WASHINGTON — Politicians, the Pentagon and even the State Department are getting riled up about a plastic gun made by Texas law student Cody Wilson with a three-dimensional printer.
Which is just what Wilson wanted.
More or less.
It's not guns or gun control that Wilson says he wants to make people aware of. He is on a mission to protect 3-D printing technology from being regulated into oblivion before it even gets going.
"It wasn't just to rile up politicians, it was a demonstration that would be effective once those politicians were riled up. I'm communicating to my generation, people I think will get the message: Look, your politicians don't support the future that you think you're building," he said. "These people aren't really here to help us out. They're here to prohibit things, manage things and set up systems for more control. That's my message."
Wilson and his open-source digital publishing website, Defense Distributed, designed, built, fired, and then made publicly available the files for the world's first fully 3-D printable plastic gun May 5. By the afternoon of May 9, the State Department's Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance demanded that Defense Distributed pull the online files for its Liberator handgun, along with nine other 3-D-printable firearm components hosted on the group's defcad.org website, for review for possible arms export control law violations.
Things are a long way from the repository of well-organized, searchable content for 3-D printers Wilson envisions for the industry's future. But he sees it all as the first steps.
"Guns aren't driving 3-D printing, but they will drive interest. Adoption comes when you figure out all the interesting things you can do with 3-D printing," Wilson said. "I don't think the technology develops unless there are people like me. Disruptive people."
In spite of the negative attention from the federal government, Wilson certainly isn't the first person to build a gun at home. In the world of firearms enthusiasts, home-build "80 percent kits," trading schematics and modifying parts and accessories has long been common, not to mention legal and well-regulated under existing law. And in terms of the history of firearms, even of the homemade variety, Defense Distributed isn't exactly reinventing the wheel with the print-at-home single-shot Liberator pistol, made of heat-resistant ABS.
"It's an overbuilt and expensive plastic zip gun. I'm not acting like it's a marvel of engineering or anything," Wilson said. He doesn't even think he is the first person to build a plastic gun using 3-D printing technology. But Wilson does seem to be the first person to do it on the Internet and then share precise plans for doing it yourself — with the help an $8,000 3-D printer.
"I was going not for first, I was going for the propaganda win. To get people saying, 'This is what 3-D printing is,' " he said. "This could be the subversive device, this printer, that changes how people think about manufacturing."
The gun itself might not be a feat of engineering, but the technology that makes it possible is, Wilson says, and it should not be stifled by hardware, software or material regulations before its full potential is realized, simply because government officials are afraid of what could be created on 3-D printers without strict supervision.
Michael Weinberg, vice president at Public Knowledge, a digital advocacy group in Washington, cautions against letting strong feelings abut gun control get tangled up in the underlying question of the future of 3-D printing technology and its regulation.
"We have rules for home gun manufacture, and no, 3-D printing doesn't really change that," Weinberg said. Laws governing "undetectable" plastic firearms — those that don't trigger metal detectors — have been in place for decades. The Liberator complies by including a non-functional chunk of metal in the plans, preventing it from going unnoticed by metal detectors, though whether home gun fabricators include it is up to them.
"Undetectable firearms will exist regardless of the method of manufacture. No one is going to stop undetectable firearms by stopping 3-D printing," he said. "Having a strict 3-D printing law on the books will stop someone you can't even anticipate who wants to do something legitimate and great with 3-D printing before they even try it."
Defense Distributed's successful test-fire came at an opportune — or inopportune, depending on your perspective — moment, with gun control on the minds of many after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the already-in-place Undetectable Firearms Act up for reauthorization this year. Some lawmakers are now determined to take 3-D printing into account when updating gun laws, in light of Wilson's "breakthrough."
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., has written the latest, bipartisan version of the twice-renewed 1988 undetectable firearms law to extend the already existing ban on plastic firearms to include homemade, plastic high-capacity magazines and receivers, as well as to make it illegal to manufacture, own, transport, buy or sell any firearm, receiver or magazine that is homemade and not detectable by a metal detector or does not present an accurate X-ray image. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is expected to introduce an equivalent bill in the Senate.
Israel's staff said there was outreach to "all the stakeholders involved in this issue," including those in the 3-D printing community, in the run-up to the bill's April 10 introduction and that "it is in no way opposed to 3-D printing." The primary concern, aides said, is preventing a lone wolf gunman from bringing an undetectable gun onto an airplane or into a high-security area.
District of Columbia Councilman Tommy Wells plans to keep 3-D printed guns out of the capitol city — known for some of the country's strictest gun regulations — whether Congress manages to pass its bill or not. The local legislation is modeled after the federal version and "bans weapons created by 3-D printers and emerging digital manufacturing technologies," said a news release.
"Digital manufacturing technologies hold a lot of exciting potential to make manufacturing more affordable and more accessible. But in this respect, the technology is fast outpacing the laws," Wells said. "An undetectable firearm constructed on your computer may sound like science fiction, but unfortunately, it's already here and our laws have never even contemplated this scenario. These weapons create a significant and immediate threat to public safety."
Because the D.C. City Council is currently working through its annual budget plan, Charles Allen, Wells' chief of staff, said he doesn't think the council will be ready to hold hearings on the Undetectable Firearms Act of 2013 until mid-June at the earliest.
In the meantime, Wilson said he would gladly appear at any government hearing to which he is invited. And, Defense Distributed's Liberator plans may have been removed from the group's website but not before they were downloaded more than 100,000 times. Mirror sites, a la WikiLeaks, were in place within hours and the plans had already popped up on file-sharing sites like Pirate Bay days earlier.
"If 3-D printing has promise, it's because it will be able to pierce some of these regulatory constraints. So I want to tell a story about what it is and what it should mean," Wilson said. "And that's what gets the politicians tweaked. It's not public safety, it's the sense that, 'wait a minute, we're not being consulted' or 'we don't have control over this process.' "