The Wiki Weapon project is an initiative undertaken by Defense Distributed, a non-profit headed by University of Texas law student Cody Wilson aimed at generating a freely-distributed, open source design for a 3-D printed firearm--an idea that has come under serious fire from proponents of increased gun control in the U.S., particularly in light of last week’s tragic shooting of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The idea behind the project--embraced by some, absolutely detested by others--is that technology will soon make regulating firearms virtually impossible. That is a very polarizing idea. But to say the very least Wiki Weapons is also a technologically intriguing project, one that forces us to examine some very relevant--some might say ominous--questions about new technological capabilities and where they are taking us, as well as what happens when technology gets way out in front of the law. We spoke with Wilson briefly this week hoping to address some of these questions. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Popular Science: It would be pointless for us to ignore the context in which we’re speaking today, given the tragedy that unfolded in Connecticut last week. Defense Distributed has committed to creating a shareable, freely-distributed design for a working 3-D printed firearm--a way for anyone with a 3-D printer to quickly produce a working gun. Does an incident like this one in any way alter your conviction that this is the right thing to do?
Cody Wilson: No, not at all. If it did change what we thought you’d be right to recognize that we’re not serious. I don’t want to be confrontational about it, but I will say it this way: understanding that rights and civil liberties are something that we protect is also understanding that they have consequences that are also protected, or tolerated. The exercise of civil liberties is antithetical to the idea of an completely totalizing state. That’s just the way it is.
I heard Joe Scarborough say this, and this is a flagrant example. He said “I was a Second Amendment supporter but this has made me change my mind.” Well, then you never really were serious about it.
You know, the jurisprudence of the Second Amendment has only just begun. The results that Second Amendment supporters have received from the courts are probably as good as they could’ve ever hoped for, but we’re already off on the wrong foot. The court treats this civil liberty differently than every other right. It’s amazing. Even the Supreme Court majority has displayed this weird calculus about social cost that assumes from the beginning that gun ownership is a nuisance that can be safe every now and then and has to be tolerated. This isn’t how we treat any other right in the Bill of Rights--as a nuisance first. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. The presumption that it’s just a bad idea to own a gun, that we have to subject ourselves to all of these things and jump through all of these hoops to own a firearm--it doesn’t work that way with speech, it doesn’t work that way for the Fifth Amendment, the Fourth Amendment.
This project is, as much as anything else, an immanent critique of Second Amendment-ism. We’re demonstrating the difference between the promise and the practice of the access to firearms.
Where do you feel this project fits into the “gun control” conversation? What you’re doing fits more into the maker movement than the traditional firearms industry paradigm. So when people talk gun control to you, do you see this project fitting into the same conversation?
Right, it doesn’t fit into the regulatory framework for gun manufacturing. But of course it fits into the larger discussion. A reporter will ask me “what are you going to do to restrict access to the files?” Well look, you don’t have to get a background check to check out a book from the library. We’re not going to do anything to restrict access to the files. That’s the whole point. The control would have to happen at the point of access to the information, and I just don’t have that attitude about the restraint and censorship of information that the prohibitionists do.
Here’s how the discussion demonstrates the difference in the argument. So-called “progressives,” their only response is “ban it. Ban it, ban it, ban it--ban it here, ban it there, ban the future.” It just seems so conservative all of a sudden. How are these people committed to civil liberties? I’m saying: “Look, of course this can be abused. But it’s preferable to the available alternative.”
Gun control is a policy question with assumptions about how traditional guns are distributed. We’re saying “Look, as a consequence of this technology the way we do things is altered. We’ve stepped outside of your program. So pass your law.” I was reading a piece about us in The Australian today and they kept mentioning that “this is illegal here.” They mentioned it like four times. You could hear the nervousness, because it’s no longer possible to just withhold things from people.
But this project does raise many interesting legal issues. Do you feel like Defense Distributed is navigating these legal waters--waters that are almost completely uncharted--in a way that respects the spirit of the law?
Of course we’ve been careful not to break the law. But who is to say what the spirit of the law is. Perhaps I’ve entered a new cynical phase after going through a couple of years of law school, but the spirit of the law is up to anyone’s interpretation. So that leaves a bad taste in my mouth when we talk about the spirit of the law. It’s a huge discussion that I don’t even want to get into.
If there’s some kind of natural law, if you will, I think we’re in the spirit of that. I guess to answer your question more pointedly: no. The point isn’t to match the spirit of the law. If the law was to say today that you shouldn’t have a firearm, we would still say “yes you should.” If you want to, of course, the idea isn’t “you must have a gun,” but that you’re not free unless you have the choice.
I think what bothers a lot of people about this isn’t necessarily gun ownership, but the access. For example, at Popular Science we’ve written a lot about young people--high school students and younger--who are amazingly deft with this technology. They have access to it and they get it, in many cases better than adults. So what’s to stop a kid from printing a firearm? I mean, what you’re doing is essentially lowering the barrier to entry for firearm possession.
The goal is to completely lower the barrier. I do see the distinction that needs to be made sometimes. People say “well, you’re providing access to firearms.” Okay, yes, in that the information is there, and that the technology itself assembles the component in a way that is an advantage for the non-expert. You’ve always been able to make a gun in this country. This just allows you to do it without knowing how--software and a machine does it for you, as opposed to other machines like a CNC mill, which no kid is going to have in his bedroom. But he might have a 3-D printer. I’ll give you the entire hypothetical situation, sure. Is it much more possible now? Of course.
But the question to me is phrased in such a way--that is the point, to evoke an emotional response. “Now a kid can do this.” This is what so many people say--“well, the mentally ill, felons, and children will all have printable guns.” Well, yeah, sorry, but this is one of the negative dimensions when you lower the barriers to entry for certain things. It just is. So you must have a culture that is prepared to accept and adapt to these kind of realities, instead of pretending with these regulationist ideas that we’re still stuck in. We still just pretend that things are going to keep going the way they’re going--that somehow we’re going to have the resources and the state power to watch everyone’s 3-D printer. That’s absurd. So let’s accommodate.
But owning a firearm is a huge, huge responsibility. So isn’t lowering the barrier to entry to that responsibility detrimental to responsible firearm ownership?
I agree with you in an abstract sense. It should be this way, sure. But how can you exact some kind of legal regime that enforces that without infringing on the rights of countless people.
To bring in a legal analogy, the First Amendment is often compared to the Second. And you know, people should say nice things to each other. But how much state power are you willing to cede and use to pretend that you can control that at the expense of vast numbers of people.
In the broader context of 3-D printing, this project has the potential to jar legislators and regulators out of their bureaucratic malaise for a moment and actually pull our regulatory framework into the 21st century--I’m not talking about firearms regulations here, but about general acknowledgment at the government level of the serious disruptions this technology is going to cause in intellectual property law and in other areas. Would you consider that a success?
If the government were to regulate this, would we consider that a success?
I don’t even have the wherewithal, ultimately, to do anything about this [bureaucratic malaise]. So we’re just ignoring it. We’re developing this in a way that keeps us out of a correctional institution, but honestly it’s about how many free spheres of action can you expand and create. We picked the low-hanging fruit at the time. We thought it was cool as well, it was 3-D printing. And we thought: how many edges of this technology can we press--let’s take it to the limit, let’s see what we can do with this. And it’s amazing how many people are trying to stop us.
So this is less about the Second Amendment and more about stretching this technology into a place where it’s bending both its physical limits but also the limits of where the technology can go. And the limits of people’s comfort zones, perhaps.
It’s the second thing. It’s the futurism, it’s expanding free spheres of action. And if it does that it will only do so marginally. Our contribution will be here and there marginal. Vast amounts of effort and money have gone into what? Three or four custom mods, a reinforced AR plastic receiver? These are marginal. But the idea is to expand the sphere of action, because we believe in this kind of decentralized planning as an alternative to central planning.
There’s so much to say about this, and it seems every other week there are new terms about gun control and all of that. I’m just sort of an enthusiast of the Second Amendment, and so yeah--I’m willing to talk about it. But we see a global thing here. I tell people sometimes “we’re not making a Second Amendment argument.” The basic idea is to take a technology, play futurist, and surprise people. What can you do?
But what if what you can do is something unequivocally bad? I’m sure you’ve thought this through extensively. What if at some point in the future an unmitigated tragedy like the one that played out in Connecticut were to occur, and the weapon used to perpetrate it turned out to be either derivative of or even directly sourced from a Defense Distributed design, would you feel any kind of responsibility or accountability? Do you worry that, regardless of how you feel, that something might come back on you legally speaking?
Oh yeah. Not in regard to personal responsibility, but to the legal question. That’s one of the biggest things we’re thinking about right now. How we license some of this stuff is going to be really important--this is basically the second phase for us. Once you start approaching usability, this becomes really important. There could be liability claims. Other countries might start making claims against you, saying you are in contempt of their laws. There could be all kinds of overreaction.
And I’m not saying that some of these claims might not be valid. It’s inevitable. There are so many factors involved in this technology--somebody is going to do a bad build. Someone is going to hurt themselves. And as technology advances, someone will be injured, someone will be killed. We should all admit: these are possibilities and are in fact inevitabilities. But what do we want to say? Are these reasons not to be serious about the right, or about the technology? To say that it’s better that some things not happen? Or that some ideas not be had?
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.