Off the Cuff with Cody Wilson, developer of firearm printing software


Cody Wilson, who recently created a fully functioning pistol from a 3-D printer

Kate Gill, News Editor

Cody Wilson is a law student, activist, innovator and self-proclaimed crypto-anarchist. He founded Defense Distributed, a nonprofit that publishes open-source gun designs for 3-D printers. Named by Wired as one of the 15 most dangerous men in the world, Wilson sat down with the Review and discussed the second amendment, equal protection of the law and his mission to radicalize.

Can you tell me about the 3D printer?

It’s kind of an umbrella of technologies, but most of them come from stereo-lithographic laser technologies, ways of drawing stuff from a piece of 3D software, so like basically interpreting that object in different layers and slices and then trying either to exactly replicate the slices, and what you see in the computer. So it’s this translation to the real from a physical file.

Why did you develop this technology? Was it specifically for the purpose of asserting more independent control over gun possession, or were there other motives involved?

It’s that, [but] it was always layered in this political dialogue. This intentionality of actually trying to be provocative to the State, and your paradigm of maybe how guns would be controlled … but I want to be clear that we didn’t develop any 3D printing technology specifically. We just developed the software for actually doing guns on that technology. We haven’t added on how to do 3D printing, just how to do guns.

What are the possibilities, and by the extension the limits?

The limits are directly material right now –– if we’re just talking about guns, you can’t build an assault rifle out of plastic — it will explode. [They] have 50,000 PSI of chamber pressure, and no plastic can withstand that. But in terms of particular components, or maybe even certain calibers of handgun ammunition which aren’t that strong, plastics can, even though they expand, contain the force. So it’s a really practical way of doing it — maybe. But you can make gun components from 3D printers.

How can this technology expand?

Well, it already is. It’s already been done. Right now it might cost you half a million — well, about a million dollars –– to actually print a gun out of metal, but you can do it. So all of the spectrum of available possibilities has already been demonstrated, it’s just a matter of mixing and hybridizing those technologies, and race to the bottom for their availability, [and] then determining [what] kind of multi-material do we use. So it’ll be a mix of all these technologies into doing guns just differently.

What if this technology falls into the wrong hands? Was civilian safety a consideration during the drafting processes?

So, I would first challenge the premise, right? Like, all generally used technologies are already in the wrong hands — they’re in everybody’s hands. And thank God they are. So there’s no efficient way of preventing someone from using a laptop to do something terrible; we all have access. And that’s the thing with these too — these are generally-used technologies, they’re software-agnostic, to a large degree they’re hardware-agnostic too. Everyone will have them or no one will.

If I understand the technology involved, which I may not, these machines, or these iterations, can’t be detected by a scanner. So —

Some of the guns, if they’re all plastic, might make it through a metal detector… because they’re not metal.

Right. And is that a concern of yours?

Well, it’s not a concern of mine, I mean. But … [laughs]

Well, can you see the potential hazards of that output?

No, of course, of course, there’s a dimension of added, you know, stealth or something. To your potential assassin or something. But I gotta be honest, in their current iterations, these are extremely impractical devices, and not what you’d use to try to slip into a courthouse and kill somebody.

But, given how rapidly technology is expanding —

I’ll give you the hypothetical. Will this be a problem? Yeah, likely. It’ll probably even be ceramic before plastic. But in the end, there’s really no way to tell me where you’d get a handle on it. You know, other than a kind of blanket prohibitive law. And you can pass a law saying, look, if we catch you with one of these, you’re in trouble. And that’s probably the best way to do it. But I mean, it’s there. It’s available.

Right. But I’m curious as to how you’d factor in an instance like Sandy Hook.

Oh, yeah. Our project gained prominence really right after Sandy Hook happened. But Sandy Hook was more a conversation about the assault rifle specifically used in that shooting, and people saying that people shouldn’t have access to this thing, look how quickly it killed toddlers. Well, the thing is, this is a traditional rejoinder. What does it mean to be serious about rights in a civic context? Well it means that we’ll absorb some social cost. That there will be shootings. And that in the end we judiciously protect the fact that there will be these things, because it’s better in the end. Or we deem that it’s better in the end, to protect this mode of liberty.

So you think that the benefit of this rifle supersedes the lives of children who —

So I’m not doing the [specific calculations], but yeah, I mean to say that it is more worthwhile as a human endeavor to protect this right in the face that terrible things will happen.

So you study law, right? And obviously the second amendment is a huge factor in this debate, but what about the ninth amendment, what about equal protection?

Oh God. I’ll give you some equal protection. Ninth Amendment jurisprudence is absent. There is no ninth amendment jurisprudence essentially, even in its own right by the court. So in a sense we’re just having a kind of hypothetical argument.

Well, right — but this in itself is a hypothetical conversation.

Well no, but there’s nothing more real than the fact that you can print 3D guns at this point.

Just humor me.

I wouldn’t use a Ninth Amendment argument. Basically it wouldn’t happen that way. It’s a standard of due process. What’s happening is that people are targeting 3D printing as a technology. People are saying ‘well, you shouldn’t be able to 3D print a gun.’ Well, okay, but this actually has equal protection — you can’t target the method of how I make the gun, you have to target the fact of whether I have the fun or not. In the end it’s not the Second Amendment that’s at stake, per say, it’s the implicit rights related to the Second Amendment, and those haven’t been borne out of precedent yet. I guess we’re sort of mixing the real and the hypothetical right now … Come on, let’s do some Second Amendment fighting.

The gun debate is quite polarizing, as you and I just demonstrated. How do you think the two sides can compromise?

I’m on neither side, and hang them all. I’m not interested in some result, I’m interested in leaving that behind and pursuing another avenue in this debate. There will be no synthesis, there will be no compromise. It will always polarize, forever and ever, amen.
So you have no desire to mitigate the political tension?
No. This is how we were driven to the heights of political awareness. Welcome to the problem. I’m here to divide. We’re zealots for our own position, and we’re not particularly interested in a result where we’ve navigated the problem.

That said, why come to Oberlin, a robustly liberal campus?

Because I want to radicalize. Even you, at the end of the day, you know maybe there will be a certain grain of truth in this. I think I can get a hook in one or two of you.