Back in 2013 you may remember hearing stories about 3D-printed guns. The technology has continued to progress, largely spearheaded by one group. Defense Distributed, and its founder Cody Wilson, are continuing their quest to put the machinery and information for weapons manufacturing to anyone who wants it. The United States government and several corporations have stood in their way, but that hasn’t stopped them from releasing their Ghost Gunner CNC mill, or filing a lawsuit against the Department of Justice to force an answer about the legality of their activities.
Cody Wilson describes himself as an anarchist who has taken his political thought from many different sources. Notably, he doesn’t believe in the concept of intellectual property. It’s important to know that up-front to understand why he created Defense Distributed in 2012. To quote the website, they “sought to create a political and legal vehicle for demonstrating and promoting the subversive potential of publicly-available 3D Printing technologies.”
In case you’re completely unfamiliar with 3D printing, here is a brief introduction. 3D printers are small machines that print 3D structures out of plastic. The printers use something like a CAD file, a set of instructions, that tell the printer how to make a 3D object. As long as the item can fit within the machine’s specifications and the material’s specifications, you could make just about anything out of plastic. This includes high-density plastics like ABS, or even newer materials like carbon fiber with later machines.
The initial goal of Defense Distributed was to create the world’s first printable handgun. Wilson’s thought was that if 3D printers became widely available, there should be no reason why anyone couldn’t print their own gun if they had the information to do so. But he has a larger goal in mind too. He believes that technology will enable individuals to create their own sovereign space by circumventing laws so disruptively that the government becomes irrelevant. He also believes that though it is possible that his weapons can be used for harm, the liberty of being able to print your own weapons is a higher value.
Almost immediately the plan ran into resistance. Their Indiegogo campaign was shut down for violating their terms of service, but interest in the idea was already piqued. The Bitcoin community got together and funded the initial project enough for prototyping. However, the 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys heard about what Defense Distributed wanted to do with their printer and revoked their lease. They even sent a team to repossess the machine. This made world news. It also gave Defense Distributed even more support. They eventually did get a Stratasys printer legally from another person off eBay and began work.
Their first goal was to make a 3D printed lower receiver for an AR-15. The AR-15 is a popular semi-automatic rifle. But why the lower receiver and not the entire gun? All of the other parts of the gun are unregulated for sale and easily found. The lower receiver of a gun is considered by the government to be the part that’s actually classified as a firearm according to law. It’s much like the chassis of a car. Without a lower receiver, the other parts cannot fit together to make a functional gun. It is the part that is stamped with a serial number for tracking purposes. Cody’s dream was to put the power to make a reliable lower receiver of an AR-15 into the hands of anyone who wanted one.
Not only that, but they also released plans for printing larger gun magazines for AR-15 and AR-37 rifles (30-rounds). They also released video of their achievements, including a very impressive video of a completed AR-15 with one of their plastic lower receivers firing hundreds of rounds in succession.
They put the 3D-printable plans up on a site called DEFCAD, which is now no longer extant. People started quickly downloading the file, but the Justice Department stepped in. They said that Wilson may run afoul of export control laws regarding weapons. Wilson took down the plans but by then it was too late for the Justice Department. The plans can easily be found in many places on the web.
Defense Distributed decided to take things further by developing a gun that can be completely 3D printed. This resulted in the release of the “Liberator” in May 2013. The gun is named after a single-shot weapon that was dropped over Nazi France in WWII for the resistance. It fires a single bullet. This too provoked a federal response. Defense Distributed is now in a protracted legal battle over whether there is a requirement to seek governmental approval before releasing privately generated gun files into the public domain. The same thing happened as with the plans for the lower receiver; the plans were removed but can be found online.
Despite Wilson’s anarchist beliefs, his strategy for Defense Distributed is over-compliance with the government so they can remain in operation. They paid the fees to become a licensed firearm manufacturer. The plans for the Liberator include a place to insert a chunk of metal so the weapon can comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act, though that doesn’t stop anyone from printing the gun and not inserting the piece.
Lawmakers have also tried pushing for greater regulation of 3D-printed weapons now that the parts Defense Distributed has made are proven. It is unknown if any of their designs has been used in the commission of a crime. But given the likelihood of increased regulation, Defense Distributed has decided to take things further still.
The Ghost Gunner
In police lingo, a ghost gun is an untraceable gun. The Ghost Gunner is a device that can make ghost guns. It is a very small CNC mill, the same used in manufacturing plants all over the world, that can mill aluminum parts. Out of the box, the mill can manufacture aluminum lower receivers for AR-15s. To know how this is possible, or legal, we have to go into a bit of history.
Gunsmithing has a long history in the U.S. Names like Smith & Wesson and Colt are legends. When the government began regulating weapons, they had to balance the needs of gunsmiths as well. The deal that they struck for many weapons is the creation of an 80% lower receiver. This is a receiver that is 80% complete. It requires the skills and expertise of a gunsmith to complete.
A ghost gun in itself is not illegal. It is only illegal to sell ghost guns. Thus, many gunsmithing enthusiasts buy 80% receivers, finish them, and then buy the remaining parts to make their own weapons. What the Ghost Gunner does is make the completion of the last 20% of the lower receiver easy for anyone with a laptop computer and an 80% lower receiver. No prior CNC knowledge is required. In just a few hours, a fully-functional, untraceable AR-15 can be created.
What about the plans? Wilson and his team decided to put a USB port into the device and include the plans on a USB stick that ships with the computer. They also take particular care to vet anyone who orders a device to make sure they live in the US. They know that if one of these machines with the plans gets out of the country and is traced back to a sale they made, they could run afoul of export control laws and get arrested. Nevertheless, the plans are freely available online on their website.
The software that comes with the device guides the user through all the instructions they’ll need to manufacture an AR-15 out of an 80% lower receiver. They made the process as simple as possible by letting the software handle the work. The user does have to turn and secure the lower receiver in different ways and vacuum out aluminum chips. The software gives exact instructions on how to do this.
The Ghost Gunner is open sourced too, along with all the code used to operate the machine. It is also incredibly durable for a home-use CNC machine. This is no hobbyist mill. It is meant for serious machining. The manual for the device also tells hobbyists how they can write their own files for the machine so they can manufacture other gun receivers, or any other aluminum parts. While Defense Distributed may offer other lower receiver plans in the future, they are leaving development of other aluminum objects to the public. The device does accept TinyG code from any CAM program.
So far, the device is for sale although current stocks are sold out and they are not accepting pre-orders. According to the last blog post they made in April, the initial batch of orders for the Ghost Gunner are shipping now. It is assumed that they will open up orders again once the first batch has shipped. Best part? The machine is only $1500, which is extraordinarily cheap for a high-quality CNC machine.
It is important to reiterate that Defense Distributed is working within the bounds of the current law. To remain in business they have complied with demands from the Department of Justice to remove plans for the Liberator and their original 3D-printed gun components, but they have repeatedly asked for clarification from the department about whether what they are doing is illegal. After a long time without an answer, they decided to take the fight to the Department of Justice. They have filed a federal lawsuit in Texas to seek clarification on the issue of whether or not their plans are protected by the 1st and 2nd Amendments. For more information on the case, here is a recent report from Reason.com: http://reason.com/blog/2015/05/07/cody-wilson-sues-state-department-over-t
The implications for communities
The internet has allowed people to share information of any kind to anyone on the globe with a connection. This has led to massive societal change in just a few decades. Traditional industries that control information like the music industry or publishers have had to embrace entirely new business models to stay afloat.
There are pieces of information that governments would also love to keep secret or out of the hands of the “bad guys”. Sites like Wikileaks and the Snowden documents have been pushing government secrets into the hands of the people to expose what our governments are doing. Groups like Defense Distributed are do the same thing for an industry that is tightly linked to power, the weapons industry.
It is quite likely that the development of 3D printed weapons or CNC weapons will continue even if regulators ban the practice. The means of producing these goods are getting easier to get. 3D printers are sold in stores. If the Ghost Gunner continues to grow in popularity, other companies will want to get into the action by copying their CNC machine design.
But is such easy access to weapons good for the resiliency of a community? It is hard to say. One of the strengths of communities is that there are many different ways to make them. You could come together and create a completely pacifist community that chooses to not own weapons. You could also have a community that requires every member to have a weapon and know how to use it. Or anything in between. However, creating home-made weapons that can stand up to the weaponry of even today’s police forces may give some people comfort. Because when society breaks down, history has shown time and time again that you can’t count on the police for your safety. If something like that would happen to you, your community will have to provide your own protection. In such times, it may be better to have a weapon than to not have one. Only time will tell.
To quote a song:
You’re better at playing dominance,
I’m better at making friends.
What works better, whether or not civilization ends?
Nobody knows the future,
Or what skill betters the odds.
So it’s best to say we’re all born equal and leave the rest to the gods.
– Better Than Who, Leslie Fish