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Could a ‘Printable Gun’ Change the World?
The Wiki Weapon Project wants to ‘save and export human rights’ with digital schematics for a working plastic gun that could be reproduced by anybody with a 3D printer.
A group calling itself Defense Distributed has embarked upon a controversial project to make available schematics for a working plastic gun that could be downloaded and reproduced by anybody with a 3D printer.
Dubbed the Wiki Weapon Project, the initiative is the brainchild of University of Texas law student and Defense Distributed co-founder Cody Wilson and a group of like-minded friends with strong libertarian leaningsa mix of Ron Paul fans, hunting enthusiasts, and tech-savvy revolutionaries who see the availability of a “printable gun” as potentially upending power structures across the globe.
Defense Distributed is seeking $20,000 in seed money to develop CAD designs for a .22 caliber handgun made almost entirely of plastic parts that could be printed on an open-source RepRap printer. Initially, the group sought to create a prototype “WikiWep A” that would “instruct the design and development” of a fully printable “Wiki Weapon B” within three months or so, but Wilson told PCMag this week that an influx of outside technical support for the project might make it all happen even faster.
The de facto spokesman for the Wiki Weapon Project, who appears in a video plug for the Wiki Weapon Project (below), Wilson comes across as sophisticated beyond his 24 years but still very much in possession of a belief in the world-changing impact of one very powerful idea.
Speaking to PCMag this week, Wilson said he and his colleagues fully expected controversy to spring up over the idea of making firearms available outside of the legal framework that regulates the manufacture, distribution, and sale of guns in the United States and elsewhere.
‘These Are the Consequences of Liberty’
“If people want to be hostile towards it, whatever, it’s about getting the idea out there. Look, will this lower barriers to access to guns? Sure, but these are the consequences of liberty,” he said. “We created the ability to destroy civilization more than half a century ago and today it’s a totally banal idea or you know, we’ve managed to get by in a world with nuclear weapons. So why would the Wiki Weapon ruin the world?”
Defense Distributed may have already encountered some real-world pushback from ideological opponents of the Wiki Weapon Project. The group had set up a pitch page on crowd-funding website Indiegogo, raising $2,000 in an initial push for funding.
That page, along with the pledged cash, disappeared on Thursday and Wilson said he hasn’t been able to find out from Indiegogo what happened. It might have been a glitch, a temporary administrative hold in response to a user complaint, or something more permanent, he said. For now, the Wiki Weapon Project has managed to scratch back about half of the lost Indiegogo funding through direct fundraising.
Wilson is adamant that Defense Distributed doesn’t want engage in a pitched ideological battle with gun-control advocates. But he did admit that his crew recently sent out a taunting fax that read simply, “It’s Over” under an image of a printed gun to the Brady Campaign and similar groups.
Those japes aside, he said he views the Wiki Weapon Project as more of an inevitability than anything else. The initiative is simply the natural outgrowth of a technology that will make printed guns available whether Wilson and his team succeed in their efforts or not, he said.
“It’s kind of a first step. Symbols are important. It’s a symbol, it says, ‘Guns can be printed,’” Wilson told us. “It opens whole new frontiers for intellectual property. A ton of stuff is going to happen in the next decade. I’m not saying our particular project is going to revolutionize the world. But if this project totally fails and we suck at life, guns will be printable by someone, somewhere.”
If that sounds like the classic “somebody’s going to do it anyway, so it might as well be me” cop-out, Wilson takes a longer view of the issue. We chatted about the nuclear bomb analogy, discussing the futility of trying to squeeze the proverbial toothpaste back into the tube. He concludes that when a disruptive technology like 3D printing comes along, it’s wiser to start dealing with the new reality rather than beating your head against the wall trying to somehow un-invent it.
But are printed guns really all that close to being invented? In contrast to Defense Distributed’s belief that they’re just around the corner, Dave Workman of the Second Amendment Foundation is a lot more dubious.
The Skeptics Weigh In
“First of all, I haven’t seen a firearm that functions using this process. So my first take is skepticism,” said Workman, communications director for the Second Amendment Foundation.
“I’ve seen pictures of a gun where they’ve printed out the frame for a lower receiver for an AR-15 rifle then you add the other parts,” he said. “That’s a legal firearm, but again, that’s just a part of a firearm and I’m not convinced even that works very well or what the legal implications are.”
As for a gun comprised almost entirely of plastic, 3D printed parts, Workman simply doesn’t think it’s possible to make one without winding up with a weapon that might explode in your hand as often as not.
“There are parts of a gun that have to be metal,” he told PCMag. Processes like rifling are difficult, if not impossible, to do with a 3D printer.
Workman raised concerns about liability issues, questioning how an initiative like the Wiki Weapon Project would be able to safely define itself outside of the legal framework currently in place for firearms’ manufacturers and distributors.
“If there’s going to be at some point the ability to literally print out or manufacture a firearm component on a 3D printer, then how are you going to be able to make sure that the materials used are safe? When a firearm is discharged, a tremendous amount of force is released,” he said.
“Maybe they come up with a material that has the proper tolerances, but as I see it, the people developing this alleged technology have no way to guarantee that Joe Blow out in his basement in New Mexico is going to use the correct materials. So the gun blows up in Joe Blow’s face and what happens then? Who’s liable?”
Workman’s concerns about the legal implications of the project were, interestingly, echoed by a political foe of the Second Amendment Foundation.
“There would be a multitude of legal issues implicated by such a proposal, e.g. who is the ‘manufacturer,’ ‘importer,’ and/or ‘dealer,’ whether interstate transfer prohibitions are implicated, and many more,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center.
Rand, like some other sources contacted for this article, begged off providing a more comprehensive analysis until more was known about what would essentially be a novel utilization of an emerging technology.
Navigating the Legal Minefield
For his part, Wilson said he’s been discussing such issues with legal counsel in anticipation of various forms of blowback should the Wiki Weapon Project come to fruition. He’s already received some advice that on its face disrupts the purity of the project, in his eyes, if only slightly.
For example, any guns that Defense Distributed itself prints would probably have to include a metal block of some sort to provide an X-Ray signature in compliance with U.S. law regulating plastic or ceramic weapons, Wilson said.
But he remained confident that simply making what’s essentially the digitally coded schematics for a gun available on the Internet to whomever chose to download it would be legal. This despite the murky standing within the regulatory framework of the type and utility of software code he’s attempting to design. After all, code for a printable gun that can be created on a 3D printer is something more than just a blueprint but something less than a full assembly kit mailed out to somebody.
Another issue for Defense Distributed is its own protection from liability and potential intellectual property vultures. Wilson said the group is leaning towards GNU licensing to keep the project open source and free. But he remains wary of directly courting outside investors and tech contributionswhich appears like it may be necessary if the crowd-funding campaign is on permanent hiatus.
“I’m very, very [wary] of sharing information about the project and anxious about somebody claiming something’s their IP. I’ve taken meticulous care to document what are my ideas. But there’s got to be a level of trust to do something like this, so I don’t know,” he said.
As for the advisability of potentially making guns available to minors, criminals, and terrorists, Defense Distributed’s mantra is that the benefit to liberty and human dignity conferred by a successful project will outweigh the negatives.
“People still don’t understand what this thing is. This thing will save and export human rights,” Wilson said.
By Damon Poeter, PCMag