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Meet Cody Wilson, the man behind the fight over 3D-printed guns

Chuck Lindell, Austin American-Statesman • Aug 19, 2018 at 12:00 AM

AUSTIN, Texas — Cody Wilson found his calling when, in 2013, he successfully fired the first gun made on a 3D printer.

That very week, he dropped out of his second year at the University of Texas Law School, which wasn't much of a sacrifice because he'd pretty much stopped attending classes as his interests were captured by a revolutionary idea: The internet was more powerful than governments, gun control advocates and regulations limiting the ownership of firearms.

"I chose to print the gun. That's a choice that you can't back away from," Wilson, 30, said from the North Austin office and manufacturing center of Defense Distributed, the company he founded to expand the availability of do-it-yourself weaponry. "When you've got a better idea, you can't just stay in class all day."

Wilson posted how-to plans for his gun online and said he wanted to do the same for future 3D-printed firearms, launching a national debate — and a still-raging legal battle — over the wisdom of creating largely plastic weapons that would be difficult to detect and impossible to trace without serial numbers required for most other manufactured weapons.

Police, security experts and politicians were aghast, calling plastic-based guns the perfect firearm for assassins, terrorists, felons, domestic abusers and others legally barred from gun ownership.

But for Wilson, do-it-yourself guns were a logical extension of crypto-anarchy, a philosophy he embraced that seeks to use a free internet and encryption technology to reduce government influence over people's lives.

"I will continue to fight anyone who will try to sue me and say that I can't do this," he said.

Wilson's manufacturing plans for his 3D-printed gun, a single-shot pistol he called the Liberator, were downloaded more than 100,000 times before the U.S. State Department ordered the blueprints removed, saying they violated federal law on exporting military weaponry.

Wilson sued the State Department with the goal of letting everybody with a computer and access to a 3D printer decide for themselves whether to create and own a self-made pistol.

Attention waned while the legal battle ground on, but the bubble popped this summer when the State Department reversed course and chose to settle, giving Wilson a license that allows him to distribute 3D-printer gun blueprints.

Suddenly, Wilson was back in the national spotlight, a role he doesn't shy away from.

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Wilson and Defense Distributed were sued in four states by officials and gun control groups hoping to stop the publication of gun designs.

Those efforts now focus in Seattle, where 19 states and the District of Columbia persuaded a federal judge to temporarily block Wilson's settlement with the State Department. A hearing on the matter is set for Aug. 21, with a decision expected by Aug. 28, when U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik's temporary restraining order expires.

Wilson also has given interviews to most major newspapers and TV networks. "'Nightline' was here yesterday," he said last week.

Reporters frequently ask how he would feel, and whether he should be blamed, if his downloaded plans produced a weapon used in a fatal shooting or other crime. Wilson shrugs off the question.

"I suppose it depends, doesn't it? What type of 3D-printed gun? Whose 3D-printed gun? I'm blamed, then, for all 3D gun deaths because, what, I inspired the genre of activity? I wouldn't put it past someone," Wilson said. "Also, it's beside the point. I didn't invent the idea of the gun."

Wilson said he is fighting to protect his free-speech right to publish information on a matter of public concern, filing a lawsuit in Austin federal court accusing two officials — with more to be added soon — of violating his rights by dragging Defense Distributed "before all manner of far-flung criminal and civil tribunals in an effort to silence the organization."

"People come to me and say, 'Cody, tell us why you want to do it.' No, no — more like all these authorities, all these powers, they will have to justify why they should have the right to stop me," he said. "I won't be shamed out of it or legally spoiled out of it. I'll sue them all — sure, whatever."

For Wilson, the public danger of 3D-printed guns is far outweighed by the danger posed by a government strong enough to block the free flow of information in the name of safety.

"If they could build a system that could prevent people from downloading that pistol, it would be far more dangerous and the effects would be far more terrible than that little pistol," he said. "Power wants to know everything, surveil everything, absorb everything. This impulse should be checked."

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Wilson, an English major from Arkansas who moved to Austin to attend law school, did not grow up shooting guns and began his quest for a 3D-printed weapon with very little knowledge about firearms.

"I was a Boy Scout, sang in choir. I was class president of my high school," he said.

A major influence, and a turning point in his life, came with the advent of WikiLeaks, a website and movement founded by Julian Assange, a leading crypto-anarchist, that specializes in publishing sensitive records acquired from governments and public officials.

Wilson proposed the Wiki Weapon Project, an effort to build the first 3D-printed gun, but a crowdsourcing website froze his account for violating its policy on raising money for weapons sales. Attention from the media and bloggers, however, allowed him to reach his $20,000 goal.

A pattern was born.

Wilson said efforts to block him only fuel his movement, noting that before the Seattle judge stepped in on July 31, gun blueprints were available on his website for five days and were downloaded and spread to other internet sites.

"A judge in Washington state can say, ‘Cody Wilson, take down your website.' Of course, to some degree this information can be contained. But simultaneously, that order makes the information much more interesting and valuable to people who otherwise wouldn't even care," he said. "In a sense, being shut down like I've been every five years ensures that the information stays relevant, stays in the internet."

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The idea behind Defense Distributed was to create a nonprofit that distributed its intellectual property for all to use.

"The law had never considered such a thing," Wilson said. "This is why it's had such a problem grappling with me. Everyone always assumed that defense contractors contracted with the state, give their technology to the state. What happens when a defense contractor just gives its technology to the people? The state doesn't have an answer. It struggles for one, embarrassingly, in the courts."

Blocked from publishing plans for the Liberator, Defense Distributed began selling the $2,000 Ghost Gunner, a desktop mill that allows owners to complete the lower receivers for AR-15 and AR-10 rifles — that's the portion of the weapon that attaches to the stock and carries the weapon's serial number.

The income helped finance his recently settled lawsuit against the State Department while paying wages for 15 to 18 employees, Wilson said, though he also solicits donations from supporters.

The transition to small businessman has been interesting, he said.

"To run this lawsuit, I had to build a real company. It's kind of tedious," Wilson said. "All these guys have payroll. Some anarchist, huh? Pretty good capitalist for an anarchist."

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Wilson believes that guns, whether purchased or made on a 3D printer, are a benefit to society.

"It's beneficial for the people to have access to military-grade weaponry. This is a civic, structural feature of living in a free republic — that is, at last, you have the resort of arms if every other democratic institution breaks down. I believe that in itself is beneficial. It's good to have a politician who knows that you have that option," Wilson said.

"What do they say? An armed society is a polite society. I don't think that's just a joke. I think there's some truth to it," he said.

In legal filings in Seattle federal court, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson argued Wilson is seeking to undermine laws meant to keep guns away from minors, felons, people with mental illness and those subject to protective court orders by publishing files that are "indispensable to a three-dimensional printing process used to create firearms and their components."

But Wilson said the legal fight and public debate over 3D-printed weapons has missed two critical points:

• His website in July published plans to build only one 3D-printed weapon, the Liberator, which has not been improved since its inception — remaining crude, unreliable and given to exploding instead of firing clean. "I stopped shooting them in '15 or '16," he said. "I'd say I had a 50 percent success rate even in just shooting them."

• Nine other weapons blueprints posted online in July were computer-aided design files that have been available online for years and would require extensive work to convert into manufacturing code before they could be printed. "There's nothing ready to be done with them," he said. "They're just pure digital blueprints."

In the meantime, others have introduced advances to the Liberator and created new kinds of printable guns, Wilson said.

"There's all kinds of hybrid guns with metal components and inserts. I've seen printable revolvers and multishot pistols and all kinds of weird, interesting stuff in resins and plastics," he said.

"Whatever revolution I started overtook me years ago. Now, I just run a little mill shop, I'm just a little businessman, so let the kids have all the fun."

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