Late in August, a story popped up on Forbes about Defense Distributed, an open-source group that claimed to be creating “Wiki Weapon” -- a series of blueprints for firearms that would be freely disseminated online as CAD files. Anyone with a 3-D printer could in theory make a fully functional version of these guns -- for example, an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, the weapon used in the Aurora, Colo., movie-theater rampage in July -- at home, privately, no questions asked.
The Forbes story came about because the night before, Wiki Weapon had been suspended from the crowd-funding site Indiegogo due to “unusual account activity” -- in other words, the site had never hosted a project like Wiki Weapon before and decided that doing so would harm its reputation.
But for Cody Wilson, a 24-year-old Texas college student with clear libertarian leanings, this was all part of the plan. Since he first came up with the idea for Defense Distributed with his friend Benjamin Denio, a self-styled urban guerrilla, Wilson knew he had to test the waters in what he called “the underbelly of the Internet.” That meant first posting the raw concept on popular online forums like 4Chan and Reddit. Then, as word spread on these sites, crowdfunding would follow and give Wiki Weapon, which “seems like it’s not to be believed,” a “certain amount of legitimacy,” Wilson said.
“We’re smarter than we look, how about that,” Wilson said, laughing. “We imagined that’s what it was going to be: We’d be up for two days and they’d pull it.”
Actually, it lasted on Indiegogo for a little over 20 days, raising little money but gaining outsized prominence when it was evicted, benefiting from the so-called Streisand effect, in which the attempt to censor an idea leads to greater interest in it than it would have had otherwise.
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Indeed, the publicity from Indiegogo’s harsh stance drove people to the Defense Distributed website, where Wilson added a PayPal link to turn the growing attention into a source of real funding.
“It was the tech people first,” Wilson said. “And it all kind of snowballed from there.”
In a YouTube video released last July, Wilson promised that he would be able to complete the first steps of his 3-D project with “just under $20,000.” Since he first posted the PayPal link, he said, Defense Distributed has raised $22,000.
“It’s not much,” he said. “But it’s enough.”
His arsenal isn’t much, either, just yet. In Wilson’s photos, it's comprised of plastic skeletons that somewhat resemble real firearms sitting in sinister-looking gun cases.
Wilson plans to go through another round of fundraising -- this time with the “Tea Party” types he was hoping to draw investment from in the first place -- after the weapons’ prototypes are released. Wilson isn’t certain when this will happen given the obstacles that Defense Distributed has continually faced. Even before the Indiegogo campaign was suspended, Defense Distributed had its lease for a Stratasys 3-D Printer, the machine they hoped to use to prototype the weapon, revoked by the manufacturer. The reason, the company said: “It is the policy of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its printers to be used for illegal purposes.”
The Maker Movement
Wiki Weapon is piggybacking on one of the hottest concepts in high-tech these days: 3-D printing, in which ink-jet technology is used to create a three-dimensional object by laying down successive layers of material, such as plastic and metal. If a shower curtain hook breaks or you need a handle for a kitchen cabinet or you want a bootlegged Warhammer figurine, don’t go out and buy them; instead, find the design online and print them.
Similarly, if a single part is needed for a jet engine or an automobile in for repair, the shop could simply print the part, using on-demand manufacturing that could save businesses millions in inventory.
So far much of this is still a pipe dream of what is being called the maker movement, but it is not that far-fetched anymore. Already, companies like Stratasys make high-end 3-D printers that businesses use for creating prototypes for new products and design ideas. And 3-D printers for consumers, like the one made by New York-based start-up Makerbot, cost a little over $2,000 -- not much more than an Apple computer. Sites like thingiverse.com have an array of items that anyone can create with these printers, including Christmas ornaments and earbud holders.
“3-D printing exists, it’s real, but it hasn’t yet made its mark on the world,” said P.W. Singer, a political scientist and author of “Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.” “Major corporations look at this, but then also the tinkerer at home. Both of them are crucial to the future of it.”
Given the pace at which 3-D printing is developing, it’s probably no surprise that Defense Distributed has come along. After all, technology is no stranger to low common denominators -- the cyber-bullies, identity thieves, and Violentacrezs of the world.
And to firearm opponents, just the existence of Wilson’s idea is enough to validate a maddening vision of the future in which technology has again sown a troublesome new design into the social and political fabric.
“I find [Wilson’s] purpose morally repugnant and unpatriotic,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “But in 20 years, it may be easier to make a printed gun than get a gun through some other sale. The logic is already starting to come to bear.”
Horwitz’s time frame is probably too long -- technology advances in bursts, not twenty-year increments -- but it is fair to say that the printed gun still exists more as a thought experiment than as a real-world object. This is particularly true for the enthusiast at home, the group that Wilson is most interested in targeting.
The First Attempt
In fact, Wiki Weapon is not the first attempt to create a homemade gun, or at least a part of a gun, using 3-D technology. A few months ago, Michael Guslick, a Wisconsin-based amateur gunsmith, documented on his blog his efforts to create a lower receiver for his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
Guslick said that the process was an “interesting technical challenge,” but the technological and monetary limitations of 3-D printers made it a less than desirable option. For one thing, Guslick explained, the materials available for use in 3-D printers can’t provide the tensile strength required to hold up under the pressure of gunfire. Moreover, 3-D printing and scanning are also constrained by the “precision in accuracy” needed to get detailed surface finishes for most parts of a firearm, Guslick said.
Overall, he described his 3-D-printed AR-15 part as little more than a “good first pass.” Cracks have already appeared in the front lugs and there is “a little too much bending in the system,” he said.
As for the cost, tinkering with any emergent technology is pricey. Guslick used a 15-year-old Stratasys FDM1600 model, a machine purchased through a Craigslist ad for around $1,000 in what he called “the deal of the century.” Similar devices on eBay usually run between $4,000 and $6,000. Current Stratasys systems start at $10,000, but models that he says are “actually decent” cost as much as $15,000 or $20,000. And while there are much less expensive consumer 3-D printers, Guslick said that they are little more than toys and could not be used to build something with the engineered precision and complexity of a gun.
Consequently, the number of guns that you would need to make to justify the cost of an adequate 3-D printer would scare away even the most fervent firearms enthusiast.
“For anyone who thinks they’re going to save a lot of money with 3-D printing, that’s not really the way to do things,” Guslick said. Not only would a homemade zip gun -- essentially, a catch-all term for small custom-made pistols -- cost less, it would also probably work better, he added.
In comparing a 3-D printer-generated weapon to a zip gun, Guslick appears to presuppose that anyone who would choose to build one would also be likely to build the other. But that argument underestimates the potential disruptive impact of the 3-D-printed firearm, says Evan Selinger, a philosophy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Selinger notes that few people would consider trying to cobble a zip gun together any more than they would try to build their own computer, even though it is possible to do so. It’s too complicated and time-consuming.
But if 3-D printing technology becomes more efficient and inexpensive, as it no doubt will -- “where we could imagine it being you press a button and then the equipment automatically completes the production process,” Selinger said -- the psychological, financial and physical barriers to owning a gun are radically decreased.
Although pro-gun lobbyists don’t yet take Wilson’s brainchild seriously, like Selinger they see its potential. Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, said that in theory at least the possibility of printable weapons could enable the sort of unfettered access to firearms that his organization advocates because these guns would bypass the federal regulation requiring all firearms to be registered with a unique serial number.
“If it were feasible, we would be very enthusiastic about it, since this would be a way to get people out of the government’s clutches, which is what the Second Amendment was designed to do all along,” he said.
That may sound like an ideal situation to libertarians, but bypassing the government could hasten a public backlash against these guns even before they become widespread. By avoiding consumer protection rules that require testing and refining of firearms before they are sold to the general public, 3-D printed guns made by amateurs could, well, literally backfire.
“It’s only going to take one news story of a kid printing out a quote-unquote ‘wiki weapon’ and severely injuring themselves when firing it to enforce in people’s minds that, ‘Hey, these can be dangerous objects,’” said Guslick. “’Just printing one out and trying it isn’t necessarily the best idea.’
Civil Libertarianism or Crypto-Anarchy
All of this talk about guns and gun control -- and what Wiki Weapon will do to make it easier or harder to obtain firearms in the U.S. -- seems to matter little to Wilson. His vision is an anarchic one: take a new technology and throw it into the carefully planned, overly regulated amalgam of polite, mainstream society and see what happens when the volatile blend unleashes. Essentially, Wilson says, his movement is “creating new problems to solve.”
Indeed, Wilson’s 3-D gun, he admits, is a handy political tool because it is a distinctly American symbol that he can use to get his larger point across that the U.S. has become an overly centralized country in which individual power is rapidly being suppressed.
“There’s something of the irresistible quality of [the gun], the cultural fascination,” Wilson said. “Americans recognize almost above anything else the power of the spectacle; this is a culture of images. If we suggested, ‘Hey, you can print a toaster,’ you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Wilson likens Defense Distributed to WikiLeaks, which claims to extend freedom of speech by distributing over the Internet what governments would prefer to keep classified and off-limits to their citizenry. Both Wiki Weapon and WikiLeaks practice “an updated crypto-anarchy,” he said -- a strain of techno-futurism and techno-activism that he thinks is necessary for a more open and free society.
“We’re coming at this from a perspective of: What can we do? What are innovative, interesting things we can do with technology that operate outside of the political process that affect the kind of world that we envision?” Wilson explained.
Until that happens, though, Wilson, unlike WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, has kept one foot firmly in the real world. A second-year law student at University of Texas, Wilson is keeping busy with his studies and is somewhat low on cash. His movement, such as it is, he admits, suffers from having "no time and money."
But just by seeding the idea of homemade, printed guns in the cultural dialog is sufficient to start a process that will ultimately create change, for good or bad; whatever the outcome, it will be disruptive -- his main goal, Wilson said.
“This can go as out of control as you can imagine,” he noted. “There are plenty of problems for this project if its finds success. We should all hope for failure at this point, because this is the safest we’re going to be.”
Statements like that lead people like Guslick and other gun proponents to dismiss Wilson as a firearms advocate; they say his political motivations barely conceal a technical ineptitude or lack of knowledge about guns.
“He certainly came at this as a political statement, and unfortunately he seems to have very little knowledge of firearms technology, or 3-D printing technology for that matter,” Guslick said. “However, I think he’s getting a very quick education.”
Wilson would argue that his education has nothing to do with it; more importantly, because of his 3-D-generated weapon, the U.S. will have the chance to see itself clearly in the mirror. In the end, that’s Wilson’s goal –- and whatever will follow.