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Why Cody Wilson, the 3D-printed gun maker, thinks 3D printing might not take off


Cody Wilson made headlines last year when he launched a bid to manufacture a 3D-printed pistol, the Liberator. His project was called Defense Distributed, and it soon attracted the attention of government officials. They regarded Wilson's project as a violation of international arms trade regulations because Wilson had put his blueprints on the Internet, which the State Department considers equivalent to distributing his weapon to every country on earth without license.

Defense Distributed turned one year old last week. I caught up with Wilson recently to find out where the project stands today.

Brian Fung: Last we spoke, you had just agreed to take down your blueprints for a 3D gun. Where are we now?

Cody Wilson: I'm waiting. As you might be aware, the State Department had requested that I take these plans down while they determine whether they have the regulatory jurisdiction to control the information, and "control" has a very specific meaning under the ITAR, which is a set of regulations that govern the Arms Export Control Act. So we had to do a large filing with the State Department and the Department of Defense Trade Controls, and I am represented by four attorneys now. I haven't announced who these people are, but these are big civil liberties groups with an interest in preserving digital freedoms and civil liberties online, and some Second Amendment groups are helping me as well. There are a lot of interested parties in making sure that these kinds of disclosures don't need to be approved by the government first before they're put online, which is the kind of authority that this agency has asserted for itself. So I'm waiting — literally waiting, just paying lawyers money, and building my Web site, DefCad.

Is there any plan to file a lawsuit challenging the State Department?

Yes, actually. There's no indication that we need to yet. I want to kind of minimize the "challenging" rhetoric right now in the press, but we've had it studied by a number of people; we've seen what the constitutional challenges would need to be in the event that this kind of gross authority is asserted. And yeah, we feel pretty good that on First Amendment grounds, on some other grounds, it might not be able to survive constitutional challenge. We're definitely being careful on laying the foundation for a constitutional challenge, but I'm not trying to say that "Yeah, we're ready to go to court."

PayPal and Chase Bank recently shut down your accounts. Are there others that have followed suit, and what does that mean for the future of your project? 

The PayPal situation is resolved. That had to do with some of the transactions that were going on on my online shop. PayPal has a use policy where they just don't want anything to do with firearms-related transactions. But you can always donate to our cause via PayPal. That's back to being square. Chase Bank dropped my deposit account for DefCad, and DefCad hasn't been getting much love since its inception. Kinda like anything related to this project, but I just consider that run-of-the-mill opposition at this point. There have been so many people who've given us trouble or extra scrutiny at this point. I'm not even mad at Chase; I found another bank.

Did Chase have a specific objection?

We're regarded with suspicion. You might even say that it's due, right? . . . So I have to file, like, affidavits that I'm not involved in illicit activity and online gambling, and I'm constantly just harassed with extra administrative supervision and stuff — this is while we were at Chase. We did like $18,000 in deposits one month this summer. We were doing business for Chase Bank, and treated more or less like — not resentment, but just like, "Ah, we're a burden."

What do you make of Grizzly, the Canadian 3D-printed rifle that fired 14 rounds in a row recently without breaking?

There are a number of developers in the United States that developed printable rifles first and contributed those files to our site, but they feared reprisal and legal trouble if they were to test them themselves. So the fact that the Grizzly has gained in prominence is also a comment on the fact that American developers outside of Defense Distributed don't feel safe doing that kind of work. It is telling that it was a Canadian guy that did it, and they don't have these Undetectable Firearms Act laws, and there isn't the same kind of fear over there.

What'll the next few years hold for 3D printing?

I'm seeing a lot of things happening in ceramic and SLA tech. I'm excited about the SLA patents and the SLS patents expiring. FDM won't be the only thing people are using. 3D printing is wide open right now, man. Almost every application is possible.

The next big step is seeing if it really grasps or takes a foothold in social life. When you talk to people about 3D printing now, they're like, "Oh yeah, you can make a gun with that!" But that doesn't really touch on their lives and they haven't found a way that they might actually use 3D printing themselves.

I'm not sure — it seems to be a foregone conclusion that it will be adapted and used. But then I look at all the rights-holders, and the different kinds of claims on the use of the technology, and then I'm not sure that it will be adopted en masse. Right now you can make all sorts of figurines, knick-knacks and bobbles. The real test will be whether the material base will shift enough so people can make the things that they want and would be useful in their lives. Getting to that stage of development is more science fiction right now. We need to get closer to that before it can really take a foothold in public consciousness.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.



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