Technophiles have been playing around with 3D printing for years, but mostly just to make things like little statues or plastic trinkets. Now, however, it’s possible to print items with the potential to leave more of an impact.
Items like guns, for example.
Such is the goal of Austin, Texas-based Defense Distributed, a company that makes gun parts using 3D printers and publishes the designs online for anyone to download. Now, co-founder Cody Wilson said he has received a federal license to distribute and sell firearms. And last week Wilson also announced he’s trying to raise $100,000 to launch a new search engine called Defcad, which would let people share 3D printing blueprints for things like gun parts.
It’s a thorny subject considering the current debate over gun control in the aftermath of a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newton, Conn., in which 26 people—20 of them children 7 years old and younger—were murdered.
Yet at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, Wilson shared Defense Distributed’s vision for the future—one in which anyone can easily access the technology to print gun parts themselves, so that eventually the 3D printing of firearms will become so advanced and widespread that it will make gun control laws meaningless.
Here’s what he said in a recent Q&A with PCWorld/TechHive about using 3D printers to make guns.
I understand you just got a federal license to distribute and sell firearms?
For me, the new thing is that we’re doing a search engine right now. In fact, we’re fundraising for it. So yes, it’s true that we have a license, that’s related to [the company] Defense Distributed. I’m trying to get the search engine off the ground in the next 30 days so development for the next three or four weeks will actually be ramped back down for Defense Distributed.
Speaking of your search engine, it looks like you’ve raised more than $20,000 so far. What kind of people are supporting you?
Well, I can’t trace the money back because I haven’t been watching individual transactions but I’m seeing a lot of support on the Ron Paul forums and people that use Bitcoin… Redditors, really a lot of people who might self-describe as Internet people and civil libertarians.
How did you become the poster child for 3D-printed guns? What’s the backstory?
I think we came up with the idea of printing gun parts on 3D printers at around the same time a couple of other hobbyists in the country did, as well. We didn’t know about each other so at the time we thought “Well, no one else is doing this, let’s see what we can do.” But almost immediately the thought was also “Oh, it’s not just enough to do it, we should open source it as well, because this would have real political import.”
My cofounder and I are pretty … how to say it… we’re extremely political people and in the Arendtian sense so I don’t care anything about retail politics...shaking hands, all these things, that’s ridiculous and a simulation of the real thing to me.
I think real politics is something much more fascinating. In fact, I’m interested in projects that might bring ideology and real politics back into the world. This seemed like if we could make a technical proof of the impossibility of gun control in a new technology, it would be something worth doing. And I think my instincts are right though, a lot of people realize the vision in either its optimistic side or its terrifying side.
Can you describe what you’ve been printing? Is it just gun parts? Entire gun assemblies?
Right now we’ve just been doing gun parts, like receivers. Our three main things we’ve been doing are the lower receiver for the AR-15, that’s what we’ve been doing for the longest. Standard capacity magazines for the AR-15. And then we’ve recently been doing AK-47 magazines.
We’ve been doing other minor parts as well but mostly we leave that up to other people so we started a hub for gun parts called Defcad and that’s where people share and upload parts. We’ve actually kept it down to a pretty small range of gun parts and it’s just been tweaking those designs and testing them in the different 3D printing technologies that we have access to, which is quite a few now.
How many users do you have on Defcad?
The forum has over 1000 registered members. The forums are pretty busy. Lots of uploads. We have over 100 files.
What would you say to the people who fear that bad guys are going to use 3D printers to make plastic guns that can’t seen by metal detectors?
That’s a step away from what we’re doing, although it’s part of our prototyping process. We’re not legally allowed to do it yet. So complete guns out of 3D printers is not yet, as far as I’ve seen, demonstrated to be a feasible thing. I’m not sure it’s technologically achievable with the current materials or printers, although we are going to try to find that out.
To that point then, in this world where let’s say 3D printers can print out Saturday Night Specials and that bad people or terrorists will use them, this is, of course, possible. This is the problem with liberty, that it can be abused.
But I think the tendency is to blame people like us for creating a world that by and large already exists. So these nation states and these government bodies already fund armies and paramilitary groups and give them arms around the world. I’m not exporting hundreds of thousands of rifles all over the world for people to use in genocides. This is already being done by our democratically elected leaders.
I think there’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing in a moral sense. We’re pursuing what we think is a step toward liberty and even if it scares people, well, that’s our world view—liberty is scary and increasingly there’s less and less you can do about controlling the way someone can fabricate a gun.
What about the federal license that you received to distribute and sell firearms?
It’s a federal firearms license and there are different kinds you can get, but the one I got was one to manufacture firearms, and manufacturing has a specific meaning under the law. Before I was already making guns and gun parts, which is legal to do in America. You don’t need a license to do it.
But if you want sell them or if you want to make a wider range of guns you need to get licensing to manufacture. So that’s what we applied for at the end of October, and we finally got it.
It’s kind of like step one toward being able to make whatever we want, without the need to pay a tax on every prototype, without the need to do a lot of paperwork and wait three months between innovations. We can just operate our own laboratory and workshop without regulatory constraint because we’ve been licensed.
Do you actually see yourself selling things to people?
Of course. Maybe not a business of actual printable guns because those aren’t competitive with the kinds of prices compared to traditional commercial guns. But I can already begin selling, if I serialize, the components we’ve already printed. Perhaps people just want them as novelties or it’s a slightly better piece of merchandise than a T-shirt. It can offset some of our costs in the previous months. It just allows another access point for monetization.
And I can do firearms transactions now so if someone wants to support our nonprofit, for example, they don’t just have to send us money, they can do little things like, well, if I’m going to choose to ship a rifle out of state or in state, maybe I’ll ship it to Defense Distributed and give them a few extra dollars. It just allows people to spend their money on us.
Is your company, Defense Distributed, a nonprofit?
Yeah, we’re pursuing 501(c)(3). I put in the app for that back in October, as well, and I haven’t gotten my determination letter yet. I think it’s still being studied. But I fully expect we’ll get 501(c). It seems pretty cut and dried, although I know it’s a unique application.
I understand you spoke at SXSW last week. How were you received?
I expected it to be a little more contentious, actually. But what can I say? It was a pretty friendly atmosphere. I gave a talk and the Q&A was not in the least contentious. People were asking interesting ethical and philosophical questions but nobody was rude or anything. Everybody I think was just there to participate in a real conversation.
Speaking of people being rude, do you have haters out there?
Oh, of course. The reason I expected a more hostile environment in the first place is I’ve been before some hostile crowds presenting on this topic in Europe and other places where you might expect more of that. I just have come to expect with a more general audience that people would be more against it. I guess the Southwest crowd is younger, they’re more into tech, and I think even if they have ethical reservations, it’s simply outweighed by the pure spectacle and fascination of it all.
Is there anything else that people should know about this subject?
I think it’s one of the more intrepid uses of 3D printing right now. We’re learning a lot about the materials, a lot about the limits of this technology, from higher end to maker hobby level machines. We’re really straining these things and seeing what they can do.
It’s a pretty intense application. A gun part either works or it doesn’t. It’s somewhat different from just printing out a trinket. You’re creating functional parts. In that respect, I think people should take 3D printers and start to make functional useful devices.