Cody Wilson has a simple dream: To design the world’s first firearm that can be downloaded from the Internet and built from scratch using only a 3D printer–and then to share it with the world.
Earlier this month, Wilson and a small group of friends who call themselves “Defense Distributed” launched an initiative they’ve dubbed the “ Wiki Weapon Project.” They’re seeking to raise $20,000 to design and release blueprints for a plastic gun anyone can create with an open-source 3D printer known as the RepRap that can be bought for less than $1,000. If all goes according to plan, the thousands of owners of those cheap 3D printers, which extrude thin threads of melted plastic into layers that add up to precisely-shaped three-dimensional objects, will be able to turn the project’s CAD designs into an operational gun capable of firing a standard .22 caliber bullet, all in the privacy of their own garage.
“We want to show this principle: That a handgun is printable,” says Wilson, a 24-year-old second-year law student at the University of Texas. “You don’t need to be able to put 200 rounds through it…It only has to fire once. But even if the design is a little unworkable, it doesn’t matter, as long as it has that guarantee of lethality.”
Wilson and his handful of collaborators at Defense Distributed plan to use the money they raise to buy or rent a $10,000 Stratasys 3D printer and also to hold a 3D-printable gun design contest with a $1,000 or $2,000 prize for the winning entry–Wilson says they’ve already received gun design ideas from fans in Arkansas and North Carolina. Once the group has successfully built a reliable 3D-printed gun with the Stratasys printer, it plans to adapt the design for the cheaper and more widely distributed RepRap model.
As of Tuesday, the project had raised $2,000 of its $20,000 goal through a page on the fundraising website Indiegogo, when the company suddenly removed their page Tuesday night and froze their donations for what it described as a “unusual account activity.” The project is still accepting donations through its own website via Paypal and via the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Wilson says that before Indiegogo’s rejection, the Wiki Weapon Project was just a few hundred dollars short of the cost of renting the 3D printer for three months, and he plans to appeal the decision.
Here’s the fundraising video the group had posted to Indiegogo:
Controversial as their project sounds–particularly in the wake of the recent gun violence in Aurora, Colorado and Milwaukee, Wisconsin–Wilson insists the Wiki Weapon Project is legal; Users can 3D-print any gun they would be allowed to lawfully own anyway, as long as they don’t manufacture them for sale, Wilson says. But he doesn’t deny that the project’s goal is to subvert gun control regulations in America and around the world. “It’s one of the ideas of the American revolution that the citizenry should be the owners of the weapons,” says Wilson. “Every citizen has the right to bear arms. This is the way to really lower the barrier to access to arms. That’s what this represents.”
And does lowering that barrier really require giving everyone access to be alethal weapon? “If a gun’s any good, it’s lethal. It’s not really a gun if it can’t threaten to kill someone,” Wilson responds. “You can print a lethal device. It’s kind of scary, but that’s what we’re aiming to show.”
Defense Distributed’s rhetoric includes a “manifesto” section on its website, with quotes from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington on the right to bear arms as well as a 1644 John Milton speech on the right to unlicensed use of the printing press. “In a world where 3D printing becomes more ubiquitous and economical, defense systems and opposition to tyranny may be but a click away,” read Wiki Weapon’s pitch for donations on the now-defunct Indiegogo page. “Let’s pull the world toward this future together.”
Though the Wiki Weapon may become the first gun to be created entirely with a 3D printer, Wilson and his gun-loving partners wouldn’t be the first to experiment with 3D-printed gun components. In September of last year, a user uploaded designs for a printable lower receiver and magazine for an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to the 3D printing software platform Thingiverse. The lower receiver in particular stirred controversy, as the receiver is legally considered the main body of the firearm and its sale and distribution are regulated. With a 3D-printed receiver, a gun enthusiast could purchase and assemble the other components without any limitations from gun control laws.
Just a month ago, a 3D-printed lower receiver was put to the test by Michael Guslick, who wrote on an AR-15 enthusiast web forum that he was able to assemble a working model of the rifle with a receiver printed on a Stratasys model printer and to fire 200 rounds without any sign of wear on the printed piece.
Despite the unsettling notion of a technology that lets anyone download a lethal weapon as easily as an pirated episode of Game of Thrones, regulating 3D printing to prevent gun printing would be both counterproductive and ineffective, argues Michael Weinberg, an attorney with the non-profit Public Knowledge who focuses on the legal issues around 3D printing. “When you have a general purpose technology, it will be used for things you don’t want people to use it for,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or illegal. I won’t use my 3D printer to make a weapon, but I’m not going to crusade against people who would do that.”
Weinberg points out that even before consumer 3D-printing became fashionable, gun enthusiasts were already making their own metal firearm components with computer controlled milling machines and posting their designs to sites like CNCguns.com. “If you want to make an effective gun, making it out of metal is probably better than making it out of plastic anyway,” says Weinberg.
But Defense Distributed’s Wilson believes 3D printers like the RepRap could become a far cheaper and more ubiquitous source of homemade firearms than computer-controlled mills. RepRaps even have the unique quality of being able to produce most of the components of another RepRap, effectively reproducing. “The idea is that the printer will pollinate and be everywhere,” he says. ” “ Imagine an insurgent scenario. People could be replicating printers in their neighborhoods, out of site. Anywhere there’s a computer and an Internet connection, there would be the promise of a gun…That has to change how the state treats citizens.”
And what about the possibility, in that imagined future, of more innocent deaths than ever from guns spreading beyond all control? Or that people who can’t access guns, like felons and the mentally ill, will be especially eager to use the technology? “I don’t see empirical evidence that access to guns increases the rate of violent crime,” answers Wilson. “If someone wants to get their hands on a gun, they’ll get their hands on a gun.”
“This opens a lot of doors,” he admits. “Any advance in technology has posed these questions. And it’s not clear cut that this is just a good thing. But liberty and responsibility are scary.”