The Battle Over 3D-Printed Guns Is Getting Serious

By Adam Clark Estes on at

Five years ago, a lot of people thought Cody Wilson was a wild-eyed fanatic. The New Yorker described his rhetoric about making blueprints for 3D-printed guns available to anyone on the internet as “divorced” “from any practical reality.” Yet here we are in 2018, and Wilson’s company, Defense Distributed, is still in the news being branded as a threat to national security. President Donald Trump weighed in this week, and just yesterday, a US federal court blocked the 30-year-old from relaunching his website. What the hell is happening?

Header image: Jim Cooke/Gizmodo

The website in question is DEFCAD.org, an online repository for 3D-printed gun designs. In theory, anyone with a 3D-printer could log on to this website, download a file, and print a gun out of plastic or other materials. “I think access to the firearm is a fundamental human dignity,” the self-identified crypto-anarchist told CBS This Morning. “It’s a fundamental human right.”

A lot of people in the United States government seem to disagree. Wilson and his organisation had planned on relaunching DEFCAD.org on Wednesday. The website went dark in 2013, after the US State Department threatened Defense Distributed with prosecution, claiming that publishing such files violated federal export controls. With the help of gun rights group Second Amendment Foundation, Wilson filed a lawsuit against the State Department in 2015, claiming that the State Department violated his free speech rights. And in June, the Trump administration’s Department of Justice offered Wilson a settlement to end that lawsuit that would allow Defense Distributed to publish blueprints for 3D-printed guns online once again. Wilson claimed that DEFCAD.org would return to the internet on 1 August, but a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order blocking the website from going live just hours before the launch.

It was already too late. Before the federal judge took action, thousands of blueprints for nine different types of 3D-printed guns had already been made available on the Defense Distributed website. It’s unclear why the files were made available before the advertised date for DEFCAD.org’s relaunch. However, after this happened, 21 state attorneys general joined together in sending a letter to the State Department asking for the ban on publishing 3D-printed gun designs to be reinstated.

Cody Wilson might not care. The self-identified techno-libertarian seems just as much hellbent on driving a conversation about libertarian ideals as he does on making guns easier to manufacture. Wilson is quick to point out how he wants his quest to publish gun blueprints to spark arguments about the First as well as the Second Amendment. One of Wilson’s side projects, by the way, is a crowdfunding website called Hatreon, which helped organisers raise money for the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. One of Wilson’s more high profile supporters is Peter Thiel, the aggressively libertarian venture capitalist who secretly funded the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker media, Gizmodo US’s former parent company.

“It seems like I’ve crystallised the terms of the debate according to how I wanted it,” Wilson told The New York Times this week. “The argument that I’m making, although not always very well, is that what I’m doing is actually a pretty mainline American idea.” Presumably, Wilson is referring to freedom of speech here, but it’s not entirely clear.

This legal tug-of-war only scratches the surface of a debate that’s been smouldering for over five years, as long as Cody Wilson and his organisation have been winning headlines. It’s also sparked a new round of legislation that aims to keep 3d-printed guns out of the hands of Americans and, perhaps more powerfully, to legislate the manufacture of so-called “ghost guns,” firearms that can’t be traced. The problem, lawmakers say, isn’t just that Defense Distributed is trying to make it easier for people to 3D-print guns in their own homes. They’re making it easier to make deadly weapons that lack serial numbers or any connection to licensed gun manufacturers. Such freedom would be a boon to terrorists and criminals.

It’s worth pointing out here that Defense Distributed also manufactures and sells computer-controlled milling machines. These so-called Ghost Gunner devices let the operator plug in a USB stick with the plans to make essential gun parts, place an unfinished and unregulated metal gun frame inside, and produce a firearm in a matter of hours. Defense Distributed sells the machines for $2,000 (£1,545). An 80 per cent complete M1911 handgun frame costs just $120 (£93).

“As technology advances, we need to keep up with our laws and policies,” Po Murray told Gizmodo. Murray is the chair of the Newtown Action Alliance, an organisation formed after the Sandy Hook shootings, and an advocate for permanent laws that would control 3D-printed weapons. “That’s the only way we’ll be able to keep everyone safe at home and abroad,” she added.

This is a salient point. The US government—namely Congress—is notorious for lagging behind technological innovation. Some say that’s why Americans suffer from slow internet speeds, even though the United States actually invented the internet. Guns are another issue. According to the Supreme Court, the Second Amendment grants individual Americans the right to bear arms under certain conditions. It has also long been legal for Americans to manufacture their own firearms without a license as long as they don’t intend to sell or distribute it, although registration requirements vary based on state and local laws. Guns that can’t be detected by a metal detector are illegal under the Undetectable Firearms Act, but some lawmakers think that laws like this need to be updated now that 3D-printed plastic guns is a reality.

In the wake of recent controversy, there are three bills in Congress that would make untraceable or 3D-printed guns illegal: one from Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, one from Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, and one from Congressman David Cicilline. The fate of the bills is so far unclear, but the issue does not lack mainstream attention. Even President Trump has weighed in on the issue, citing a conversation with America's National Rifle Association (NRA):

It is deeply unclear if the president knows what he’s talking about, since “3-D Plastic Guns” sound more like a movie prop than a threat to Americans’ safety. Trump also appears to miss the point that Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed want to make plans for 3D-printed guns available to the public for free. If they were for sale, they would already be illegal. Nevertheless, he doesn’t think something makes sense.

Maybe that’s just it. The legal quarrel over 3D-printed guns doesn’t make much sense, because really the country is trying to have a debate about updating gun control laws. Technology is the driving force of this conversation, and yet, in the wake of Sandy Hook and every other mass shooting in recent memory, maybe the real driving force surrounding the gun debate is the endless violence enabled by current laws. According to critics—as well as the majority of Americans, in a recent poll—guns are already too easy to buy. Why would the American government make it easier for people to manufacture guns?

Cody Wilson, for what it’s worth, insists that his fight to put blueprints for 3D-printed guns online is about free speech. His legal team made the same argument in its case against the State Department. “If code is speech, the constitutional contradictions are evident,” Wilson told Wired in 2015. “So what if this code is a gun?” Gizmodo reached out to Wilson to ask how his thinking has changed since then. He didn’t respond in time for this story.

The fact of the matter is that Cody Wilson’s day of reckoning is just over the horizon. His mission to make it easy for anyone to 3D-print a gun is only winning more attention and that will either spell its doom (likely in the form of federal legislation that bans such weapons) or its success. Success, in this case, would amount to making plans for gun manufacturing using 3D printers or computer-based milling machines readily available to the general public.

Apparently, Wilson has a tombstone that says “American Gun Control” outside of his office at Defense Distributed in Austin, Texas. Which makes it hard to believe this fight is all about free speech. Clearly, this guy has death on his mind.