“I RE­MEM­BER TELLING MY MOM , ‘I’M PRETTY SURE I’M AN AN­AR­CHIST, AC­TU­ALLY.’ SHE WAS LIKE , ‘I THINK YOU’RE GONNA HAVE AVERY DIF­FI­CULT LIFE.’ I GUESS SHE’S RIGHT”

FIRST HE SHARED 3D-PRINTED GUN FILES ON­LINE. NOW, CODY WIL­SON IS SELLING A DESK­TOP AR-15 PARTS MAKER. THERE'S A WAIT­ING LIST

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - BY ROB WALKER PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY BRYAM SCHUTMAAT

“YOU’RE A DUPE IF YOU BE­LIEVE IN REAL­ITY; THERE’S ONLY THE WORLD AS IT IS”

Dur­ing a re­cent visit to De­fense Distributed, the mood is ca­sual, with work­ers start­ing to trickle in be­tween 10 and 11 a.m. The non­profit’s workspace takes up roughly 1,900 square feet in a bland of­fice park in north­east Austin, and the only ex­te­rior mark­ing is a sticker on the door advertising a small-busi­ness as­so­ci­a­tion. In­side, it looks like any other smallscale man­u­fac­turer, em­ploy­ing about 15 peo­ple, mostly male. Clever mil­len­ni­als with idio­syn­cratic po­lit­i­cal views, they swap ob­ser­va­tions about Don­ald Trump—viewed as so ab­surd that his as­cen­dancy might re­sult in per­versely pro­duc­tive chaos— as they strip wires and screw ma­chines to­gether.

Cody Wil­son, the me­di­a­genic 28-year-old be­hind De­fense Distributed, paces around, mul­ti­task­ing: A de­tailed dis­cus­sion of the high fail­ure rate of a batch of cou­plings from a Chi­nese sup­plier gives way to phone calls to line up a new ac­count­ing firm. Oc­ca­sion­ally he chimes in on the Trump spec­u­la­tion, but Wil­son does not vote. To do so would ac­knowl­edge the le­git­i­macy of a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem he doesn’t be­lieve in.

De­fense Distributed is most fa­mous for the Lib­er­a­tor, the world’s first de­sign code that can be fed into a 3D prin­ter to cre­ate a com­plete, work­ing gun. After Wil­son re­leased the code on­line in 2013, it was down­loaded more than 100,000 times around the world. Then the Depart­ment of State or­dered Wil­son to re­move the files. Post­ing the blue­print for an Amer­i­can au­di­ence is le­gal, but ac­cord­ing to the State Depart­ment, be­cause the web is global, he may have vi­o­lated weapons-ex­port reg­u­la­tions. The Lib­er­a­tor at­tracted a fusil­lade of press cov­er­age and po­lit­i­cal back­lash and landed Wil­son on Wired’s list of “the most dan­ger­ous peo­ple on the in­ter­net.”

Wil­son’s jour­ney since be­ing “smashed” by the gov­ern­ment—as he puts it—has been three years of non­stop stress as he scram­bled to save his project. In May 2015, De­fense Distributed filed suit against the State Depart­ment and re­lated par­ties, al­leg­ing that its po­si­tion on the Lib­er­a­tor files vi­o­lated the First, Sec­ond, and Fifth Amend­ments and seek­ing to al­low Wil­son’s or­ga­ni­za­tion to post its code again. It lost, then ap­pealed. At the be­gin­ning of June, the Fifth Cir­cuit court in New Or­leans heard oral ar­gu­ments from Wil­son’s and the gov­ern­ment’s lawyers. Its rul­ing, which could be is­sued in a few weeks, will deter­mine the fu­ture of De­fense Distributed and, po­ten­tially, pro­tect a bur­geon­ing DIY tech weapons cul­ture un­der free speech.

To fund his le­gal quest, Wil­son has over­seen the cre­ation of a newer prod­uct called the Ghost Gun­ner. It’s not a gun; it’s a 50-pound, $1,500 desk­top ma­chine, about the size of a mi­crowave oven, that mills the most cru­cial el­e­ment of a semi­au­to­matic as­sault-style weapon. That means any­one who buys it can build their own ver­sion of the AR-15—with­out a se­rial num­ber. That’s the same cat­e­gory of weapon as the Sig Sauer MCX used in the June 12 mass mur­der in Or­lando. The mag­a­zine AR-15, a lush and hefty spinoff of Guns & Ammo, says the Ghost Gun­ner “will re­write the fu­ture of firearms.” In the mean­time, it’s be­come a $2 mil­lion-a-year busi­ness.

In the Austin shop, which Wil­son rents for $1,600 a month, his work­ers as­sem­ble more than 160 parts, from a range of Amer­i­can and Chi­nese sup­pli­ers, on a 13-sta­tion as­sem­bly line bor­dered by metal shelves hold­ing boxes la­beled “spin­dle mount” or “flushed ar­duinos” or “ballscrew blocks.” A stack of half-com­pleted Ghost Gun­ners fills a long ta­ble in the front, and a row of fin­ished mod­els sits to one side, wait­ing to be shipped. In the back, there’s an­other ta­ble where the ma­chine’s cir­cuit boards get built, plus pal­lets loaded with cas­ings and a smat­ter­ing of heavy-duty equip­ment. On a good day they can pro­duce 10 Ghost Gun­ners; there are cur­rently more than 600 or­ders to fill.

The te­dious hus­tle of run­ning a small startup—one that pro­duces a con­tro­ver­sial, po­ten­tially deadly prod­uct—has spe­cific chal­lenges, such as a con­stant churn in pay­ment pro­ces­sors will­ing to do busi­ness. It’s not the life that Wil­son had in mind for him­self. He’s an idea guy. With a neatly trimmed beard and even fea­tures, Wil­son re­sem­bles a 6-foot-tall G.I. Joe doll. In pub­lic ap­pear­ances and on cam­era, he can be amus­ingly ob­nox­ious, go­ing out of his way to frame his points in the most provoca­tive man­ner pos­si­ble. He’s fond of I-just-blew-your-mind ref­er­ences to Fou­cault and Bau­drillard. It’s “part of who I am,” he says—and partly an act. “You’re a dupe if you be­lieve in real­ity; there’s only the world as it is,” he’ll say, ref­er­enc­ing the dis­tinc­tion French Con­ti­nen­tal philoso­phers draw be­tween real­ity, viewed as a con­struct of lan­guage (in the ser­vice of cap­i­tal­ism, ac­cord­ing to Bau­drillard), and the real real—a state of be­ing or per­cep­tion nearly im­pos­si­ble to achieve for peo­ple caught up in the sys­tem. He doesn’t ar­tic­u­late his the­o­ries for the un­schooled, but he’ll add with a grin, “This all sounds like non­sense, I know.”

Wil­son grew up near Lit­tle Rock. As early as the ninth grade, he says, he was “at­tracted to rad­i­cal politics,” read­ing up on the Rus­sian revo­lu­tion on­line. Still, he wasn’t a re­bel­lious kid; he was the stu­dent pres­i­dent of his high school. At the Uni­ver­sity of Cen­tral Arkansas, he took phi­los­o­phy and eco­nom­ics cour­ses, and read Der­rida, Ni­et­zsche, Haber­mas, Hans-Her­mann Hoppe. “I re­mem­ber telling my mom, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m an an­ar­chist, ac­tu­ally.’ She was like, ‘I think you’re gonna have a very dif­fi­cult life,’ ” he says. “I guess she’s right.”

Wil­son started law school at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Austin, but he was restless there. It was more en­gag­ing to dream up grandiose schemes with Ben De­nio, a good Face­book friend with whom he was an un­der­grad. For a time they toyed with start­ing what sounds like a gonzo vari­a­tion of a su­per PAC to fund “dis­rup­tive” causes such as ex­treme advertising with out­landish at­tacks on can­di­dates “to ruin the dis­course.” (Wil­son notes: “Trump has now re­al­ized the whole thing.”) Then, dur­ing a phone call one evening in the sum­mer of 2012, De­nio mused aloud: “What about print­able guns?”

Wil­son liked that. He re­sists la­bels but more or less ac­cepts the des­ig­na­tion of crypto-an­ar­chist: one who be­lieves in the supremacy of in­di­vid­ual po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal free­dom and seeks to achieve th­ese goals through dig­i­tal en­cryp­tion and de­cryp­tion. An early move­ment man­i­festo ends with a ral­ly­ing cry: “Just as a seem­ingly mi­nor in­ven­tion like barbed wire made pos­si­ble the fenc­ing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus al­ter­ing for­ever the con­cepts of land and prop­erty rights in the fron­tier West, so too will the seem­ingly mi­nor dis­cov­ery out of an ar­cane branch of math­e­mat­ics come to be the wire clip­pers which dis­man­tle the barbed wire around in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty. Arise, you have noth­ing to lose but your barbed wire fences!”

Wil­son is sneer­ingly dis­mis­sive of a tra­di­tional no­tion of gov­ern­ment that he be­lieves tech­nol­ogy is mak­ing irrelevant. For some­one look­ing to dis­rupt pub­lic dis­course on the im­pli­ca­tions of new tech­nol­ogy and con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety, there could be no bet­ter con­ver­sa­tion-starter (or –stopper) than a lethal weapon.

The walls of Wil­son’s north Austin apart­ment are bare. Apart from a bed and a book-strewn desk, the fur­ni­ture con­sists of two fold­ing chairs and a crate with a drone in­side that dou­bles as a ta­ble. The place is some­where to sleep, he ex­plains with a shrug. He has a girl­friend, whom he vis­its reg­u­larly in Arkansas.

Grow­ing up, Wil­son says, he wasn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in guns. He knew peo­ple who hunted, and his fa­ther owned a shot­gun. But that’s not un­usual in the South, and by the time he was in law school, Wil­son had gone shoot­ing “maybe once.” He also wasn’t ex­actly a geek or a bud­ding en­tre­pre­neur. He never for­mally stud­ied de­sign, en­gi­neer­ing, busi­ness, or any­thing else that might have been use­ful to an as­pir­ing in­ven­tor.

But in 2012, 3D print­ing was be­com­ing a broadly avail­able tech­nol­ogy. The open source RepRap project (a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort to build a ma­chine that makes its own parts) had just given birth to the press-friendly Mak­erBot, a ma­chine, guided by soft­ware, that laid down suc­ces­sive lay­ers of melted plas­tic to form an ob­ject. Orig­i­nally, 3D print­ing was in­tended to speed up in­dus­trial pro­to­typ­ing, but the tech­nol­ogy took on new im­pli­ca­tions with this desk­top ma­chine prin­ter, which sold for around $2,000 and re­quired soft­ware know-how but no cod­ing. Evan­ge­lists ar­gued that 3D print­ers were more than gad­gets—they were the next great chap­ter in the his­tory of tech­nol­ogy, giv­ing peo­ple greater au­ton­omy to pro­duce on their own terms.

Wil­son taught him­self how to use a range of 3D-print­ing-re­lated hard­ware and soft­ware. In 2012, Wil­son, De­nio, and two Arkansas friends, Sean Ku­bin and Daniel Bizzell, founded De­fense Distributed and launched a weapons wiki. They mod­i­fied ex­ist­ing print­able gun-com­po­nent mod­els and in­vited oth­ers to help cre­ate a home­made hand­gun. Viewed ro­man­ti­cally, their project was a way to har­ness the in­ter­net to res­ur­rect an Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion-era vi­sion of lo­cal smithies adapt­ing Euro­pean firearm tech­nol­ogy to arm pi­o­neers. But this ad­ven­ture in in­no­va­tion wasn’t em­braced by a grow­ing maker scene mo­ti­vated by an ethos of so­cial progress. (Suc­cesses in­clude an af­ford­able 3D-printed pros­thetic hand.) A De­fense Distributed crowd­fund­ing cam­paign was kicked off Indiegogo; and Thin­gi­verse, Mak­erBot’s plat­form for open source ob­ject de­signs, booted off all gun-re­lated files. Strata­sys, man­u­fac­turer of an early, heavy-duty 3D prin­ter, took back a high-end unit the group had leased.

The maker scene, Wil­son says, turned out to be “just an­other cathe­dral-based cul­ture. Like, to in­voke Bau­drillard here— there’s no real in­ten­tion for Lu­cife­rian re­bel­lion, OK? They’re selling you the ap­proved revo­lu­tion. They’ll give you a lit­tle kit, so you can cut your name into some wood.” He con­tin­ues, with dead­pan sar­casm, “Isn’t that great? Look at all you’ve learned!” He adds, “They won’t ac­tu­ally give you ca­pa­bil­ity.” De­fense Distributed wanted to “en­act the ac­tual real of our idea.”

Wil­son con­verted each set­back into an op­por­tu­nity for more at­ten­tion, through in­ter­views with the tech press or his own YouTube videos. When Thin­gi­verse ejected gun con­tent, he cre­ated De­fCad.org, a new home for down­load­able weapon files. Over time, this at­tracted tal­ented sym­pa­thiz­ers.

One of them was a gifted en­gi­neer named John Sul­li­van, now 30, who was then work­ing for Na­tional In­stru­ments, an Austin-based maker of high-tech equip­ment and soft­ware. He’s also a gun en­thu­si­ast—the li­censed owner, he says, of an M16. Sul­li­van was con­cerned that in the wake of the De­cem­ber 2012 Sandy Hook slaugh­ter, the U.S. might adopt a strict gun-con­trol reg­i­men. (Many gun-rights ad­vo­cates have a sim­i­lar re­ac­tion to mass shoot­ings, which in­vari­ably boost sales of weapons that some be­lieve will be banned or re­stricted.) “How,” he re­calls won­der­ing, “can I con­trib­ute to this so­cial ar­gu­ment?”

Sul­li­van saw a De­fense Distributed video and got in touch with Wil­son, who seemed to think he was a gov­ern­ment plant. “‘Who’s this dweeb that has a ma­chine gun?’ ” Sul­li­van says. “He thought he was walk­ing into a trap.” An elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer by train­ing, Sul­li­van taught him­self com­puter-as­sisted-de­sign ren­der­ing, bought a bro­ken Strata­sys prin­ter for about $6,000 on EBay—roughly one-fifth the price of a new one—and fixed it with a friend’s help. He says he de­vised a work­ing ver­sion of the Lib­er­a­tor in a mat­ter of weeks. “I fa­cil­i­tate tech­nol­ogy. Cody Wil­son sells it. Very cool,” he says. In May 2013, Wil­son demon­strated the Lib­er­a­tor for a Forbes re­porter, re­leased a pro­mo­tional video that quickly went vi­ral, and made the de­sign files freely down­load­able at De­fCad.org.

It was a short-lived tri­umph for De­fense Distributed. Within days, the State Depart­ment sent Wil­son a let­ter di­rect­ing his group to re­move the files, cit­ing pos­si­ble ex­port-per­mit vi­o­la­tions. The penal­ties could in­clude a decade or more in prison and six-fig­ure fines. Wil­son com­plied but pointed out in in­ter­views that the files had al­ready been down­loaded more than 100,OOO times. (They can also still be found at file-shar­ing venues such as The Pi­rate Bay.) “We win,” he de­clared, claim­ing vic­tory over what he imag­ines as the forces of gov­ern­ment sup­pres­sion of per­sonal free­doms.

“Look, man,” Wil­son says now. “Did I get smashed, or did I get smashed? No one knows how smashed I got smashed.” Sit­ting in a booth at a north Austin Jim’s Restau­rant, a chain he prefers to the city’s nu­mer­ous in­de­pen­dent cof­fee shops, Wil­son re­counts the rocky pe­riod after the Lib­er­a­tor crack­down.

To off­set costs, De­fense Distributed had in­tended to

sup­port its file-shar­ing De­fCad.org site with advertising. Now un­able to use its mar­quee files, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s rev­enue plum­meted. For months, Wil­son waited to learn whether he would be pros­e­cuted. Much of the “sup­port net­work” of tech­ni­cal con­trib­u­tors and ad­vis­ers he’d built evap­o­rated. With a few ex­cep­tions, he says, “no­body wanted the heat.”

Phys­i­cally spent, Wil­son dropped out of law school. His lease was end­ing, and he re­treated to Arkansas. “No money, no prospects,” he says. “I was like, wow, we did what we wanted to, but—my God—that’s all I get to do?”

Still, Wil­son had be­come a mi­nor celebrity in rad­i­cal cir­cles and be­yond. He con­nected with Amir Taaki, a Bri­tish-Ira­nian tech­nol­o­gist with an en­thu­si­asm for bit­coin. They worked to­gether on Dark­wal­let, a piece of soft­ware de­signed to en­able un­trace­able mon­e­tary trans­ac­tions, and bounced around Europe, rais­ing money and meet­ing, among oth­ers, Ju­lian As­sange and the mu­si­cian M.I.A., who at the time was us­ing 3D-printed gun im­agery in one of her videos. He at­tended a pri­vate re­treat in Wy­oming hosted by PayPal co-founder and tech lib­er­tar­ian Peter Thiel. He kept field­ing media and speak­ing re­quests. He got a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schus­ter.

Come and Take It, his ac­count of the Lib­er­a­tor story (much of it writ­ten at Jim’s), is sched­uled to be pub­lished this fall.

Wil­son was never pros­e­cuted, and he be­came con­vinced that the State Depart­ment’s ac­tions against him were legally un­ten­able. Get­ting the best pos­si­ble lawyers to ad­vance his ar­gu­ment would be pricey, but Sul­li­van, Wil­son’s faith­ful en­gi­neer, had an idea.

The Gun Con­trol Act of 1968 and as­so­ci­ated leg­is­la­tion re­strict the buy­ing and selling of weapons. This still leaves the pos­si­bil­ity of legally mak­ing your own weapon. That doesn’t just mean crude zip-guns made from base­ment parts: It turns out that it’s easy to buy most of an as­sault-style ri­fle—the up­per re­ceiver, bar­rel, and stock—pre­fab­ri­cated. The tricky bit is the lower re­ceiver, which is where the most com­pli­cated mech­a­nisms of such a firearm re­side. A cot­tage in­dus­try sup­plies blocks of metal that are 80 per­cent fin­ished lower re­ceivers. It’s up to the as­pir­ing DIY gun­maker to ma­chine mill the fi­nal 20 per­cent of the piece so that it can ac­com­mo­date the func­tional guts of an au­to­matic ri­fle, in­clud­ing the trig­ger mech­a­nism.

This re­quires high-end tech­ni­cal equip­ment and spe­cial­ized skills. The typ­i­cal method of fin­ish­ing a lower re­ceiver in­volves a shop-grade com­puter nu­mer­i­cal con­trolled (or CNC) milling ma­chine ca­pa­ble of pre­cisely cut­ting alu­minum. John Zawahri used a semi­au­to­matic ri­fle com­pleted in this man­ner in a 2013 mass shoot­ing in Santa Mon­ica, Calif., killing five peo­ple. The Bureau of Al­co­hol, Tobacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives has ac­knowl­edged that such guns, with no se­rial num­ber or reg­is­tra­tion re­quire­ment, are dif­fi­cult to track or reg­u­late. Politi­cians who ar­gue such weapons should be banned call them ghost guns.

Sul­li­van knew that the ex­pen­sive and com­pli­cated CNC milling tools used for this process ex­isted in ma­chine shops, op­er­ated by ex­perts. But, he won­dered, “what if the peo­ple owned the CNC ma­chine? What if it was on your desk?” He stud­ied more mod­est con­sumer-di­rected CNC milling ma­chine vari­a­tions that could cut metal, in­clud­ing one called ShapeOko. He con­cluded that he could de­sign a sin­gle-pur­pose vari­a­tion that would make carv­ing the lower re­ceivers rel­a­tively easy. The goal, he says: “You can take it right out of the box and start us­ing it.”

Wil­son was open to Sul­li­van’s scheme—and really, at the time,

would prob­a­bly have been open to al­most any­thing that would fund his le­gal bat­tle. Leery of crowd­fund­ing sites after their ear­lier ex­pe­ri­ences, the two de­cided to of­fer the de­vice for pre-sale, be­fore it ac­tu­ally ex­isted. Wil­son de­vised a spooky pro­mo­tional video, jux­ta­pos­ing clan­des­tine-look­ing footage of a mysterious ma­chine op­er­ated by anony­mous fig­ures in shad­owy lo­cales with ex­cerpts from a Cal­i­for­nia politi­cian’s omi­nous de­scrip­tions of “ghost guns.” The politi­cian’s as­ser­tions that “the threat is real” and “no one knows that [th­ese guns] ex­ist” came across as tit­il­lat­ing selling points, as did con­vert­ing what was meant as a warn­ing into the name of the prod­uct: the Ghost Gun­ner.

This was brassy, given that their pro­to­type needed a to­tal redesign. “Cody likes to work un­der im­mense pres­sure,” Sul­li­van says. For the ini­tial seed cap­i­tal, Wil­son con­verted Lib­er­a­tor-era bit­coin do­na­tions into dol­lars—the ex­change rate had spiked from $10 or $12 to more than $1,000. They be­gan ac­cept­ing pre-or­ders, at $1,000 apiece, on Oct. 1, 2014. “It just had to work,” Wil­son says. He fig­ured if they got 300 buy­ers, he could af­ford a lawyer.

Most peo­ple can pur­chase a pretty good fac­tory-built gun for $1,000. Even so, Wil­son got 10 or­ders on Day One and started rais­ing the price, soon cut­ting off pre-or­ders at 500. Sul­li­van submitted re­designed specs to sup­pli­ers by mid-De­cem­ber, with Wil­son, Sul­li­van, and De­nio build­ing the ear­li­est units them­selves. They started ship­ping in April 2015.

Grad­u­ally, Wil­son put to­gether an as­sem­bly team—con­tacts from his net­work, ran­dom sup­port­ers who reached out via Twit­ter, and so on. “It’s tor­ture, man, get­ting go­ing,” he says. “But here we are. It’s been a full year of Ghost Gun­ner ship­ping.” The en­ter­prise just sur­passed 2,000 units shipped. (An

“I WOULDN’T MIND LIV­ING ON THE STREET AND EAT­ING GARBAGE IF I KNEW OUR SEC­OND AMEND­MENT WAS PRO­TECTED”

up­graded Ghost Gun­ner 2 de­buted on June 21 at $1,500; you can get on a wait­ing list for $250.)

Sul­li­van has since tran­si­tioned to a “con­sult­ing role.” He spoke to me, some­where en route to Ok­la­homa City, from his van, which is where he and his fi­ancée es­sen­tially live, hav­ing sold most of their pos­ses­sions. He’s opted for a low-ex­pense, per­ma­nent-va­ca­tion life­style, he says, and can now pick and choose the projects that in­ter­est him.

Back at Jim’s, Wil­son says the Ghost Gun­ner busi­ness could ex­pand, even in­ter­na­tion­ally—or could be snuffed out by reg­u­la­tory caprice. His part­ner De­nio has taken an in­ter­est in a few or­ders from en­gi­neer­ing ed­u­ca­tors and now imag­ines a spinoff busi­ness—thor­oughly re­branded—bring­ing desk­top CNC ma­chines to that mar­ket. (That said, De­nio un­der­scored to me that his ide­o­log­i­cal goals trump his en­tre­pre­neur­ial ones: “I wouldn’t mind liv­ing on the street and eat­ing garbage if I knew our Sec­ond Amend­ment was pro­tected.”)

Wil­son says he wants the prod­uct to suc­ceed and sat­isfy the cus­tomers who’ve sup­ported him. In May, De­fense Distributed had its first trade-show booth, at a sur­vival­ist expo in Dallas. But it’s pretty clear that en­gi­neer­ing and busi­ness aren’t a rush for him but a means to an end. “I’m just try­ing,” he says, “to win my law­suit.”

On June 6 the no­to­ri­ous crypto-an­ar­chist put on a suit and, along with more than a dozen of his De­fense Distributed col­leagues, made his way to the John Mi­nor Wis­dom U.S. Court of Ap­peals Build­ing in down­town New Or­leans. Wil­son didn’t have much con­fi­dence that his ideas about the rad­i­cal in­di­vid­ual free­doms tech­nol­ogy should en­able would ever get a fair hear­ing from the gov­ern­ment he’s so nois­ily op­posed.

De­fense Distributed v. U.S. Depart­ment of State, et al, ar­gues that while gov­ern­ment rules re­quire weapon mak­ers to ob­tain ad­vance per­mis­sion to ex­port prod­ucts, there’s no such obli­ga­tion for shar­ing weapon-de­sign in­for­ma­tion—and that Depart­ment of Jus­tice guid­ance dat­ing back sev­eral decades sug­gests that such a re­quire­ment would likely amount to a curb on free speech. So when the gov­ern­ment sent Wil­son a let­ter telling him to ob­tain spe­cific per­mis­sion to post the Lib­er­a­tor files be­cause they might be ac­ces­si­ble to “a for­eign per­son,” it was, the suit ar­gues, de­mand­ing a vague and wide-rang­ing pre-ap­proval of speech as well as vi­o­lat­ing gun rights.

A group of 16 Repub­li­can con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tives filed a sup­port­ive brief, as did the Cato In­sti­tute and a cou­ple of other con­ser­va­tive groups. So did the Re­porters Com­mit­tee for Free­dom of the Press and the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion. Kit Walsh, an EFF at­tor­ney, says the De­fense Distributed ar­gu­ment is con­sis­tent with the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s be­lief that “pub­lish­ing in­for­ma­tion de­scrib­ing tech­nol­ogy is pro­tected speech.” While the EFF has no par­tic­u­lar pol­icy on gun rights, Walsh says the “ag­gres­sive” re­sponse “gives the gov­ern­ment a veto on any speech it deems not to be ad­vis­able that re­lates to the tech­nol­ogy at is­sue.” The gov­ern­ment may have le­git­i­mate in­ter­ests that butt against speech rights, she con­tin­ues. But the law should be clear and spe­cific about where those lines are and how to ne­go­ti­ate them—mat­ters per­haps bet­ter ad­dressed leg­isla­tively. (New York Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Steve Is­rael un­suc­cess­fully at­tempted to in­tro­duce laws ban­ning weapons that could get through a metal de­tec­tor, which would in­clude 3D-printed guns be­cause they can be made en­tirely of plas­tic. The Lib­er­a­tor’s de­sign in­cludes a metal shank, but it’s not nec­es­sary for the gun to func­tion.)

The gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse has em­pha­sized the need “to pre­vent the dis­sem­i­na­tion of un­de­tectable firearms to for­eign na­tion­als”—es­sen­tially a na­tional se­cu­rity ar­gu­ment. At the hear­ing, De­fense Distributed was rep­re­sented by Alan Gura, a 45-year-old lawyer with a re­sem­blance to Perry Ma­son who was in­cluded in the Na­tional Law Jour­nal’s 2013 100 Most In­flu­en­tial Lawyers in Amer­ica list. Based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., he suc­cess­fully ar­gued be­fore the Supreme Court in the 2008 case

Dis­trict of Columbia v. Heller, a land­mark 5-4 rul­ing that was seen as the high court’s strong­est state­ment to date that the Sec­ond Amend­ment gives in­di­vid­u­als the right to own firearms for self-de­fense.

While the three-judge panel asked Gura pointed ques­tions (“What prac­ti­cal and le­gal use is there for a sin­gle-shot printed plas­tic hand­gun?”), Gura held his own, in­sist­ing that his clients have a right to “ex­press them­selves” with com­puter files just as they would by pub­lish­ing a book. The gov­ern­ment’s lawyer, Daniel Tenny, had a tougher time. One of the three judges, Edith Jones, a Rea­gan ap­pointee who’s ques­tioned the rea­son­ing be­hind le­gal abor­tion and in­val­i­dated a fed­eral ban on ma­chine guns, re­peat­edly com­plained that the reg­u­la­tory lan­guage was “vague” and could be read to bar the pub­li­ca­tion of any com­puter-as­sisted man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­ogy. Echo­ing a point Wil­son likes to make, she noted that fac­tory-made Amer­i­can guns are al­ready eas­ily ac­quired by drug car­tels. “I’m sorry,” she said to Tenny in an un­friendly South­ern drawl after an ex­change about the gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion on the dis­tinc­tion be­tween a “gun” and the Lib­er­a­tor files, “but you’re be­ing, in my view, some­what eva­sive.” Wil­son and his al­lies in the court­room were “try­ing not to stare at each other and guf­faw,” he says. Tenny sounded rat­tled and af­ter­ward left as quickly as pos­si­ble. Wil­son and his posse lin­gered, paus­ing for a group photo on the court­house steps. “They sent that lawyer here to die,” Wil­son gloated. Ev­ery­one laughed, and later they had a cel­e­bra­tory din­ner at Ar­naud’s, a swanky French Quar­ter stal­wart.

If Wil­son loses, he’ll ap­peal. Ghost Gun­ner sales seem ca­pa­ble of fund­ing a trip to the Supreme Court, if nec­es­sary. The Or­lando tragedy caused a spike in traf­fic to the com­pany’s site, and fear of a new Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion will be good for sales, too.

But if Wil­son wins, he says, De­fense Distributed has plenty of ma­te­rial it’s never been able to share—a back­log of home­spun, open source weapon in­no­va­tions, ready to up­load. His view on the Or­lando mas­sacre, which hap­pened six days after his hear­ing, is one of cyn­i­cal spec­ta­tor. “West­ern moder­nity, right? The clash of civ­i­liza­tions, in mi­cro­cosm.” It was the sort of event that “doesn’t cut clean,” and so “it forces ev­ery­one to come to the ta­ble,” he said, a state of chaos he thinks the mind-numbed masses need. But he was fazed enough to search his records to see if De­fense Distributed had sold the mur­derer, Omar Ma­teen, any­thing. It had not. “Once I saw that it wasn’t an AR-15, I was out,” he says, mean­ing he stopped think­ing about the di­rect im­pli­ca­tions for him.

He re­mains fo­cused on his court bat­tle. “It’s very sat­is­fy­ing,” he says later. “You gotta bust your ass for two years and hu­mil­i­ate your­self—just so the gov­ern­ment can have a hard time for a cou­ple min­utes. But it’s very sat­is­fy­ing.” He pauses for a beat. “It’s al­most worth it, man.” <BW>

The sil­ver piece is an alu­minum lower re­ceiver milled by the Ghost Gun­ner (be­hind)

Sul­li­van (left) and Wil­son at De­fense Distributed

The 3D-printed sin­gle-shot Lib­er­a­tor

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