Q&A: 3D gun maker Cody Wilson defends freedom to print guns

He's planning another gun-related announcement later this year

Cody Wilson, 26, founded Defense Distributed in 2012 for the explicit purpose of demonstrating how 3D printers can produce working plastic handguns as well as replacement parts for existing rifles. Wilson, a former student of the University of Texas School of Law, posted the plans for his Liberator gun online for anyone to download. Although the U.S. government forced him to remove the plans last year, the Genie was already out of the bottle. The CAD drawings had been downloaded tens of thousands of times.

Wilson has been described as a "free-market anarchist," and Wired magazine named him one of "The 15 Most Dangerous People in the World."

Over the past two years, universities and government agencies around the world, including the ATF in the U.S., have launched campaigns to inform the public how dangerous guns printed using Wilson's plans and thermoplastics are. Most recently, Britain's University of Warwick and the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS) said their tests showed the weapon suffering "catastrophic failures" that were more dangerous to the user than the intended target.

In a Q&A interview with Computerworld, Wilson disputes those claims, and said he's seen evidence that the entities claiming failures did not build the guns to specifications. He also explained why he created the Liberator 3D printed gun in the first place - and it has little to do specifically with the Second Amendment.

Do you feel like many of these tests are rigged or that these testing entities are not following the same processes that you did in creating the gun? They didn't build it according to the way we built it, and then they'd report it as: "We built it and it blew up." It just wasn't accurate. I think it's because there's a rush to get a story, there's a rush to do the work.

Our ATF did it...and at least they showed that [using ABS thermoplastic], if you build it to our specs, you can fire eight to 10 rounds off of one Liberator build. Now, does it work with other materials and other printers? No. There's a range of things it clearly would not work with. There are tons of different ways you can build them to blow up, but the way we put up on the Internet and suggested you build it, has never once catastrophically failed.

The Liberator
The 3D printable components of The Liberator handgun (Source: Defense Distributed)

Have you partnered with gun rights groups like the NRA? No. The NRA doesn't like what we're doing. It's like they have no public statement even to this day even admitting we exist. There are some gun rights groups that you could call fellow travellers and we have a friendly relationship with. We haven't capitalized on the relationship.

Have you felt push back from gun rights advocacy groups? The NRA is kind of a black box. I've heard there are supporters within and others who don't. The most opposition we've seen is from NRA members who really believe in institutional mediation of these thing. They like licenses and like background checks. And, you can understand that to a degree.

How do you feel about background checks? I feel like it's part of a disciplinary fantasy. Like oh, we can know what everyone's doing. It's just kind of conceit of knowledge that I think is a fantasy. I think a realistic way of treating guns is not to do background checks before hand but to deal with actors afterwards. Is it a good business practice to rely on background checks? Yeah, sure. But I'm not playing that game.

What are you doing these days? You graduated from college; you created Defense Distributed and the Liberator, are they your main focus or are there other interests? We just released a big piece of Bitcoin software with a group of anarchists in Spain. It's called the Dark Wallet.

So how are you making money? Like I said, we did this big Bitcoin project and raised like six figures for that, and I have a book deal from Simon & Schuster. It's enough to keep me going right now.

So your main focus is still enabling the 3D printing of guns and getting government approval to continue that? Yeah. I'm getting different kinds of government approval to continue my activity. I've got a problem with the State Department right now, but it's not as bad as it might seem. There's just a lot of apprehension and confusion about the technology and the means of its distribution.

They named like 10 CAD files to pull down. We just pulled all of them down. This is not a full stop. We're still working with them. They've got a real problem. There's a public interest and open source moment happening with these files. They can't just police them. So, they're trying to come up with a policy for them.

Cody Wilson
Cody Wilson

Can you explain why you're doing this? Is this all about the Right to Bear Arms under the Second Amendment? Gun people and Second Amendment people like the project, but for me it's really about the implications of open source and the digital age. It's global in scope.

Rights talk is not something I really engage in. I'm interested in critical theory. There's no way to stop what we're doing, so I think we can challenge the legal structure itself or make it aware of its contradictions about this or get it to accommodate the fact that things like this are going to happen.

I recognize that only the United States, and maybe one or two other countries, has the legal tolerance for this kind of activity. We think of the Internet to mean there will be consequences like this. There will be the ability to digitally manufacture things like guns that are easy to make.

I just think personal armament is an implication of the future. It's not something that's going away in some progressive sense of civil destiny.

How do you address opposition to what you're doing and people who point to the shootings in Newtown, Conn. and say what you're doing will just make it worse?

We can play a numbers game... but, if you argue from principle, freedom is scary. If you want to talk about rights, what does it mean to respect a civil liberty or civil right? Well, it means you understand there are social costs in having that right; that's why it deserves protection in the first place.

That's why these people are not practicing civil libertarians to say we should prohibit a whole class of activity because there's a certain amount of violence or deaths that might happen. This is the cost of freedom.

Cody Wilson demonstrating his 3D printed Liberator gun.

So, do you think there should be any regulations around the printing of 3D printed guns? No, I'm definitely not concerned with regulating it. In fact, I'm daring people to try. These 3D printers are general use technologies and software agnostic. It's been amazing watching the United States and other state and municipal governments try to deal with it. All we've seen so far is outright bans like in the city of Philadelphia. Well, that's not very useful and it's not going to work.

What gun technology do you have planned for the future? We've got some interesting files, some new printing materials, but nothing I want to release until we've got more of a stable relationship with these regulators. I've got a super secret gun thing coming out in a couple months here. It's not necessarily a gun itself, but it should be pretty exciting for gun people.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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