Day 6

Cody Wilson's quest to make 3D printable guns available to everyone just came very close to reality

Cody Wilson has spent five years fighting to make 3D printable guns available to everyone. When his legal battle began in 2013, he laid out a principled case for why he thinks he's right.

'This is a question about the future of information and the regulation of the internet'

Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, shows a plastic handgun made on a 3D-printer at his home in Austin, Texas, in a 2013 file photo. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

This interview was originally broadcast on May 9, 2013.

When gun rights activist Cody Wilson fired a real bullet from the world's first 3D-printed gun in 2013, he triggered a debate on gun control and access.

The gun was named The Liberator, and it was made on a 3D printer in Wilson's Austin, Texas, home. Days after Wilson pulled the trigger, his company, Defense Distributed, published the blueprints for the gun online.

The plans were downloaded more than 100,000 times before the U.S. State Department intervened and accused Defense Distributed of violating the Arms Export Control Act.

Wilson fought back and filed a lawsuit against the federal government. He argued that his plans were based on "pure principle."

Earlier this month, the Trump administration settled Wilson's lawsuit, which would have allowed the online publishing of his gun models.

Wilson planned to legally distribute his blueprints online, as well as manuals on how to make guns such as the Liberator and an AR-15 riffle at home.

On Monday, July 30, eight states filed suit against the Trump administration over its decision to allow Wilson's company to publish the gun blueprints. By the next day, Wilson's publishing plans were ground to a halt when a federal judge ordered an emergency temporary stop to the release of his blueprints.  

Day 6 host Brent Bambury spoke to Wilson about his motivations and future plans when he first started his campaign back in 2013.

Here's part of their conversation.

Brent Bambury: This is the week that everyone saw a video of you shooting a gun, called The Liberator. What were you thinking when you pulled the trigger for the first time?

Cody Wilson: I was thinking, 'Alright, commit to the moment. This could blow up in your face.'

BB: But this is a political and an ideological mission for you as well. What's the larger goal of what you're doing?

CW: One, it's to teach a kind of practical anarchy. I mean, I love the message in the United States, specifically trying to foreground it in this debate about gun control in the United States. But really, we began our project before that was happening. We imagine a world where anyone would have that critical choice to make one day, where they could just make a gun for themselves directly through the Internet, through this new and fun 3D printing technology.

BB: And so what is the value of trying to imagine that world?

CW:  I think it's important to realize that prohibitions, like prescriptive prohibitions, applied socially and broadly, really aren't the way to control information and goods anymore. In fact, they're kind of reactionary and authoritarian. I think we're approaching a world where secret information data is going to be traded so freely that we're going to have to begin to step back and respect people's rights to have things and act and repress, or deal with their actions after they've done something criminal or wrong.

In this May 10, 2013, file photo, Cody Wilson holds what he calls a Liberator pistol that was made on a 3-D-printer at his home in Austin, Texas. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/Associated Press)

BB: So in your mind is there anyone who shouldn't be able to make a gun at home?

CW: No. I really think being serious about rights works this way: someone is able to make and possess for themselves what they will, even if that person is a felon; even if this person has been determined beforehand to be a relatively suspect person. But when they can be demonstrated to be an imminent threat, an articulable threat ... these kinds of things, they can be wheeled before court, a jury of their peers and that jury can say, 'look you should not be trusted with this. You shouldn't have this.' That's how it works. I don't think it works on the level of wholesale prohibitions against entire classes and, like, millions of people. Really, the best approach that isn't wishful thinking, or like censorship, or authoritarianism, is to respect people and to trust people at the outset to do the right thing. And when they haven't done the right thing, then we address them.

BB: How can you trust people to do the right thing when 3,300 people have died of gun deaths in the United States since Sandy Hook?

CW: Well, I mean, how many thousands of people died from medical malpractice, right? We're not going to make doctors illegal. I mean, things are going to go wrong. People are going to do the wrong thing. But that's not a reason to divest people of an entire class of liberties.

BB: Isn't this world of hyper liberty that you're describing, isn't it divorced from the practical reality of the fact that there are people for whom firearms are dangerous?

CW: That's already true. That has never not been true — that people will do bad things and that there are dangerous people. And we have mechanisms for dealing with those people, even when it comes outside of firearms. When people do bad things we deal with what they've done. We don't pad every wall in the world. We don't restrict every possible thing that can possibly go wrong in this world. We don't build the social prison.

In this Oct. 3, 2012 photo, Wilson points to his laptop screen displaying an image of a prototype plastic gun on the screen in Austin, Texas. ( Press)

BB: Are you giving people a dangerous tool? This is a gun that's made of plastic, it can be manipulated so it would be undetectable by metal detectors. Are you giving people a dangerous tool that could destabilize society?

CW: I'm giving people pieces of software, which can be understood by a civic machine. That machine can print pieces and you can put those together into a gun if you choose. These are not guns we're giving out. These are pieces of software. You can't control information and you shouldn't. This is a question about the future of information and the regulation of the internet. But make no mistake, this is about the freedom of information now.

BB: But you're attaching your fight for freedom of information to a similar struggle that's going on right now over gun control in America and it's a highly politicized struggle where there are victims there are people who have been killed in school shootings. Isn't this more than just software?

CW: No. I would say that's a metaphysical classification. Of course it's not more than software. People have to use the software. The machine understands that it is, in the end, just software. And if you're going to make any other kind of distinction like that you're going to create terrible unexpected results in the legal code that will begin to, basically, create the walls for the destruction and the choking of information freedom online.

BB: If someone walked into a school and killed some people with a principal gun would that weigh on your conscience?

CW: I wonder. I mean, I really think I'm arguing from a point of pure principle and I really believe in that principle. I'm sure I would feel empathy and I would feel at a loss, but it wouldn't shake my conviction that this is the right thing to do, and that these governments must reckon with the fact that now there will be relatively untraceable guns. That's a fact. So are we going to make every person the United States, in the world, a criminal? Are we going to prohibit them from owning traditional firearms? Is that how we're going to press the situation? Or can we be more respectful of people's liberties.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Cody Wilson from 2013, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.