The Most Dangerous Man in Austin?
Cody Wilson's day-to-day life is pretty routine. But the product he's selling threatens to make gun control laws obsolete.
There's no sign on the walls outside of Cody Wilson's office. Nothing on the windows or the doorway; just rows of venetian blinds and a "No Smoking" sticker by the door. The gunman rarely does walk-in business. From the sidewalk outside, nothing implies that the unit's even occupied, much less filled with the building materials to potentially eradicate the concept of gun control altogether.
That's the way that Wilson frames it. From his office off Cross Park in Northeast Austin, the man reviled and revered for manufacturing the first fully functional 3-D-printed firearm is now orchestrating the production of high-precision cutting mills designed to cut the final holes to turn an otherwise unusable piece of metal into the working lower receiver of a semi-automatic assault rifle.
"The technology here is called numerical control," explains Wilson, fixing his eyes on a Ghost Gunner, the aforementioned mill. "You've actually got a moving tool bit that's being controlled and told where to go in space by a computer. And it's performing an older style of work: It's milling out those holes. That technology is pre-war technology. It's just that it's miniaturized [in the Ghost Gunner's form]."
Strewn about the shop are bins of raw materials: bearings, couplings, chip guards, and ball-screw blocks. Heat shields sit next to spiral wires along the long end of the shop. Eight contractors – all men in their 20s and early 30s – move mechanically around the long table in the center of the room.
They work 12 stations in total, assembling hardware, Arduino boards, and wire structures. Wilson only contracts one engineer with any technical experience. The others are former bartenders and bookstore dwellers. One's a part-time firearms instructor. Another previously worked as a representative for T-Mobile.
"We're not into debating," one explains after being asked about why he works for Wilson. "We're into making the debate irrelevant. If everybody has a CNC mill, and everybody can make a gun, how do you enforce gun control?"
The Ghost Gunner may use old technology, but it truly is the first product of its kind: a hands-free machine made to produce the most coveted piece of a gun. Other parts – the stock, sight, and barrel, for example – can be purchased online with a credit card. No background check, no waiting period. But the lower receiver becomes "a gun" when its manufacturing surpasses 80% completion. After that, anybody who wants to sell the thing or provide access to it to another person needs a federal firearms license and a serial number – which is etched onto the receiver – for the weapon.
The Ghost Gunner exploits the other side of that law: If the lower receiver is only 80% complete when it's acquired by an individual, that person can make the final cuts, attach it to the parts they bought online, and have a gun that's not registered. Wilson says that he has sold and shipped more than 650 of these machines, with 2,000 ordered in total.
"You've got a lot of middle-aged men who have a lot of expendable income and aren't catered to very well by young tech start-ups," he notes. "There are a slew of products that we have that could cater to these people in the service of our own nonprofit objectives." (More on those objectives in a second.)
The machine runs on CAD (computer-aided design) files easily loaded onto a Windows computer. A line of Ghost Gunner sales copy reads: "With simple tools and point-and-click software, the machine automatically finds and aligns to your 80% lower to get to work."
Wilson fires up a test cut and waits while the motor inside the box gets warm. Within two hours, he's got the beginnings of a new gun.
Wilson, along with a few friends, opened Defense Distributed out of defiance.
The nonprofit, formed in 2012, began as a libertarian exercise. On a theoretical level, Wilson wanted to bring the power of firearms to the public by the most basic and accessible means possible. More simply, he wanted to 3-D print a gun.
Defense Distributed began with gun parts, running scripts to print codes for lower receivers and AR magazines. A Jan. 2013 video found Wilson shooting four rounds from a printed magazine at a firing range outside of Austin. In another video, shot a week later, he fired 13 rounds from an assault rifle, then six more in quick succession. Other videos showed magazines capable of handling upwards of 350 shots. On Feb. 25, a video posted that showed Wilson and his partners firing 600 shots from a printed lower receiver.
Every time Defense Distributed would post a video, they'd take the CAD files used to print the parts and post them onto DefCAD, a website they'd created as a forum for such files. DefCAD worked like a search engine: Log on, search an accessory item, and download the scripts for free.
On May 6, 2013, Defense Distributed published a video showing Wilson in blue jeans and a black polo shirt firing a single bullet from an off-white, plastic .380 single-shot pistol he manufactured with a Stratasys 3-D printer. A symphonic arrangement crescendos after Wilson fires, then the screen fills with standard propagandic images. Jets fly in formation across the sky. A red sun rises. The gun could only fire a single shot, but it was a working gun. Wilson says, "Technicality is more powerful than the props."
Wilson immediately became a cult figure to some, and a threatening one to others, garnering headlines nationwide. The CAD files for the pistol – called the Liberator – were downloaded more than 120,000 times in two days. But on May 8, Wilson got a letter from the enforcement division of the Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance (DTCC), an agency within the U.S. Department of State, alleging that publication of the Liberator CAD files was a possible violation of federal law, namely the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). ITAR regulates the sale of firearms by U.S. residents to customers outside of the country, and the DTCC believed that Wilson was in effect exporting the Liberator by publishing the files, since anyone with the files and a 3-D printer could then hit "print" and have a gun. (At the time, there were no restrictions against privately manufacturing a gun for personal use within the U.S., so long as the gun contained enough metal to make it detectable by security scanners.)
"DTCC/END is conducting a review of technical data made publicly available by Defense Distributed through its 3-D printing website, DefCAD.org, the majority of which appear to be related to items in Category 1 of the [U.S. Munitions List]," read the letter. "Defense Distributed may have released ITAR-controlled technical data without the required prior authorization from the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), a violation of ITAR."
The State Department demanded that Defense Distributed submit commodity jurisdiction determination requests for 10 different sets of gun instructions, including those belonging to the Liberator. The State Department also advised Wilson to scrub DefCAD of its files until a verdict.
The notice kept Wilson from posting instructions for new mock-ups. By then, his code scripts for the Liberator had spread across the globe; Wilson reports that they were downloaded in over 80 countries. The State Department alleged that this may have violated ITAR, but first they would need to determine whether ITAR even applied to the Liberator files, effectively sending DD into a bureaucratic black hole.
On May 6, 2015, two years to the day of the Liberator video's release, Defense Distributed filed a lawsuit against the State Department alleging that its restriction of DD's ability to post instructions for how to 3-D print gun parts and guns was a violation of the First Amendment. Wilson also charged that the State Department would be incorrect to determine that DD violated ITAR, and that the inquiry and ensuing state of limbo violated the Second and Fifth Amendments. DD also asked for a preliminary injunction preventing the DTCC from restricting the files' distribution until a final determination as to whether they violate ITAR is made. The request for an injunction was denied after months of back and forth. That decision is currently awaiting appeal in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court. Wilson considers it a libertarian's fight more than a gunman's.
In the two years since the Liberator's invention there's been a small ripple of legal efforts to curtail it and guns like it. In Nov. 2013, Philadelphia became the first (and only) city to ban the manufacture or possession of 3-D printed firearms. The following month, U.S. Congressman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., tried to pass a federal law banning the possession or manufacture of any gun able to evade a metal detector. The bill died; Israel's working on a revision.
Opening Up Pandora's Box
The Ghost Gunner was started as a way to fund the lawsuit. It went for pre-order last October, announced via a YouTube video that spliced footage of the mill, in action inside a dimly lit garage, against California Democratic state Sen. Kevin de León's Jan. 2014 press conference to denounce unserialized assault rifles. When de León says, "You insert this lower receiver," Wilson is shown popping his receiver into the Ghost Gunner. When de León says, "We're even beginning to see an industry and market for ghost guns," Wilson flashes a $999 price tag in white across the screen. DD started shipping boxes six months after that video posted. Wilson estimates seven shipments go out each day. He keeps two spreadsheets' worth of waitlists.
"It took us months to get where we could make these quickly," he says. "Now we're trying to get our lead times down, and our ordering to the point where we can get materials quicker."
Wilson stayed above board as best he knew through the Ghost Gunner's rollout, submitting a request for pre-publication approval to the Department of Defense Office of Prepublication and Security (DOPSR) and going through the State Department when DOPSR gave DD the runaround. From the Department of State he learned that the machine, its user manual, and operating software weren't subject to ITAR, but that the CAD files he sold with the Ghost Gunner would need to be reviewed.
On Dec. 31, 2014, DOPSR told Defense Distributed that it was refusing to review the files, and directed Defense Distributed to the DDTC Compliance and Enforcement Department. That office, however, isn't responsible for such licenses. Defense Distributed asked the State Department how to proceed through the proper channels in early January. Five months later, when Wilson filed his lawsuit, the State Department hadn't responded to the query.
Legal experts trained in Second Amendment issues told the Chronicle that there's no existing law barring the Ghost Gunner and its associated CAD files from distribution. A memo issued by one of Defense Distributed's attorneys that Wilson sends to suppliers who question the Ghost Gunner's legality also notes that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives does not require that Ghost Gunner owners acquire a federal firearms license so long as they use the mill strictly for personal use – and it's likely things will stay that way. According to Mike McLively, a staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, there's little chance our country's legislators get proactive.
"I don't think there's a whole lot of appetite right now to be regulating something like that," McLively speculated from his San Francisco office. "You've got a lot of Second Amendment issues wrapped up in this. Right now, a lot of policy is driven by 'Well, there's a major crisis, and we need to deal with it.' Not a lot of times are you getting Congress or state legislators ahead of a problem. They're usually reacting. It would be potentially hard to convince Congress that this is a major problem."
Indeed, it would be tough to imagine any politician sticking their head so far out as to try to curtail the gun debate on a platform of stopping Ghost Gunners. The United States has endured more mass shootings in this century than the totality of 13 other prominent nations, according to a study conducted by State University of New York at Oswego researcher Jaclyn Schildkraut and her Texas State University colleague H. Jaymi Elsass. There have been so many mass shootings in this country that the names of the shooters behind them blend together.
In some cases, like the Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colo., massacres, an AR-15 was used in the shooting. But only in one instance was the gun made by the shooter: John Zawahri, a 23-year-old in Santa Monica, killed five people in 2013 with a gun he assembled with parts purchased over the Internet. Reports note that his record of mental health issues barred him from purchasing a gun the more traditional way in 2011.
"It's such a new thing that I think until you have a situation where somebody has milled their own gun at home and used it ...," begins McLively. "Unfortunately, gun politics in this country only get attention after a mass shooting. I hope it's not an 'I told you so' situation, but it could be that that's what it takes before legislators are willing to do something."
Wilson notes that, in a practical sense, the price points and efficiency issues render the Ghost Gunner more of a philosophical statement than practical option for the majority of Americans, but its application – to those on the other side of the debate – gets more frightening with each hypothetical. Put simply, Wilson wants to provide the means to make a gun to anybody with the necessary finances and a working knowledge of computer software. That means convicted felons, the mentally ill, and the subjects of restraining orders, among others whose access to guns is currently restricted, would be able to make their own guns. That people have such a problem with that is part of the reason why Wilson does it.
"We're a Software Company, Swear to God."
I ask Wilson at an early-October lunch how he would react if it was discovered that someone otherwise barred from purchasing a gun got his hands on a Ghost Gunner, fashioned an assault rifle together, and shot up the general public.
"I haven't really been tested yet, but there is an analogous situation," he says. "In the UK, they busted this guy – this was a year ago – for drugs, and they found a 3-D printer in his basement. So I'm getting calls from the BBC ... I remember how I was feeling: 'Oh shit. Oh shit. Shitstorm's coming.'
"I was affected, but no.
"Many times during our undertaking, before we've released certain key things, I've done the psychological check. At each point I've been willing to do it: been willing to stand behind it; been willing to contradict what I think is the perverted ethical ideology of our opponents; and even be crass about it and say, We're the only people being serious when we say things like 'Freedom.'"
Wilson, 27, was born and raised in a conservative household outside of Little Rock, Ark., and spent years as a Boy Scout, but otherwise rarely ventured into any corners of gun culture. His father owned a few, and his uncle had a hunting cabin. He discounted either as being formative, saying both were "in the background." He never hunted, and didn't care much for guns as a child.
He was a popular kid, the president of his student body at Cabot High School and then again at the University of Central Arkansas. He got into libertarianism through Ron Paul, and his views progressed after reading Friedrich Nietzsche, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and Michel Foucault. "Definitely by the time I was halfway through high school I'd gotten into the radical position that the Second Amendment is so that you can field a resistance army," he says. "The old ideals of an old republican realism: Governments are reconstituted all the time, and we need an escape valve. I believe that. I still do believe that. It's largely the ideology of the Second Amendment. So I've always had that." However, it took WikiLeaks, Julian Assange's open-source information portal, to get him thinking about making his own foray into anti-state activism.
He moved to Austin to attend UT Law in the fall of 2011, unaware of what exactly he wanted to practice. So present in high school and at UCA, Wilson began checking out during law school. He fell in with the Libertarian Longhorns, and started spending time at Brave New Books. The idea for the Liberator and its CAD files happened during his first year while on a call with Ben Denio, his DD partner since undergrad who moved to Austin last year to work on the Ghost Gunner. "He was like, 'There are 3-D printers. We could print a gun,'" remembers Wilson. "It sounded dumb, but then, 'Holy shit, it's WikiLeaks for guns.'"
Wilson quit school in May 2013, two days after posting the video of him shooting the Liberator (and, coincidentally, the same day that he got the letter from the State Department). Sandy Hook had happened in December, and he started to notice a national groundswell to revamp gun control. "If we wanted to get in front of it, we had to work all the time," he said. "Any concrete things that we were going to do, we might not have been able to legally do them within three or four months."
He tells me this at Jim's restaurant, a nondescript, breakfast-all-day diner off Highway 183 that Wilson frequents. There, Wilson's not the feared arms manufacturer who headlines such lists as Wired's "15 Most Dangerous People in the World," but some guy who stops in regularly and sits for hours on end with friends and business partners. The waitresses there call him the Noodle King for the time he ordered spaghetti, and laugh in amusement when he questions them on their opinions of national security. "We were trying to figure out what he did for a living but could never figure it out," explained one server, Madison, who works the floor alongside her mother. "Economic something .... We thought he might be a gambler."
"It's surreal now," Wilson says of his actual job a little later. "When I met Assange last year in London, he was like, 'Oh, 3-D printed guns. That's 2013.' It's passé and assimilated. How many times has CSI beaten the damn 3-D gun horse at this point?"
In reality, despite the subject matter, it's safe to say Wilson's daily life has become routine. Gone are the hype-generating videos. Defense Distributed hasn't released any gun-related clips since the Ghost Gunner started shipping. And the theatrical shooting demonstrations? That's old hat now. While he still collects firearms – equating his love of the machines to Jay Leno's infatuation with automobiles – he says he rarely goes to fire them.
"I have to shoot it in front of TV cameras, so it's a chore," he says. "Then you have to clean it. You're wasting money. I like to just ... if I have them now, I just like to leave them there."
Indeed, Wilson's work days right now fall somewhere between chief executive and office manager. One morning in late October I arrive at the shop to learn that he needs to take a bucket of metal parts to recycling, then hit Chase bank to make a wire transfer. He spent the winter and early spring going back and forth with PayPal after the site declined payment processing, citing that they weren't in accordance with Defense Distributed's product, and has had to find workaround ways to ship Ghost Gunners after both UPS and FedEx refused his business. (He currently contracts with a freight-forwarder who acts as a reseller for UPS.)
"It's bullshit, man," he says. "I hate it. I've been telling people for forever: 'We're a software company, swear to God.' But you just have to take this huge route to actually do it. All I want to do is put gun software on the Internet. That's the reason this exists: to fund a lawsuit so that we can start putting instructions back on the Internet. That's how I identify now. That I can't do that hurts me every day. And this is cool. This is great that we produce this. I'd love to produce other things. But every day I'm not doing that ...."
Wilson also has another lawsuit – a charge against a Florida manufacturer he says swindled him out of $26,000 worth of sample parts – he hopes will be heard in court in January. And then there's the matter of keeping his current business operating. Wilson restructured Defense Distributed over the summer to accommodate Ghost Gunner as a for-profit subsidy.
"There's at least $2 million worth of sales if it's done efficiently," he says. "If it's not critically mismanaged. I'm trying to be as economical as possible since the summer, because we have to win the lawsuit – which could take multiple years. But we're not just running a company and trying to keep cash flow good. We also have to develop another version of the product. It's still a business."
The Fight Itself
Wilson's thinking about product improvements in late October when I stop over.
"These next 400 machines have to go with better software," he says. "We're not getting good results from the software. We've known for four months what the key problems are with this machine, but we haven't been able to fix them. It's a huge problem if we ship another 400 machines without addressing our issues with the software."
Wilson and Denio are also spending the afternoon testing a new motor. It's a larger form of the brushless DC motor that they currently use. They're hoping that more instantaneous torque and a new end mill will provide for a better cut, but run into problems editing the script.
Wilson says that the group's working to modify the Ghost Gunner in order to release editions that could cater to other assault rifles. A different-sized holder could produce an AR-10's lower receiver; new CAD files could make that cut just as easily. On Nov. 15, Wilson announced that Defense Distributed will now sell 80%-completed receivers themselves, making it a one-stop shop for both the 80% and final 20. He hopes to open another wing of his office with the money he recoups from the Florida lawsuit. The day before I popped in, Wilson received the contract from his landlord to take over the unit next to Defense Distributed. He purchased 500 lower receivers, which he plans to sell for $55 – a stark drop-off from the going rate of other lower receivers found online.
The final project Wilson's working on is best summarized as a "Kickstarter for guns." Defense Distributed's crowdfunding efforts were banned from Indiegogo in 2012 when the site determined that his efforts did not fit with the terms of service. Gunspring, thus, would give gun enthusiasts a place to support one another's prototypes. "Mostly, we want to see hardware and accessory projects that already fit within the AR-15," says Wilson. Slings, stocks, and sights.
Then there's the lawsuit, which he hopes will have its day before the 5th Circuit before long. He filed notice of appeal in early August, and can now only wait. Wilson's eager to start posting gun instructions again, but maintains that the lawsuit's about way more. "We want the fight itself. And we want to win the fight. And we want that registered as a fight that was won," he says.
"The gun thing, it's unique. Especially in American politics. You touch it and it resonates in peoples' hearts and minds. We understand that power. It's not even genetic. It's just this authority that death and conflict has in the popular imagination. Ultimately, this gets to the very question of the political itself. It goes deep and runs all the way down."