Happiness Is a 3-D Gun: Is Law Student Cody Wilson a Criminal or a Freedom Fighter?

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

The magazine Wired included Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old law student from Austin, Texas, on its 2012 list of The 15 Most Dangerous People in the World. Also on the list is Qassem Suleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard; Mexican drug cartel head Joaquin Guzman; and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

At the time, Wilson – who only made it to 14th place – had started a nonprofit organization called Defense Distributed, which developed an Internet platform for sharing blueprints of rifles and pistols that can be created with a 3-D printer. Now, after the completion of the second stage of his plan and the Liberator – the first firearm developed for 3-D printers – has been proven effective, with  blueprints freely available online, he is likely to work his way up that Wired list.

In a phone interview with Haaretz, he sounds far from dangerous. Basically, during most of the conversation he can barely stop laughing. Especially when he called to inform me he had just watched the video clip from Channel 10 news program “Tzinor Layla,” on which reporter Ori Even can be seen undergoing the security inspection at the entrance to the Knesset equipped with Wilson’s 3-D handgun, and getting to within a few meters of the prime minister.

“A friend of mine sent me the clip and I couldn’t stop laughing,” he says. “I saw it without translation, but it was still very enjoyable. I’m surprised that the media are doing something like this. The media are usually like the politicians – they make the laws, they aren’t supposed to show people how to break them. But of course I’m in favor, and it was an amusing clip, and so was the commotion surrounding it.”

Why is it amusing? In Israel it was treated seriously. The Knesset is examining the issue, and security organizations are trying to figure out how to prepare for the era of plastic 3-D guns.

“That’s exactly what’s funny – the reactions to it. From what I saw, they entered the Knesset with a rifle without bullets, and without bullets it’s nothing more than a piece of plastic − you can’t do anything with it. I don’t know how it works in Israel, and maybe if an ordinary person were to enter the Knesset with a plastic weapon he would be sent to prison. But it’s only a lousy piece of plastic. What can you do with it?”

It’s still a gun, isn’t it?

“It’s a handgun, but without bullets it doesn’t shoot and you can’t do anything with it. I didn’t create a weapon that can outsmart security systems; that’s not the purpose. It is meant for firing real bullets, which are identified by metal detectors and other security devices. It can also fire plastic bullets, which are also dangerous and can kill because they contain gunpowder, but in most places with security checks there are gunpowder detectors today. I don’t understand what the big deal is, but it’s funny. Apparently people think it’s a big deal to bring this gun into all kinds of places.

“Some guys from London contacted me recently and told me excitedly that they had succeeded in bringing the gun onto a train − also without bullets, of course. I really don’t understand what the issue is here.”

“In hindsight we should also have tried to bring a bullet into the Knesset,” admits Guy Lehrer, who hosted the Channel 10 show, adding that he doesn’t think it would have affected the security failure exposed by the report.

“There would have been no problem bringing in a bullet – certainly not the plastic one, which is also lethal,” Lehrer says. “In the Knesset they don’t check for gunpowder. There are places that do, like at the President’s Conference, but that’s because there were high-ranking people there like [former U.S. President Bill] Clinton. It’s not a common sort of inspection.

“In the airports they don’t do it, either. This investigation caused a lot of commotion – in the rest of the world also. Even CNN told me they wanted to do an item on it. It’s amazing that the person behind it is some kid, and not an organization.”

But Cody Wilson hasn’t been “some kid” for a long time. His lighthearted facade conceals a detailed and consolidated agenda, even if it’s anarchic.

Wilson: “We’re fighting for civil liberty, for the freedom of every person to possess weapons. I believe that weapons should be available to everyone. I also think that this is impossible to prevent; it will happen in the end, with us or without us.

“I don’t kill people,” he continues, “I don’t deal with the question of what is done with the weapons and whether it’s good or bad − only in the manner that weapons are disseminated, and civil choices.”

But it’s impossible to ignore the implications. Certainly not in light of the recent massacres in the United States that reawakened the discussion of access to weapons.

“Naturally, people ask me about that all the time, but I don’t conduct that debate. I don’t kill people; people kill people. I don’t deal with the question of what is done with the weapons, only with the right to carry arms and their dissemination.”

But in the end you are liable to find yourself having to face a mother whose son was murdered by a weapon printed from a blueprint that you posted on the Internet.

“I can only say that there are all kinds of consequences to guarding civil liberties. And besides, I don’t think there’s another or better alternative.”

The alternative is to have oversight, perhaps even more than there is now.

“The future is not democratic; we’re working to reduce democracy and control by politicians. The period of democracy is over, nobody will have a monopoly on power any more. Today, governments have a monopoly over deciding who can have weapons and who can’t − that can’t be and it won’t be any longer, with or without us. Power will be transferred to the people.”

Do you think everyone is sufficiently responsible to have free access to weapons?

“No, but I’m sure it’s even less responsible to hand this responsibility to politicians. It’s true that not everyone is smart enough to decide who should have weapons, but politicians are certainly not smart enough to decide on that.”

Even when asked to address the present debate about the need to limit the Second Amendment − the article in the U.S. Constitution that protects the civil right to bear arms − Wilson won’t cooperate. “If we were to participate in the discussion on the Second Amendment, that would mean we aren’t serious. The Supreme Court has recognized the right to bear arms; we’re dealing with guarding this freedom.”


The Liberator, which is part of the Wiki-Weapon project (involving content written and edited, for the most part by surfers – like Wikipedia) and is also called an “open-source rifle,” can no longer be downloaded from Wilson’s website. Immediately after the sketches were posted on the Internet, there was an official demand from the U.S. State Department to remove them.

Wilson obeyed, but the plans have already been downloaded by thousands of surfers, who have continued to disseminate them all over the Web. Today they can easily be located on file-sharing sites such as The Pirate Bay, whose owners have already declared that, just as during the 10 years of the site’s activity not a single file has been removed, Wilson’s blueprints are not in danger either.

According to Wilson, the order to remove the files also serves his agenda. “Of course I removed the files immediately – I’m law-abiding – but the moment several people downloaded them, they were already disseminated in all directions. That’s only additional proof that it can’t be stopped. It’s impossible to prevent the spread of weapons, and there’s no point even waging a war against it, because it’s everywhere. The purpose of our project is to show the gap between a promise and the implementation of the law. They only helped us to demonstrate that laws don’t work.”

Is there some kind of legal proceeding against you?

“Yes, I’m still waiting for an official decision by the State Department. They issued a temporary order and there are discussions on this issue.”

You certainly don’t expect them to change the decision and allow it.

“No, they’ll say that it’s illegal and they’ll find the legal argument to justify that. But even on such an issue there’s a lot of bureaucracy, things take a lot of time. Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of money on lawyers, and it takes up a lot of my time.”

Is that why you decided to study law?

“I’ve always known that I would be involved in something related to the law; I knew I needed legal knowledge.”

The companies that manufacture 3-D printers are also trying to fight your initiative. One of them has already declared that its machines will not enable the printing of rifles.

“I don’t know, I’m not familiar with that. Nor do I think that it’s really possible. When I was working on the weapon people from the printing company Stratasys – which I know is also an Israeli firm – accused me of using it illegally and took the printer away from me. That didn’t help them either.”

Whose gun is this?

Beyond the issue of possessing weapons, Wilson’s project is also arousing an extensive discussion about copyright and intellectual property in the modern age. The agenda of Defense Distributed draws its principles from the Areopagitica speech by English poet John Milton in 1644 in Parliament, where he opposed the censorship of texts and printed materials in practice at the time, and called for freedom of publication without need for a license.

The technological changes that have made the dissemination of texts accessible to everyone, and thwarted the possibility of oversight, have eventually led to the total elimination of censorship and of the need for a printing license.

Similarly, there are legal scholars who are calling to eliminate intellectual property rights over “useful objects,” and to impose them only on aesthetic and spiritual creations, since in any case there’s no possibility of enforcing the spread of materials. The printed pistol will probably not be defined as a useful object, but its existence is already forcing the legal system to deal with this issue, too, after it proved the impossibility of stopping dissemination of blueprints of printable objects.

Wilson himself, as an advocate of open sourcing, doesn’t deal with copyright issues and says that, in the case of his gun, he waived them in advance. But the question of legal responsibility disturbs him.

Wilson: “I’m constantly dealing with the legal aspects of the subject, and with arranging my permit as a weapons manufacturer. I’m aware that they can accuse me of responsibility for things that will happen as a result of the use of the pistol: Someone will be injured, someone will be killed − these things are unavoidable.”

Doesn’t that cause you to reconsider the entire project?

“No, it’s not a reason to stop being serious about our rights and liberties. I don’t think that everyone must have a pistol; that’s not the objective. The objective is that you’ll be able to choose whether or not you’ll have one − that’s freedom. I don’t think there can be a regime that enforces this issue without harming the rights of thousands of people. State control always comes at the expense of people’s rights, and control by states and politicians is over.”

Are you following the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I don’t think Palestinians would agree with you that control by states is over.

“The situation in your region is complicated. You might expect someone like me, who is considered an anarchist, to automatically support the Palestinians, but I think it’s more complex. There’s a question there of rights, but also a question of security.”

Maybe the issue of the Palestinians’ weapons will be solved with 3-D ones.

“I doubt if that’s your solution. Even if the Palestinians print my rifles, that’s not what will help them. I really don’t know how to solve your complex situation.”

What’s your next project?

“For now, I’m very busy with this one; dealing with the legal issues takes up all my time. But we are considering expanding our activity to other areas of 3-D printing – controversial areas such as medicine. We also want to enable free access to downloading medical devices and prosthetic limbs.”

Cody Wilson holds his Liberator plastic gun, May 2013.Credit: Jay Janne, AP/Austin American Statesman
Cody Wilson.Credit: AP
Cody Wilson holds his Liberator plastic gun, May 2013.Credit: Jay Janne, AP/Austin American Statesman
A 3-D printer in operation. Credit: Reuters
Cody Wilson.