whose goal is to basically one day explode the need, or destroy the need, for something like the ATF in the first place.”
The license allows Wilson’s group to deal firearms, but more importantly to him, it allows the company to build and test prototypes in materials other than metals, as firearms manufacturers. Private individuals would face stiff penalties for engaging in activities that Defense Distributed needs to do to build the printed weapon.
It’s hard but not impossible to see how the government might eventually come to regard the printed gun. At least one law already on the books is relevant, the Undetectable Firearms Act. Others could follow. It takes a license from the state to cut hair anymore. Licensing of some sort may eventually come to play in the 3D printing realm.
Or not. The push for industry licensing frequently comes from the industry itself, as a means of using government as gatekeeper against competition. At this point, no complete firearm has ever been printed. Many parts have, but never the whole. Gun manufacturers so far have not reacted to Defense Distributed. Wilson’s group has printed a slew of magazines and lowers. They’re using a combination of standard firearms parts and common household hardware to make their printed parts function with traditionally manufactured stocks, receivers, and barrels. The 3D printing industry is new and diffuse, more a novelty than an actual industry other than among the few companies that develop and build the printers. Most 3D printers are being used to print rapid prototypes of toys, or candy molds, or even bicycles. Advocates of 3D printing as an industry have long hailed the creation of such mundane objects as “revolutionary,” only to turn around in shock and fear when Wilson turned up to do something unexpected and truly revolutionary.
“You’re printing guns for a set of specific reasons,” I say to Wilson. “What are they?”
“The unstated assumption is that you wanted to do 3D printing so you picked guns,” he replies. “It’s the exact opposite. We imagined a world of liberalized access to firearms. So the question is, ‘Why 3D printing?’
“This was a project with a political goal. Yes we know that there are things like CNC milling and there are gun files already online, but the idea was to take a technology, celebrated by these people-power, mostly skewed liberals, ‘Oh it’s the new revolution in manufacturing!’ Take their precious technology, make guns with it, and show them, yes, it is revolutionary, and in fact that has more meaning than you think it means.”
The 3D printer community, he says, is still not willing to come to grips with the consequences of their “magic devices.”
“We think if those devices mean anything at all, then they mean things like what we’re doing,” Wilson says. “The fact that you would be able to have something specific that someone doesn’t want you to have, a tool of perhaps massive and devastating consequences.”
“I hope that this is a politically challenging project. I want it to be,” he says. “But I wonder if it is. Most of the politicians that we’ve gotten to react, have reacted simply because they don’t enjoy people being so contemptuous of them.” Wilson smiles and continues: “So if anything, this project simply teaches contempt for the petty despots in Washington.”
He says we’ll know how subversive his project is when it prints its first gun. “Barring imprisonment or indictment,” Wilson laughs and says he thinks he could have the first printed assembly within a month. That timeline depends in part on an add-on to his FFL, for which he has applied.
Wilson has approached the printing of guns with intelligence, a sense of humor, and openness. Prior to Defense Distributed, he had no background in engineering, 3D modeling software, or physical printing. He and his team have created their software models by hand. Their process has been one of trial and error, with failures and successes posted to YouTube. One such test, a lower that broke after firing only a couple of rounds, was branded by media and many observers as a failure, but Wilson views it as a success.
“I think it shows a dedication to the project and an openness behind it. We’re not just putting up the successes of the project,” he says, then takes a sharp turn. “But in a sense I still think it was a success. Look, here’s one of the first printed lowers out there, on video, getting shot. And all we did was take a file that someone else designed on Thingiverse. Put it up in a rifle configuration and shoot the thing just to show people what it would do.”
So Cody Wilson has a Thomas Edison streak, believing that perspiration and failure plus persistence can lead to success. He is very hard-working, engaged on the printing project every day, seven days a week. The question of what Cody Wilson is — rebel, inventor, or performance artist — permeates our entire conversation.
After posting that video, Wilson says, the “drive-by media was done with the story.” He attributes the term “drive-by media” to Rush Limbaugh. Wilson is an avid consumer of alternative and conservative media, and allows that he’s a fan of The Walking Dead and comedian Russell Brand. At another point, though, he calls television a tool of the state meant to make us tired. There are no TVs at all in the apartment in which we met.
Within a month of the “failure,” he says, his printed lowers and magazines were withstanding far more punishment at the range. He says he has fired hundreds of NATO 5.56 rounds and .223 rounds without breaking his current lowers.
Defense Distributed had been working on printing guns months before the Sandy Hook killer claimed the lives of 27, including 20 children. Wilson says that his group knew immediately that an assault weapons ban and magazine limits would become hot political issues, so they moved quickly.
“We knew as soon as Sandy Hook happened that the AWB would be an important political football again, so we got onto it. We were like, what can we do right now with this technology? We thought magazines, no problem.” He says the “no problem” slowly to emphasize how easy it would be and has been. “And the first magazine was going to be named after Feinstein too, in honor of this effort of hers to take away our rights. But, [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo got there first with his law, and it’s so ridiculous. He did it in such a petty way. They did it so quickly, against all the ostensible traditions of American liberalism and openness. So I decided to name the first magazine after him.” He later handed me a functional Cuomo magazine. It’s light and tough. Made from plastic, it could probably last forever in a landfill.
“It’s a permanent monument to his ridiculous effort to ban, impede our rights as Americans,” Wilson says. “I hope it permanently affects his legacy. I tell you one thing, the man wants to be president of the United States.” Wilson laughs at the thought. “He’s made a permanent enemy of most red staters who pay attention. He’s not going to be president now, so he did the damage himself.”
In case you’re wondering, no, Wilson isn’t looking for your vote and he’s not running for office. He isn’t trying to make friends or please anyone. He’s trying to “punch back.”
Cody Wilson is well-read and extremely well-informed on current events and culture. He’ll move from quoting Hannah Arendt to Michel Foucault to the American Anti-Federalists seamlessly. He says he believes in fundamental political equality. Progressives, he says, don’t believe in that, despite what they say.
“This is the fundamental problem with progressives and perhaps American socialism in general: ‘We believe we can achieve equality through programs of inequality.’ Specifically political, but that applies to economic as well,” he says. He believes that it’s utopian to think that the democratic system can lead to the outcomes that either progressives or conservatives desire.
His view of government and big media: “I wanna starve this beast.”
The process of printing a gun is key, and Wilson says: “We’re doing things right now that you wouldn’t believe.”
Interview done, it’s time for show and tell.
After Johannes Gutenberg printed the Bible in 1455, launching the era of efficient printing, the effects of the invention of the printing press spread quickly. Within a few years, the printing press had spread all across Europe and by 1533 to the Americas. Science, art, literature, education, faith, politics, media, and entertainment were all changed forever. Kings and kingdoms could no longer contain information or keep it out of their domains. Now fast forward to the world wide web and the possibility of designing an object in software in Austin and pushing a button to print it — make it real – it in New York. Or, if there is a 3D printer available there, Damascus or Tehran or Beijing.
3D printing really could change everything about manufacturing and the marketing and distribution of goods and technology. The prices of 3D printers are coming down, as their speed and capabilities leap forward. Jim Kor’s Urbee 2 brings the printed car nearer to production. Another group, RepRap, is working on building printers that replicate themselves. Wilson is aware of RepRap’s potential ramifications for his own project, as Defense Distributed races toward the printing of a working firearm.
In the not too distant future, printed guns may be available for as little as $50 apiece, just a download and a button push away from everyone who wants one.