The Most Dangerous Gun Maker in the World

Review: Cody Wilson, 'Come And Take It: The Gun Printer's Guide to Thinking Free'

Cody Wilson holds what he calls a Liberator pistol
Cody Wilson holds what he calls a Liberator pistol / AP
January 29, 2017

In 2012, Wired Magazine named Cody Wilson one of the "15 Most Dangerous People in the World." At first glance, it was a surprising choice on a list that included the likes of Bashar al-Assad and "El Chapo" Guzman. At the time Wilson was a 24-year-old University of Texas law student. What made Wilson so dangerous was that he was working on a 3D printable gun, the digital files of which he then planned to distribute to anyone who wanted them.

In Come and Take It, Wilson tells the story of making that first "Wiki Weapon," from the inception of the idea to run-ins with the law to his encounters with strange characters, including Bitcoin activists, anarchists, and other radicals. He describes a meeting he attends in Bratislava: "What gathered later in that basement bar may have been one of the rudest squads of world-eaters and blackguards to meet in Europe in a half century. System hardeners, privacy extremists, and programmers helping to launder the money for Europe's best crime families."

Wilson himself is careful to play within the rules. To make his Wiki Weapon legally he obtains a Federal Firearms License. When he's unsure of the laws he visits a local ATF office to ask for advice. And when he finally makes a working prototype, he inserts a metal block into it to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act.

He is persistent in the face of daunting challenges. The crowdfunding site Indiegogo, where he attempts to raise money, pulls his project. Stratasys, the 3D printer company that leases him a printer, demands it back when it gets wind of what he's doing. (Movers arrive to take it before he has had time to pull it out of the box.) His nonprofit's domain name is seized by the federal government. New York Rep. Steve Israel (D.) sponsors legislation to prevent gun parts being made on 3D printers, specifically mentioning Wilson's activities. Wilson manages to make the setbacks work in his favor as they make for good copy and garner him ever more of the media attention where he excels.

Wilson names his 3D gun—a single-shot pistol—"The Liberator" after another single-shot pistol developed during World War II. The original Liberator was a gun that the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, devised. Huge numbers were meant to be dropped into occupied Europe for use by resistance forces, the idea being to create a situation where the occupier would need to fear every civilian as a potential suspect. The mass drop never happened because, in Wilson's view, the Allies got cold feet, realizing they'd have to pacify the same areas themselves.

In Wilson's account, he does not get cold feet. After successfully test-firing his Liberator—which took nine months to create—he drops it on the United States. He releases the plans, which allow anyone with a 3D printer to make the gun, to the internet on May 6, 2013. Within two days, 100,000 people download the plans. Government reaction is swift. The State Department demands that Wilson's company, Defense Distributed, pull the plans. (The company is currently suing the State Department in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.)

The problem with this book—and Wilson—is that he never explains in a coherent way why the ability to print a weapon is important to our freedoms. He never explains what his "Liberator" is supposed to liberate us from or indeed why he has created, and distributed the plans for, his 3D gun. There are only hints, some of them contradictory. At one point he says he stumbled into 3D gun printing "out of a simple desire for political mischief." Elsewhere he strikes a more portentous note. He says that Protestantism couldn't have come about without the printing press and it was this tool that brought down the Catholic order. Apparently the 3D gun is to have the same effect on our own. "What could we expect with self-replicating, networked, material printers?" he asks. "If man, irrevocably empowered and asserting his unalienable conscience, could dissolve his church, then whither his state?"

He seems to see the 3D gun, available to anyone, anywhere without any form of state control or constraints, as a way to bring down U.S. institutions. "I think the US has become a state more absolute than any of the old monarchies of Europe." As Wilson sees it, the system is "ailing, likely terminal," and U.S. elections are an "endless chain of electoral nonevents." Wilson describes himself as a "crypto-anarchist" without defining how "crypto" anarchists differ from the real thing. Earlier anarchists, in their revolt against state authority, threw bombs, and the 3D gun can be seen as Wilson's "bomb." Says Wilson in a VICE podcast: "If we were to just go out into the street, print off some guns and start shooting people, it [the system] can handle that. But putting this online and creating what we call a potentiality where you, anyone, can now be a suspect criminal, this is something the system can't handle because it has to know everything and see everything."

When it comes to 3D printed weapons, the cat is out of the bag. Wilson may have let it out of the bag. Governments will not be able to control their digital distribution, and their quality will become dramatically better than the Liberator in a very short time, because 3D printing technology is advancing at a rapid clip. Last year, Wilson wanted to get his hands on a Mark One, a $5,500 printer that could print plastic with carbon fiber, Kevlar, and fiber glass strands. The company denied him the sale. He then offered a $15,000 "bounty" for whoever could get him one. Fast forward to this year and those attending CES in January, the annual technology show in Las Vegas, saw on display the newest crop of 3D printers. These printers, which are meant for the home, now print carbon fiber-infused filament. They will cost less than $1,000. There was even a prototype of the first consumer 3D metal printer on display which prints aluminum, steel, and stainless steel. That printer will cost $3,000.

Much of the support (including financial support) that Wilson has received for his 3D gun project has come from proponents of the Second Amendment who see him as a conservative advocate of the right to bear arms. These supporters do not share—and are largely unaware of—Wilson's radical anti-state views. Few would probably agree with Wilson that "ours was not a world in need of protection from the threat of too much terrorism. We were instead terrorized by the threat of too much protection."

In 2013, Glenn Beck interviewed Wilson and came away suspicious and uncertain. "I don't know if we are friend or foe." Wilson admitted in the VICE podcast that he felt endangered during his Beck interview because he feared Beck would decide "foe," and take all of his supporters with him, the same Red State conservatives who are financially supporting his 3D gun project. Reading this book would scarcely ease Beck's anxieties. Wired may well be right — Wilson deserves that spot on the 15 most dangerous people list.

Published under: Book reviews , Guns