Since ARTINFO first covered the myriad uses of 3-D printing, the technology has come a long, long way. A year ago we mused on its transformative potential for both the manufacturing and creative industries, and today, thanks to exploration by some exceptionally innovative people, doctors are able to 3-D print lifesaving skull implants and architects are poised to 3-D print homes. The dark side to this progress, however, has also become apparent: People are now 3-D printing untraceable gun parts, too.
Cody Wilson, if you haven’t heard, is the 25-year-old federally licensed gun manufacturer and dealer who founded Defense Distributed, a website that features the downloadable CAD file for 3-D printing the lower receiver of an AR-15 (the very semi-automatic weapon Adam Lanza carried into Sandy Hook Elementary school). He’s also the subject of “Click. Print. Gun,” a short documentary Motherboard, Vice’s technology channel, released last week. The film follows Wilson in his day-to-day tasks: pulling a lower receiver fresh off of a 3-D printer; loading the trunk of his car with gun parts; and smugly shooting round after round of ammunition in an open field in his Wayfarers and popped collar.
At only 24 minutes, the film is short, but brimming with startling — and infuriating — revelations. Aside from its associations with the Sandy Hook massacre, the AR-15 is notable because it’s fully customizable. Each of its parts can be ordered online save for the lower receiver, the central component each part attaches to, and the only component that carries a serial number and must be registered. Wilson’s efforts to print these parts at home is an intentional circumvention of the registration process. Through Defense Distributed, he is actively sharing that ability with anyone in the world with access to an Internet connection and a 3-D printer.
The filmmakers refrain from condemning or condoning his actions — although I detect a subtle mockery in coupling a voiceover of Wilson saying “We’re not afraid to look like idiots” with footage of a 3-D printed magazine collapsing in his hands. For me, the disturbing film sparked two major, maddening takeaways:
1) This technology is evolving faster than we had anticipated, and its misuse is inevitable.
When New York Times writer Nick Bilton briefly noted Defense Distributed in his Bits blog in October, reactions to the idea of a 3-D printed gun were skeptical: “This is probably a non-issue,” “A little bit of scare-mongering here,” “The technology isn't as close as you suggest,” the comments read. The commentariat argued that ABS plastic could never withstand the heat or recoil of a gun, and in the unlikely case that it could, 3-D printers’ prohibitive price tags would leave them only in the hands of the wealthy. The film I watched last week, however, showed Wilson firing 600 rounds of ammunition from a 3-D printed lower receiver without failure, created on printing equipment that he had rented.
How 3-D printing’s rapid evolution can be regulated is a difficult question. Shortly after realizing Wilson’s intentions to 3-D print a gun, 3-D printer manufacturer Stratasys repossessed the machine he had rented before he was able to take it out of the box, citing his lack of manufacturing permit. In March, however, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Fireworks (ATF) granted Wilson license to manufacture and distribute, as currently there are no restrictions on an individual manufacturing guns. The First and Second Amendments, sadly, were written with no anticipation of filesharing on the Internet.
Bilton, who shows up in the film for an interview, broaches the scary truth: Technology moves much faster than the law. Just look at the rise of social media as an example. “It was six years before Facebook was actually held accountable for all the privacy things that they had done,” said Bilton. The social media monolith grew to “a billion users before the FCC had actually caught up to the things they had done.”
2) For Wilson, this isn’t actually about the guns.
It would be easy to assume that Wilson is an impassioned, life-long gun fanatic — but the documentary paints a portrait of something else. He plainly states on camera that he has no interest in supporting Second Amendment rights; instead he invokes political theorist Francis Fukuyama while driving around in his BMW. He didn’t pick up his first gun until the age of 23, he told ARTINFO. That was less than two years ago.
What is his 3-D printing crusade about, then? After last week's screening, one politely restrained audience member asked Wilson what his motivation was. “Hostility to political inequality and contempt for legal regimes that think they can withhold something so important,” he replied. Afterwards, as I was speaking to Wilson directly I gleaned the most telling fact of the evening: He is a law student at the University of Texas on scholarship, but he has no plans to become a lawyer. Years ago, he thought to himself, “Oh this would be fun to do,” he told ARTINFO. “Law school is easy... A lot of people go to grad school, right?”
It’s a phrase that smacks of unbridled egotism and selfishness. He attends law school for the same reason that he manufacturers unlicensed guns: Just because he can. As far as I can tell, there are only two types of people who live this way. There are children, who through trial and error eventually come to learn that their actions have consequences, and then there are those others, that subsection of humanity Ta-Nehisi Coates articulately defines as those who demand “that all social interaction happen on their terms.”