Why Cody Wilson, the man behind the 3D-printed gun, says he’ll keep fighting — and win
After an uproar about 3D-printed guns, a federal judge temporarily blocked publication of blueprints to make them. Now, a court battle will ensure, and the man who made the first 3D-printable gun argues that the fight is about the First Amendment.
On Tuesday, a federal court forced Cody Wilson's web page to go dark. But still, the 30-year-old inventor of what he says is the first working 3D-printed gun feels as if he scored a victory: The blueprints for his AR-15 are out there.
After a judge signed the order that forced Wilson to take down the designs he'd posted that enabled users to make guns with a 3D printer, one Twitter user trumpeted that the files were being spread.
"This is what I'm going for," Wilson wrote in a retweet.
Only one of the files is used to create a 3D-printed AR-15 that Wilson named the Liberator. The rest were digital models, he said, schematics for enthusiasts to study or use.
Still, his release of the files set off a national outcry, with gun-control groups, lawmakers, and state prosecutors moving to stop him and raising alarm about 3D-printed guns. Over a whirlwind three days, Wilson was sued, agreed in court to make his blueprints unavailable in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and blocked nationwide, at least temporarily, by a judge in Seattle.
But Wilson's plan also worked. In just a few days, the files were downloaded thousands of times, he says, and quickly popped up on other websites. Wilson wants to fight the lawsuits against him and publish more files for 3D-printed guns.
"I started this because I thought no matter what, there would be an outcome where I could post this stuff on the internet again," he said in an interview Thursday with the Inquirer and Daily News.
His case raises a broader issue that courts have yet to fully address: how, or whether, the spread of information on the internet can be regulated. And he's taken a less-traveled path for gun enthusiasts, hinging his argument not on the Second Amendment but on the First.
With the plans already out there, "it's going to become very difficult to figure out where the documents are coming from," said Thomas Kadri, a resident fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project. "This could be something that just undermines the practical impact of any court ruling in this area … but it's also possible it could really have an effect on the legal analysis."
For Wilson, who operates in Austin, Texas, under the nonprofit Defense Distributed, last week's spotlight capped an endeavor that had been years in the offing. He began developing the printable gun while in law school, inspired by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his study of libertarian texts.
"I have always had an active contempt for these types of people and these types of attempted controls of the information, the internet," Wilson said. "I saw WikiLeaks as one of the most inspirational things possible, one of the most inspiring things to a young man who dreams of life after democracy. … I saw that there was a way to do WikiLeaks for guns, and that's how I began."
He dropped out of the University of Texas law school to work on the project and Defense Distributed. On the side, he has founded other companies, according to the New York Times, including Dark Wallet, an online currency site, and Hatreon, a crowdfunding site that has been used by white supremacists.
Wilson first published his 3D-printed gun designs in 2013, and President Barack Obama's State Department blocked him, citing export law. He fought the government's defense of the ban for five years, a battle that continued after President Trump took office. But this spring, the State and Justice Departments abruptly reversed course and agreed to a settlement that would modify the relevant statute and allow Wilson to publish his gun files July 27.
They were already available on various websites and had been downloaded more than 100,000 times in 2013. But last week was the first time many Americans had heard of a working 3D-printed gun — and now they live in an America that has seen five of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history occur since Wilson's first attempt at publication, including the massacres in Las Vegas and Parkland, Fla.
Many were alarmed about the possibilities for criminals or terrorists who accessed the files. 3D-printed guns do not have serial numbers, cannot be traced by law enforcement, do not require a background check to obtain, can in some cases get through metal detectors, and could be made or obtained by people who are not legally allowed to have firearms.
By Thursday, 19 states and the District of Columbia had signed onto a lawsuit led by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. A hearing is set for Aug. 21. The case brought by the attorney general in Pennsylvania last week is on hold until then.
Prosecutors are also considering what legal action might be taken against sites that have uploaded Wilson's blueprints, said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign, a gun-control group.
"It is pretty shocking and terrifying that this is happening," Gardiner said Friday. "It's why, frankly, the Trump administration has failed here, [because] they allowed this material to go up for a period of time and be shared with others."
The morning after headlines about the lawsuit Ferguson and other states' attorneys general filed in Washington state,Trump tweeted that the concept of plastic 3D-printed guns "doesn't seem to make much sense!"
The next day, his press secretary said Trump was glad the judge had ruled against his own Justice Department, saying the settlement was made "without the president's approval." Even after calls early in the week for Trump to intervene, the Justice Department had defended its settlement with Wilson and fought the attorneys general in court.
Though Wilson had tried to prepare for a fight over the issue, "I couldn't predict the president tweeting about it, so that was fun," he said. "I think I know what it is sometimes to get press, but I've never experienced anything like that. That was crazy."
Wilson's argument is that data are speech, and that he has a right to share the data under the First Amendment. His lawyer Josh Blackman, who has since withdrawn from the case, argued that the restraining order was "a prior restraint of constitutionally protected speech that is already in the public domain."
Wilson rejects the idea of putting limits on rights.
"People want to make any argument and cut through any speech protection in this country to get the outcome they want," he said, "and I'm happy to make them hypocrites on this."
Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at University of California Los Angeles, laid out the two opposing arguments:
On Defense Distributed's side is the idea that people publish books about how to make guns or explosives, for example, and cannot be censored by the government. On the other side is the argument that the government could ban a piece of hardware that plugged into a 3D printer, and led to the printing of a gun, without a First Amendment problem. So is code or software the same as a book or the same as hardware?
"Those are the two rival analogies, and the problem is that the law hasn't really told us which of these analogies is the sound one," Volokh said.
He said the current court cases will likely be decided on procedural or federalism — not constitutional — questions. "What would require a square First Amendment analysis is if Congress were to pass a statute … or if the federal government re-institutes the regulations [banning publication]."
Depending on how quickly the case moves and whether a court rules on something unprecedented, this case could become significant, experts said.
"I can see why these First Amendment arguments they're making have some intuitive appeal to people, but at the same time … it's also understandable that people would be very worried about something like this where there could be a very clear harm that could flow from the speech," said Kadri of Yale.
Lawmakers and activists who opposed the publication of the files, calling 3D-printed guns a national security concern, argued that not all speech is protected. They called Wilson's tactic a publicity stunt.
"At least what has been ordered by the judge in Washington protects us … from Mr. Wilson uploading anything else that could also get copied and distributed on other websites before he could be ordered to take it down," said Gardiner of the Brady Campaign. "There is still real value in what happened even if there still are some 3D-printed plans floating around on other third-party sites."
Wilson said he would not feel responsible if someone who was not legally allowed to have a gun used his download to print a gun and kill someone: "This information was committed to the public domain. It's now part of the commons, part of the body of public knowledge. … Anyone can use public-domain information. We don't have background checks for public libraries."
While the state prosecutors and others vow to win a permanent restraining order, Wilson says he doesn't see a way he can lose. He pledged to spend all his time fighting every lawsuit that comes his way, saying he liked this "second phase" of the debate.
"This is what I do," he said. "This is what I have become."