Cody Wilson doesn’t come across dangerous. There’s a slight gap between his two front teeth, a bit of an underbite. Around his middle, the beginnings of a paunch, visible through his fitted grey denim. Clutching an iPhone in one hand, a cup of strong black coffee in the other, he’s not exactly menacing – until he looks at you.
His eyes are searching, hard, darting around the West Hollywood cafe. Brown eyes that seem a touch nervous, and tired.
Wilson has been labeled one of the most dangerous people in the world – twice. He quotes philosophers like Nietzsche and Foucault and calls himself a crypto-anarchist, a digital radical. He’s hung with Julian Assange, appeared on Showtime, Vice and documentaries like Deep Web. He likes to be the bad guy.
The 28-year-old is the face of open-source 3D gun design, an online movement of enthusiasts who use 3D printers and machining tools to build their own homemade weapons – ones that can shoot very real, and very deadly bullets.
Wilson isn’t some gun loon on an online soapbox; he is a well-educated, well-spoken, very argumentative young man who’s as responsible for creating his press portrayal as the journalists who’ve written about him. “I’m now more and more of a self-caricature,” he tells me. “I’ve had to become a fanatic over the past three years just to move the ball another three yards.”
In 2013, while a law student at the University of Texas, the Arkansas native posted free blueprints for a plastic pistol called the Liberator. They were downloaded over 100,000 times before the state department ordered him to shut down, although the design remains available on file-sharing sites. The government alleges that Wilson violated arms export statutes, even though Wilson says there is no law that says publishing gun design online is criminal.
“All I tried to do in law school was print a pistol and put it on the internet,” he says. “Now I’m on a ride I can’t get off of.”
Wilson wants to circumvent the big gun makers and give people their own way to build weapons, a position which has made him a major voice in gun-web rights and, in a counter-intuitive twist, in the free speech movement.
To do that, his company, Defense Distributed, offers the sale of two very controversial – and legal – items: the firing mechanism and aluminum spine of what’s called a Ghost Gun, a build-it-at-home way to make your own firearm (without serial numbers), and Ghost Gunners, a milling tool that allows any DIY-er to build lower receivers at home.
The sale and shipping of these “blanks” are unregulated, and there are tens of thousands in California alone. That’s because it’s not illegal to make your own gun, but under 1968’s Gun Control Act, it’s illegal to make a firearm for sale. But since these are unfinished pieces, operators like Wilson remain in a legal loophole – even though these tools have been used in mass shooting before.
“I’m not making guns for you,” Wilson says, “I’m shipping the possibility to make it for yourself.”
With that rationale, he’s used the first amendment to argue the second amendment, spending three years – and over $1m – suing the state department.
On 6 June, oral arguments begin in New Orleans’s fifth circuit court of appeals, where he’s essentially pushing the government to explain why sharing online information – even if it’s the instructions to build a weapon – is a crime, and if it equates to arms exportation.
When I ask if people should be scared of him, his lips curl. “I represent the destruction of commonsense gun control,” he says. “They should be very afraid. My ideas are dangerous to them because they live in a managed world. I prefer to be a kind of horseman coming down. It sends our enemies into despair and it brings joy to our allies.”
Who’s “they”? “The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Bloomberg people, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, anybody who writes for Salon, the professional American left, the New York Times,” Wilson replies. The list goes on and on, and he even throws the NRA under the bus, as “simply another kind of gun control group that protects the interests of American gun manufacturers”.
To fully understand Wilson’s battle, we need to pull back. While still in school in 2012, Wilson founded Defense Distributed as a not-forprofit organization. A year later is when things came to a head. That’s when he first posted the Liberator files, dropped out of school and sued the government to determine if publishing technical data is against the law, and whether file sharing is akin to exporting firearms.
“That’s all we’re fighting about in court … The theory is that for the first time ever, publication to the internet, apart from generating data, amounts to an export of technical data related to defense services.”
Battling the US government necessitates deep pockets, and in order to fund years of litigation, Defense Distributed began manufacturing, selling and shipping Ghost Gunners, the aforementioned milling tool producing lower receivers, and the lower receivers themselves.
Wilson developed the Ghost Gunner so he could fund his lawsuit to the tune of over $3m in sales in the past two years, a war chest which also accounts for a civil suit pending in Florida over fraud (against a manufacturer who Wilson claims never completed a contract).
The case has caught the attention of major free speech buffs, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Floyd Abrams, who argued on behalf of the New York Times in the Pentagon papers case (and won), characterizes it as a very serious first amendment play. Margot Kaminski, an assistant law professor at Moritz College, agrees, adding that the fact that these instructions are already in the public domain makes it tough for the state “to put the cat back in the bag”.
If he does win, Wilson says his first publishing attempt will seem like a splash in the kiddie pool. He’s set up a system to publish what he calls an “inaugural event”, where he plans to “dump tens of thousands of dollars into liberating the specs of classic battle rifles”, he says.
“I have developers for anything and everything, some of the best talent in the world. I know some of the world’s best hackers. It’s all ready to go. I have interested stakeholders, a large network that care about what I do … I’m not the NRA. I’m the internet.”
The worst part about Cody Wilson is that he’s likable in person, and it’s easy to want to root for him as the underdog. But then he’ll say something so off-the-wall – “gun safety is using both hands”, say – and you crash back to reality.
He seems to get off on the negative attention but then, a breath later, he admits that the stress has taken a toll, his life chipping away like the shell of an egg.
“I’ve become this narrow, strange version of myself,” he says. “I feel tired. It’s hard to have the same sense of humor I had in the beginning. I’m completely out of shape, I don’t eat well, I don’t sleep that much. I get acute stress all the time, and I get it in my wrist, a tingle in my hand. When the state department smashed me, I was sick. Doctors said it was mono, but I was in bed for weeks. My family is worried about me. They recognize that I’m in a lot of trouble and they just worry. They didn’t want this for me.”
But he hasn’t stopped. He’s toyed with BitCoin startups, recently soft-launched a Kickstarter for a guns marketplace called GunSpring, and unveiled the Ghost Gunner 2 for home-manufacturing of ARs.
And here’s where his pro-gun freedom fighter persona begins to clash. The finished weapons his products help produce do lack serial numbers, but it’s not like anyone can buy them. His purchasers are stringently vetted by Defense Distributed via government agency list aggregates. That means thorough background checks.
“I constantly run backscreens of our customers and our depositors against the grid, which are updated daily,” he says. “There’s tons of law I have to deal with already, even though I try to position us as a radical libertarian company. I have to certify that [clients] are US persons, not US citizens, but US persons. That means do you have a green card, what kind of visa do you have?”
Wilson pays a couple of hundred a month for this compliance – not to ensure his wares don’t get into the wrong hands, but to keep the feds happy. “I do exactly what I’m required by law, and nothing else,” he declares. “We’ve shipped almost 2,000 machines at this point. We’re responsible for at least 5,000 to 10,000 new ARs that exist. At least.”
He says it proudly, like a child that’s just taken a magnifying glass to an ant colony. Either he fails to see the pain his creations can bring, or doesn’t care.
When I posit the potential, Wilson furrows his brow and barks: “Show me. Prove it. It’s very unlikely someone’s going to buy a Ghost Gunner, make a gun and then go commit a crime. It’s never happened. A third of our entire market is upper-middle-class people in California that have expendable income and enjoy building handguns.”
He claims his designs have not been used to kill, but if not his, surely his competitors’.
Last year, a murder-suicide in Stanford, California was committed with homemade handguns crafted from lower receivers. In 2012, before Wilson began Defense Distributed, an AR-15 lower receiver – a product Wilson now retails for $65 – was used in the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Wilson didn’t sell that item, but it’s essentially the same one he does sell now. In 2013, John Zawahri slaughtered five in Santa Monica using a home-assembled AR. Zawahri was unable to buy a gun due to his mental health issues, but he built his own with a lower receiver he finished milling using a drill press and other tools – a design horribly reminiscent of Wilson’s.
There’s no way to determine how many – if any – have been killed by Wilson’s toys. But even he admits: “It’s an eventuality. Not necessarily a likelihood, but the longer I’m around …” Isn’t one tragedy one too many?
“No,” says Wilson. “It does not register on my meter. Whatsoever.”
Mitch Berman, who taught Wilson at law school, remembers him fondly, but “didn’t get the impression that his commitment was deeply philosophical, but rather something he realized was doable, and wanted to be the guy to do it.
“I thought it was a bad idea. Being able to print out a gun at home seems to allow for a potentially large loophole for commonsense gun preservation.”
He hasn’t spoken to Wilson in five years, but shared the same concerns as I had. “If you build enough guns, they’re going to be used in ways to make some shudder. He assured me he thought about it, understood it would happen, and was prepared to live with it.” Berman pauses, measures his words. “It would be a rare cat that actually doesn’t feel substantial pains during that circumstance. I hope it doesn’t destroy his life and career. He’s still a young guy.”
Looking ahead, Wilson is keeping a close eye on the presidential race. A Republican in office means the second amendment – and assault weapons – are safe. And a Democrat probably means an all-out ban on them. Depending on who’s in the White House, change may come swiftly.
“If Hillary Clinton is elected president, I become a much more important person in the gun world. It’s conceivable, especially under four or eight years of Hillary, that I become the biggest way that people make ARs. Who knows?” If and when he gets closure in his case, Cody Wilson will win and the web will be flooded with instructions to make more weapons.
If Wilson and others really cared about America’s doctrines of freedom, liberty and justice as much as they do their commitment to their guns, they’d ensure failsafes like biometric locks or even serial numbers if that would placate naysayers, and make products safer. Instead, it seems to be a my-way-or-nothing, pry-my-gun-from-my-cold-dead-fingers mentality, with no room for debate.
After coffee, we walk around my neighborhood and I invite Wilson over to my apartment. We talk politics and literature, and he tells me about his book, slated for October release with Simon & Schuster, aptly titled Come And Take It.
We share a beer and I show him a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. An original – the 1960s handbook for subversives. Wilson flips through the frayed, yellow pages, recipes for mayhem, revenge, drugs.
“Did you try any of this?” he asks. I shake my head. No. Some doors are better left unopened.