Cody Wilson’s idea was not to sell guns but to print them — lots of them — with the mission of developing an open-source design that could be widely shared and distributed online.
Cody Wilson points to to his laptop screen, where an image of a prototype plastic gun appears. With his other hand, he holds a weapon he calls ‘Individual Mandate.’ Wilson bought a 3-D printer, he planned to print a the prototype but before he was able to, the company that made the printer sent a representative to confiscate it. Still, he’s certain the gun will be printed. ‘This is coming,’ he says, ‘whether it’s me, or somebody else. This your printable future.’
But the second-year law student at the University of Texas has found himself at the center of a legal controversy after the 3-D printing company that allowed him to borrow a printer sent a team of contractors late last week to reclaim its property a day after it was delivered to his central Austin apartment near Hyde Park.
At least for now, the project is on hold, said Wilson, the 24-year-old director and co-founder of Defense Distributed, the online collective managing the Wiki Weapon Project. To legal experts and law enforcement officials, this particular situation falls under a new frontier of the law.
“It is unclear if what we are doing is legal or illegal,” Wilson said Wednesday at his home. “We have turned around and realized that technology got ahead of the law, and I am not saying this with any hubris.”
A spokesperson for Stratasys, which specializes in 3-D modeling technology that allows people to “print” digital designs into physical objects from plastic and other materials, declined to comment on the case.
But in a prepared statement provided to the American-Statesman, the company said Wilson did not send a requested copy of his license to manufacture and distribute firearms and had intended to use the printer to produce a weapon considered illegal under the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, also known as “The Plastic Guns Law,” which bans the making or possession of a gun not detectable by airport metal detectors.
“It is the legal responsibility of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its property to be used for illegal purposes,” the company said. “Cody Wilson, like any U.S. citizen, is able to follow the well-established federal and state regulations to manufacture, distribute or procure a firearm in this country.”
A license is not required to manufacture certain types of guns if they are not intended for sale. But whether the Wiki Weapon prototype falls under that category depends on whom you ask, and Wilson said he is not willing to risk that question in court and is applying for a license.
Michael Reyes, resident agent in charge of the ATF Austin office, said it had received a referral on Wilson because his project had received so much buzz on the Internet. But Wilson visited the office Monday on his own accord — before agents reached out to him — because he had questions about the license process and legalities of his project. Wilson is not under investigation and has not broken any laws, Reyes said.
“Some of the questions we were able to answer, some we were not,” the resident agent said. “If you are going to manufacture or be in the business of manufacturing, then you need a license, so it’s going to come back to whether you are in business.”
Wilson said he does not intend to make money on the project and is not particularly passionate about guns rights. He does not even know if his prototype will work.
The group plans to test various models out of ABS plastic, and the “cartoon-looking” guns are expected to melt after firing only one bullet. But the intent is to “ensure the democratization of firearms themselves,” he said, so that in universal access to them, they become less sensational. “The attention we get is not deserved in many ways because people think — ‘Oh, anyone is going to have a gun’ — but that is really the reality already.”
He developed the idea with another friend in March and eventually raised $2,000 over 22 days through the crowdsourcing website Indiegogo. But the company froze their account, citing policy on fundraisers for the sale of weapons. With the help of media and bloggers’ attention, Wilson said, the group reached its target of $20,000 on Sept. 19. “Terrifying or not, we have a goal and we are going to meet it,” he said.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he does not know the particulars of Wilson’s project. “But I do think that the cheaper 3-D printing gets, the more you are going to have individuals building things that you would like to be able to regulate,” he said.
By Jazmine Ulloa