Cody Wilson says he's more of an advocate of free speech than of free fire. The 27-year-old founder of the firearm design company Defense Distributed said the U.S. State Department is violating his rights by preventing him from publishing online a free manual that gives anyone in the world instructions on how to make their own weapon.
Wilson first made headlines in 2013, when his company posted directions on how to design and build a single-shot pistol, dubbed the Liberator, with a 3D printer. The State Department responded days later by ordering Wilson to take down the manual, or face jail time and a fine in the millions of dollars for violating the International Traffic in Arms Regulations law, which regulates the import and export of military equipment and services outside the U.S. Wilson responded Wednesday, two years after he was first contacted by the government, with a lawsuit saying that prohibiting him from posting the design is a violation of his rights under the First Amendment.
Wilson, a radical libertarian who dropped out of law school on the day he was contacted by the State Department, doesn't deny that the Liberator is a weapon, but he said he's done nothing other than make a loud political statement by posting the gun's blueprints (which come in the form of computer code) online. And it's about information: If ITAR does apply to his situation, Wilson said, that proves the law is either out of date or intentionally vague.
“The U.S. government claims they own this information, that it's not really the citizens' technology,” Wilson said of the State Department's complaint against his product, in an interview with International Business Times. “That is so outside the digital mentality. But they're trying to figure out their ability to regulate activity online.”
Defense Distributed has assembled a legal team including an ITAR expert, a criminal defense attorney and a respected Texas law firm. It has also consulted with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocate for online freedoms.
A victory for Wilson’s company would raise a number of questions about the future of firearms in America. The 3D printing industry is expected to explode in the coming years, so what if someone who would normally fail a background test were to make his own Liberator, or an assault rifle? The Liberator is mostly made of plastic, which may allow it to pass through airport security and other weapons checkpoints. And the blueprint will likely be still online somewhere, in some form, even if Wilson goes to jail.
“You're more likely to have a bad law than bad people,” Wilson said, comparing the State Department's intervention to previous attempts at stifling technology. “This is like file-sharing. Even when the penalties are extreme, we know it barely causes a blip.”
Wilson's case is based on the claim that the government doesn't have the power to regulate the Internet. By making guns part of his message, he's making his dispute with the State Department as visible as possible. “This is the fight I wanted the whole time,” he said. “What do you hope to accomplish? You hope to throw out the entire power structure of the government. It's beautiful.”
A representative of the U.S. Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, the section of the State Department that asked Wilson to take his plans offline, refused to comment.