Why Cody Wilson Released His 3D-Printed Gun Plans to the Public

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist

It’s been almost a year since the first successful test of The Liberator—a pistol made almost entirely from parts created on a 3D printer. The unnerving concept of homemade firearms has been drifting through headlines ever since.

(Via WikiWep DevBlog)

But scary headlines aside, it’s worth asking: What does it really mean? Should you be frightened of a possible future (or even present!) in which anybody can simply self-manufacture a .380 caliber gun made mostly out of plastic?

The answers open a window on what has turned out to be a fascinating collision of mainstream technology and outsider ideology. (In fact, readers in New York City may be interested to know that I’ll be in conversation with Liberator creator Cody Wilson at MoMA on Thursday night, in connection with the museum’s Design and Violence online exhibition. A bit more on that below.)

First, let’s take a step back and put the Liberator in perspective. 3D printing is usually positioned as a benign technology. Devices like those offered by MakerBot promise a kind of sequel to the desktop-publishing revolution, but this time with physical objects.

What will you print?
For a few thousand dollars, the idea goes, you can design your own toy or iPhone case, whip up the parameters for a specific oddball part, or dip into existing designs for utensils and doodads on an open-source Thingiverse, and “print” (or tweak) what you wish: The machine whips things up through a process of extruding plastic layer by layer. In the long run, enthusiasts argue, such printers will get better, more versatile, and cheaper, and we’ll end up with a desktop factory in every home.

Whether you buy that or not, you have to admit it sounds super cool.

But the thing is, lots of stuff comes from factories, including guns. This brings us to Wilson, who founded Defense Distributed in the summer of 2012 with the explicit idea of applying the idea of open-source manufacturing to weaponry. Since then he’s tapped into all sorts of resources associated with the “crowd”-empowering tech notion—and has been repeatedly spurned, thwarted, and rejected.

The Liberator’s pieces.

There was an Indiegogo campaign to fund the gun-design project; it was kicked off the platform. Wilson later announced that his group managed to raise $20,000 anyway and directed some of that to leasing a high-end Stratasys 3D printer. The firm promptly scotched the lease and took back its machine. Wilson again found allies to help with space and equipment anyway. Along the way, Defense Distributed shared some of its component testing designs on Thingiverse, the come-one, come-all 3D-printing design platform associated with MakerBot. Toward the end of 2012, this material was removed.

Wilson’s response to that resulted in the Liberator’s biggest bang to date.

Last May, through its own site, defcad.org, Defense Distributed made available the full plans for a version of the gun that had just been successfully test-fired. A few days later, the State Department ordered that these be taken down “immediately.”

They were. But by then, they’d been downloaded many thousands of times. As we’ve learned over and over in the digital era, once something has made its way onto the Internet, it’s basically impossible to erase it permanently. I’m sure anybody who is determined to obtain the Liberator plans could do so.

A test case
But while it’s easy to dream up grim Liberator scenarios, I’m not aware of any real-world incidents involving the gun, positive or negative. Instead, much of what we’ve learned about the Liberator since then has involved law-enforcement testing. It certainly sounds like following the directions precisely (including using a properly high-end printer and material) is pretty important: A Liberator made with the wrong kind of plastic evidently explodes on discharge.

That doesn’t mean the Liberator is insignificant. On the contrary, I see it as one of the most provocative technological creations in recent memory. Because whatever you make of the Liberator as an object, it’s an object lesson in using technology and design to advance an ideological agenda.

In the case of Defense Distributed, that means willfully pushing the envelope of what “open” technology could mean. And Wilson is hardly coy about that: In the video below, he lays out a hardcore anti-regulation worldview (advocating tools to “get around industry, government, and the collusive members of the maker community”), with swipes at MakerBot founder Bre Pettis and creators of 3D-printed “trinkets” and “lawn gnomes,” all punctuated by the observation that “a revolution means a revolution.”

Sometimes Wilson’s extreme views make him seem like some kind of libertarian troll—but he’s no fool. Unflappable, evidently fearless, and quick on his feet, he’s a talented rhetorician. (Not incidentally, he has a book deal with a Simon & Schuster imprint.) And the Liberator is essentially a physical manifestation of his arguments.

That, presumably, is why it has captured attention in corners of the art and design world where there’s interest in just the sort of questions he’s raising. The Liberator has been part of an exhibition with the likes of Donald Judd and Rineke Dijkstra and was added to the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

And, as I mentioned, the Liberator is part of MoMA’s current exploration of Design and Violence. It’s with MoMA that I’m extending this exploration into the real world. I’ll have a live discussion with Wilson on Thursday, March 27, in New York City. Get tickets if you want to hear more of what he has to say. We’ll specifically be addressing, in a debate format, the implications of the Liberator for the open-source design idea. I have no idea where the discussion will end up—but I definitely think it’s worth finding out.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. The RSS feed for my columns and posts is right here.