Gutenberg's Rifle: The Downloadable Firearm Is Almost Real

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?"