3D Thursday is a new feature about CNC machining, 3D printing, 3D scanning, and 3D design that appears in MAKE every Thursday morning.
For months, controversy has been building around 24-year-old Austinite Cody Wilson, full-time law student and part-time director of Defense Distributed, a non-profit working to develop and freely distribute designs for working 3D-printable firearms.
Even before Sandy Hook, their “WikiWeapon” project was controversial, placing the group squarely at the intersection of emerging debates over the uses and abuses of both crowdfunding and 3D printing. After the tragedy, that controversy assumed a sudden, violent urgency on the national stage, and Wilson became an even hotter media commodity. Since June, he has been interviewed by NPR, the BBC, the AP, The National Review, The Guardian, Forbes, Popular Science, PC Magazine, and a half-dozen more. Strangers recognize him on the street. He’s received private death threats—including one he describes as “really ominous”—and public excoriations, like this one from an angry commenter at Defense Distributed’s website:
You represent everything that is wrong with the world. You have no empathy and value money over life. You are scum of the lowest kind, utter cowardly scum of the Earth. If god did exist she would send you straight to hell, which would be full of your f***ing weapons. Not only are you a disgrace to humanity, you are a disgrace to your mother.
Back in December, Blink magazine asked Wilson what sort of interference he expects from the U.S. government. He answered:
I expect any number of overreactions, censures, and hectoring. I expect to be enormously burdened, bothered, and threatened. But I will follow their petty rules where I am subject to their jurisdiction and threats of violence. And when they will no longer offer me shelter, I will go somewhere that does.
When I finally catch up to Wilson, on January 16, President Obama has just unveiled the most sweeping package of gun-control proposals the U.S. has seen in decades. There is some urgency to our interview because, Wilson e-mails, “Today is all I’ve got before I leave for Europe.”
I dial the number he’s given, leave a message, and in about a minute he returns the call.
First thing I want to know: is he planning on coming back?
“Good question,” he laughs. “Famous last words, but, yeah, I intend to come back.”
When I joke about “fleeing the country,” he laughs again and says: “Nope. They need to flee me, man.”
Wilson is affable, calm, and articulate. An Alabama native, he speaks in measured phrases that accelerate as he becomes enthusiastic. He has no accent that I can hear, and does not conform to my “gun nut” stereotype. I tell him as much.
I don’t know where they find these guys. This German video crew came down awhile back, asking some of us for interviews. Eventually they actually found some guy and got footage of him saying, well “the only way you get my gun from me is when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”
I am curious about Wilson’s background, about how he came to be so passionate about gun rights.
“Have you served in the military?”
“Do you hunt?”
Wilson: “No. I’ve never been hunting actually. It’s not like I’m against it, but I don’t know man. I feel like I couldn’t do it.”
“Do you enjoy shooting?”
Wilson: “Lately, yeah. I’m doing a whole lot more of it so I’m kind of getting better at it.”
“So you really are mostly a political animal?”
Wilson: ”Oh, hell yes. But like politics in the real sense, right? Influencing people. I don’t believe that politics is process. I believe it can be more.”
On July 1, engineer Michael “HaveBlue” Guslick reported having assembled a working AR-15 from spare parts and a fully 3D-printed plastic lower receiver. Because the lower receiver is the only numbered, regulated part of the common AR-15, Guslick’s design can be built using over-the-counter spare parts—parts that are not numbered, are not tracked, and are legally salable to anyone regardless of age or background. Per the U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968, in the eyes of the state, the receiver itself is the firearm.
Guslick started with a high-quality CAD model of an AR-15 lower, reinforced it strategically, here and there, in software, and printed it in fused ABS on his second-hand Stratasys FDM 1600. Then he assembled the rifle, fitting an aftermarket conversion kit that allows it to fire lower-powered .22LR ammunition through a shortened “pistol length” barrel. Guslick reports having put almost 100 rounds through this weapon without mechanical failure.
Wilson discovered Guslick’s work about a month later:
“HaveBlue, and a guy named turomar, working from the summer until about October, definitely proved that you can print and build these and basically put as much .22 through them as you want. Actually it was, like, the weekend we first planned to launch that we saw his news. It was just a few days later that we put our video out.”
That video was created to support Defense Distributed’s crowdfunding campaign, launched on Indiegogo at the end of July. Around the five-minute mark, Wilson starts laying out their plan to develop prototypes using Stratasys’ prosumer-grade Mojo brand 3D printer, which retails for just under $10,000:
[The Mojo] is not a hobby-level printer—to the contrary, it’s a professional-grade machine—but, unlike fabulously expensive commercial printers, this one is “entry-level enough” in terms of price, and allows a leasing option, and we think we can get the best of both worlds. And then port our design down to RepRap or MakerBot standards.
The campaign was scheduled to run until the end of September, but on the evening of August 21, Indiegogo pulled the plug and refunded all contributions, claiming terms-of-service violations. The clock stopped $18,000 short of the group’s $20,000 goal.
“It only ran for 22 or 23 days before it was shut down,” says Wilson. “Fortunately, that got us coverage in Forbes. And that drove enough traffic to our site to meet our goal anyway.”
Now fully funded, Wilson proceeded to sign a lease with Stratasys for, not the Mojo, after all, but the uPrint SE, a more expensive FDM printer with a larger build capacity.
The system was delivered to Wilson’s Austin apartment in late September. But before it was even unpacked, the phone rang.
“They had just sent it out to me. I got a call from the distributor, just a day or two after I got it, asking for it back. I was like, tell corporate to call me. There’s no way I’m giving it back to you. I just got it.”
A tense e-mail exchange with Stratasys’ lawyers followed. Wilson admitted he did not have a Federal Firearms License, but believed his activities with Defense Distributed were legal under a well-known provision of the GCA allowing that “an unlicensed individual may make a firearm as defined in the GCA for his own personal use, but not for sale or distribution.”
Stratasys was having none of it.
“Their lawyer asked me, what are you going to do with it? I said, I just have to follow the law. They’re like, we don’t want to debate about it. I think the fix was in from the beginning.”
The next day, September 27, Stratasys sent a team to seize the machine from Wilson’s home. He describes the event dismissively.
Yeah, they sent a real crack team out. It was just some dudes that had been told they were going to pick up some machine parts. They didn’t know. I helped them load it up in the truck.
I make an ironic remark about “come and take it,” and Wilson lights up.
I know, right?! We were actually using that expression. We were using it and now we can’t anymore because, as it turns out, they will come and take it. And pretty fast.
When speaking about Defense Distributed, Wilson freely mixes first person pronouns, and I try to pin him down about it. Behind the scenes, is it really “we? Or just “I?”
I’ve got guys that help me build guns, and print, and all that stuff, and though I consider them friends, I’m not sure I’d consider them Defense Distributed. We have many engineers involved in the project, now, too. Some, I would’ve been intimidated if I had met them just a few months ago. Really talented people.
Whomever Wilson’s silent partners may be, it became clear, in early December, that among them was a person or organization with regular access to some top-of-the-line 3D printing gear. On the 2nd, Defense Distributed published a video demonstration of an AR-15 with a 3D-printed lower receiver successfully firing and cycling six rounds of FN 5.7×28mm ammo before breaking. The “five-seven” cartridge develops about twice as much chamber pressure as .22LR, but still about 10% less than the .223 Remington the AR-15 is designed for. The receiver was printed from Guslick’s original model, using Objet’s propriety photopolymer jetting process, in an “ABS-like” photopolymer blend that is only available on Objet’s high-end Connex-series multi-material printers.
In an accompanying blog post, Wilson mentions that the print took seven hours to complete, describes the test-firing process and the receiver’s eventual failure modes, and lists almost a dozen ideas for improvements in the next-generation model. At its conclusion, Wilson seems tired but pleased.
He writes: “And that’s really it for now. Let’s talk more after I finish my exams.”
Twelve days later, on December 14, UT Law’s Fall 2012 examinations were in full swing.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Adam Lanza went on a rampage.
Within a week of the Newtown killings, 3D-model sharing website Thingiverse exercised a terms-of-service clause prohibiting content that “contributes to the creation of weapons,” in place since 2011, to remove a number of firearms-related models, including Guslick’s reinforced AR-15 lower receiver, from their site.
In response, Defense Distributed created an online repository of the purged files called DEFCAD, a deliberate play on “DEFCON,” the familiar Cold War-era acronym used to indicate the U.S. military’s readiness for war.
There was, like, a 12-hour period where we were scrambling and getting help from other people to round up files, and we got them all before they were taken down, and also files from other sites like GrabCAD that people kind of feel uneasy about. We’ve got well over thirty now, gun-related 3D-printable files. I’ve set up an official Pirate Bay account for us, too, but haven’t actually used it yet. But other people are already seeding our files like crazy.
Through the rest of December, Wilson and Defense Distributed continued to refine and develop their printable lower receiver design. As of Christmas day, they had printed six different lowers using three different technologies—photopolymer jetting, stereolithography, and fused deposition modeling—and had dramatically increased performance of the design. One of their stereolithographs fired and cycled more than eighty rounds of full-power .223 Remington before failure.
So far, in 2013, Defense Distributed’s public efforts have largely shifted to focus on 3D-printed magazines. On January 12, they released this video demonstrating a DIY high-capacity AR-15 magazine made from a 3D-printed housing, a 3D-printed follower, and a commercial magazine spring.
“We’re even designing magazines to work using rubber bands,” Wilson tells me, “just in case someone decides to get cheeky and add springs to the law.”
On the afternoon of the 16th, just a few minutes before I speak to Wilson on the phone, congressman Steve Israel (D-NY 3rd District) publicly calls for a renewal of 1988′s Undetectable Firearms Act, now set to expire in December, updated with provisions specifically prohibiting 3D-printed high-capacity magazines. His press release calls out Defense Distributed by name, and quotes Israel, himself, to wit:
Background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print high-capacity magazines at home. 3-D printing is a new technology that shows great promise, but also requires new guidelines. Law enforcement officials should have the power to stop high-capacity magazines from proliferating with a Google search.
Wilson’s public response: “Good f***ing luck.”
Since that afternoon, Wilson has redacted the F-bomb, but when I speak to him he still seems a bit hot under the collar:
“Israel, I think, is just trying to kind of hitch a ride as well. I don’t think he got much play with it. I can’t tell if he just wants to stay relevant or if it’s just a prime opportunity to make what he’s doing seem important or related intentionally or something. These congresscritters, man, I can’t really decipher them.”
I stop him at “congresscritter,” chuckling a bit, and suggest that the word marks him as a libertarian. Is that accurate? Does he identify as left, right, or center?
“Well, see I don’t really accept the right/left distinction, but yeah. I came to the Liberty Movement through post-Marxist thought and French social theory, but though I share a lot with the right-leaning individuals, the anarchists, I consider myself more of a leftist, but only in the kind of discouraged sense of that word.”
In spite of all the buzz surrounding Wilson and Defense Distributed, they’re still not actually printing or testing their original “WikiWeapon” designs. Not yet, anyway.
Under U.S. law, firearms are classified as Title I or Title II. Title II firearms include machineguns, short-barrelled or sawed-off rifles and shotguns, grenade and rocket launchers, large-bore guns, and silencers. These must be registered with the federal government, and legally cannot be manufactured without an FFL and a tax stamp. There’s also a catch-all “any other weapon” category that, generally speaking, covers disguised firearms and firearms intended to be concealed about the person. Here the ATF has authority to make administrative rulings in unusual cases, and the subject gets complicated.
Regarding Title II questions, I have a lawyer, who works with us and can send us written opinions. Everything else, I’m my own lawyer. I have access to the LexisNexis database as part of my student account so I don’t have to pay for legal research. I spend a lot of time hanging out at the library.
Since the Stratasys incident, Defense Distributed has adopted a more cautious approach to the legal question of 3D printed guns.
We got opinions from, you know, smarter people with connections, that an actual printable gun, especially with a plastic receiver, would be considered “any other weapon,” which is a category under the National Firearms Act, not the Gun Control Act. So technically a Title II weapon, illegal to make unless you’re a licensed manufacturer with a Class Two tax stamp. We didn’t want to have to ask the firearms technology branch of the ATF, because then they would rule, and there’d be an opinion, and we would possibly chill, you know, all 3D printing innovation in firearms.
Defense Distributed has applied for the appropriate Federal Firearms License, but apparently there are some snags:
Oh yeah. I’m on hold. Everything was clear. Everything still is clear on my end, but I’m on hold until February because I have to get my lease situation figured out. I mean I rent this warehouse downtown, as an address for the license, and my sub lessor’s leaving and so now I’ve got…like it’s all indeterminate right now, so really I’m just kind of stuck until we work all the paperwork out, before they’ll grant the license. After that, it should be maybe another like 15 to 20 days. I was told it would be either February or March. Who knows? But then I’ve got to get the Special Occupational Taxpayer stamp, as well, which I hear takes about three weeks right now. I’m kind of worried that Congress is going to have time before then to pass their law, perhaps make it illegal to manufacture at all. I don’t know. I’ve got some anxiety about it.
Which seems like a good opportunity to bring the conversation back to Wilson, himself.
“And you personally? What are your plans for the future?”
Wilson: “I don’t know, really. I think I’ll finish law school, but I never really thought I’d be an attorney. I’m in my second year, and I’ve got at least one more full year. May have to do a few classes this summer.”
“Has your public role with Defense Distributed brought you any attention from your peers, and if so, what is it like?”
Wilson: “Yeah, I hate it too, you know. They’re like…” He stops himself. “Anyway. But I’ve got friends who are supportive: Yeah dude! They love it. Some teachers bring it up in class.”
“Has it cost you much, personally, being out in front of this issue?
Wilson: “Nah, not really. But that’s because I don’t, I didn’t have much to lose personally, anyway. Basically it’s, like, my head out of the tall grass. You know what I’m saying? Like everybody else is kind of happy to work unknown and unseen.”