A self-described “crypto-anarchist” finally won his five-year legal battle to put blueprints for 3D-printed guns on the internet. And with that victory comes an uncertain future where anyone with the technology could potentially print an AR-15 that's untraceable by the government.
Cody Wilson’s legal woes began in 2013 when he posted the world’s first online manual for how to assemble a 3D-printed gun, “The Liberator” — a single-shot pistol made largely of plastic. Days later, the State Department classified his blueprints as a violation of international export law and threatened Wilson with fines and jail time if he didn’t remove them. A lengthy legal battle ensued.
Last week, however, the State Department finally settled a lawsuit with Wilson and his company, Defense Distributed; as of Aug. 1, he can continue publishing 3D-printed firearm blueprints online for anyone to download and use. Because people generally don’t need to undergo a background check to print their own guns — nor do the guns need to have a serial number once assembled — the government has no real way of tracing what experts see as a new and troubling trend for gun enthusiasts.
Wilson even portrayed his victory as the death of gun control in America.
“Think bitcoin, or WikiLeaks. Those are strategic forms of virtual anarchy,” Wilson told VICE News. “It’s people who create virtual forms of anarchy and push the government out of certain spheres.”
He sees himself working within the tradition of crypto-anarchism and “cypherpunk” activism, which weaponizes technology to circumvent government controls and effect social or political change.
Law enforcement and gun control advocates view Wilson’s plans for 3D-printed guns as similar to the rise of “ghost guns.” They’re DIY kits that buyers can then assemble without serial numbers, making them nearly impossible to track. (Wilson also sells these kits, through his offshoot company, Ghost Gunners.)
“Five or 10 years ago, it was just hobbyists doing this. No big deal,” said David Chipman, who spent 25 years as a special agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and is now the senior policy adviser at Giffords, a gun control advocacy group.
“Now, criminals have started using ghost guns as a way to circumvent assault weapon regulations. I imagine that people will also start printing guns to get around laws.”
The quality of a plastic, printed gun is still inferior to the ones firearm manufacturers traditionally make, largely because of the limitations of the material used in 3D printing. But, as Wilson noted, they still work.
3D-printed guns are also still required to contain some metal, under the Undetectable Firearms Act, to set off detectors. Wilson’s blueprints call for a metal firing pin, which is essentially a small nail. The printers also cost anywhere from $5,000 up to $600,000, with significant differences in product quality.
“The cost of 3D printing is still relatively high,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which has tracked Wilson’s case closely over the years. “My concern is that most of the guns that are 3D-printed, in the short term, will be made by rich criminal syndicates that have the resources to do it.”
Wilson’s business, DEFCAD, is currently the only one authorized by the government to offer blueprints for 3D-printing firearms, according to the “Is this legal?” section of the site. But anyone who signs up can upload and share their own drawings and blueprints, which gives Wilson’s company infinite potential to expand the reach of 3D firearm printing.
“I think this is a way of ensuring that our culture and industry makes it into the 21st century. Gun culture is always about 10 years behind other industries. It’s always lagging behind wherever Silicon Valley is,” said Wilson. “Traditional types of gun producers come from an older school of thinking. They’re former military and veterans, not people living fast lives with fast companies.”
After Aug. 1, a range of blueprints will be available for download from Wilson’s site, including the AR-15, the VZ.58 (a Czechoslovakian assault rifle), and a 1911 pistol.
A sudden decision
Back in 2013, the Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Regional Intelligence Center released a memo stating that, given the significant advances in 3D printing technology, limiting access to printed firearms “may be impossible.” Their memo made specific reference to Wilson and his company, Defense Distributed.
By the time the State Department contacted Wilson and threatened him with jail time, his blueprints had been downloaded more than 100,000 times and posted elsewhere. (Many of those blueprints, and others, are likely still out on the dark web, Wilson said. But they’re often piecemeal and not always reliable.)
With the backing of the Second Amendment Foundation, a pro-gun nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., Wilson sued the State Department in 2015 on the grounds that the government had violated his First Amendment rights by asking him to take the blueprints offline. After a trial judge overseeing the case declined to grant a preliminary injunction that would have allowed him to keep the blueprints online, Wilson appealed to the 5th Circuit about the injunction, which upheld the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court declined to hear his case.
And then, seemingly out of the blue, the State Department settled the case and approved 3D printing tutorials for “public release (i.e., unlimited distribution) in any form.” The government also agreed to foot the bill for nearly $40,000 of Wilson’s legal fees.
“Nothing had happened, and there was seemingly no impetus for why the Trump administration decided to step and endanger public safety by allowing this man to put blueprints for making guns on the internet,” said Gardiner, who also served as counsel to the assistant attorney general of antitrust at the Department of Justice from 2005 to 2008.
But Wilson has a different opinion of the outcome of his victory in the case.
“I’m not worried about public safety. As you might imagine, that’s kind of my motivator,” Wilson said. “I like being able to defeat any imagined confinements of the access to guns. Any legal scenario, I like being able to defeat that.”
Cover image: Cody Wilson shows the first completely 3D-printed handgun, The Liberator, at his home in Austin on Friday May 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Austin American Statesman, Jay Janner)