Politics & Policy

The Dot Matrix, Reloaded

How do you ban assault weapons when you can print them?

Cody Wilson cheerfully describes himself as a crypto-anarchist. “Crypto” modifies “anarchist” in the sense not that it obscures it but that it points to a means: cryptology, code, communication, and technology as the last, best hope for a radical freedom. You meet a few anarchists, crypto and otherwise, hanging around on the fjords and isthmuses of the conservative continent, and like most of them, Cody is young, quick, bright, and vaguely terrifying. Or rather, what’s terrifying isn’t the dude — he’s quite pleasant — but the simultaneous casualness and precision with which he lays out the plots and provocations, transformations and transgressions he has planned through his Texas-based group Defense Distributed (DD).

The main thing Cody has planned is: Cody’s building a gun. Not just building, but fabricating. Not just fabricating, but digitally fabricating. The design is crowd-sourced. The blueprints are freely shared. And with increasingly available technologies, the product could conceivably be manufactured anywhere.

#ad#“We’re at version two of our current magazine,” Cody tells me over the phone from an airport. He’s on his way to Europe, where he’ll try to find allies and raise money for DD. “And we just took delivery of our first AK prototype — the files, I mean.”

“We made a lower [receiver] of an AR-15. It broke after six rounds. We’ve improved it, and now it won’t break until after 60 rounds. We have another, untested version that could be good for a thousand rounds.”

Cody, a law student (who doesn’t particularly want to be a lawyer) at the University of Texas, doesn’t consider himself a “gun nut.” Defense Distributed is building weapons to prove a bigger point.

“We began as an online collective of a bunch of designers with a political question. The Internet is the last bastion of the freedom of information. How can we advance that freedom with real consequences? So we said, ‘Let’s choose a real political weapon, like a gun.’ The firearm itself is such a powerful symbol. I figured I could either write a dissertation about liberty or I could permanently affect its history.”

They raised money on the “crowd-funding” Web platform Indiegogo and shared their goals and progress with supporters through YouTube videos and their website. They started fabricating.

DD’s project is possible thanks to a pair of digital revolutions: the by-now-well-established wikization of the Internet, which has increased by orders of magnitude the way information is amassed, revised, and distributed; and the more recent advent of consumer-grade three-dimensional printers. As an article (for subscribers only) in Foreign Affairs explains, 3-D printing is not a single technology but many, each the descendent of the kind of computer-guided “additive manufacturing” that the industrial world has been using for decades:

Thanks to 3-D printing, a bearing and an axle could be built by the same machine at the same time. A range of 3-D printing processes are now available, including thermally fusing plastic filaments, using ultraviolet light to cross-link polymer resins, depositing adhesive droplets to bind a powder, cutting and laminating sheets of paper, and shining a laser beam to fuse metal particles. Businesses already use 3-D printers to model products before producing them, a process referred to as rapid prototyping. Companies also rely on the technology to make objects with complex shapes, such as jewelry and medical implants. Research groups have even used 3-D printers to build structures out of cells with the goal of printing living organs.

We aren’t quite at the stage of point-and-click endocrine glands, but the relatively rudimentary processes that top-line 3-D printers currently use — such as building objects by superimposing hundreds or thousands of paper-thin layers, all made of the same material — are already giving way to machines that are more assembler than printer. These are quite capable of producing large, complicated objects, using micro-sized molecule clusters of various materials to build, for instance, aircraft parts and circuit boards. We could be just years away from the ability to print off not only basic gun components that have to be assembled but also fully operational weapons.

The idea of crowd-sourced plastic rifles and pistols being zapped into existence, Weird Science–style, in workshops and garages across the nation unnerves Representative Steve Israel (D., N.Y.) — so much so that he’s sponsoring an amendment to the Undectectable Firearms Act in order to regulate 3-D-printed gun components and establish penalties for their private fabrication. But as others have pointed out, such a law would be a nightmare to enforce. Moreover, it would require distinguishing between, say, plastic magazines printed at home and plastic magazines already legally manufactured by a number of armorers across the country. And it would probably have to exempt groups such as Defense Distributed, which Cody says is in the process of applying for a federal firearms license.

In an effort to outflank the likes of DD, a zealous government could move to mandate that manufacturers design 3-D printers to leave secret, unique watermarks on every object fabricated, as the Secret Service convinced manufacturers of color laser printers to do in an effort to catch currency counterfeiters. But technological control begets technological revolt: The secret laser-printer codes were discovered and revealed by a digital-rights group in 2005, and their existence prompted a public outcry. Besides, what good is a watermark when a 3-D assembler can assemble another 3-D assembler?

Cody welcomes the attention, as well as the plans to regulate and restrict 3-D weapons fabrication, because they raise his profile and spur the like-minded to join his cause. He calls Representative Israel’s response to the advent of DD “perfect” and compares him to Dostoevsky’s titular character in The Idiot, whose good intentions precipitate the very evils he hopes to avoid.

“They don’t have the ‘control’ they think they do,” Cody says. “The permissive liberal is a myth. They will be willing to chase this through the Internet and cut through every single civil liberty they can in the name of ‘safety.’”

What about the rest of us? Cody sees us as potential allies. “Traditional conservatives love it. I’m getting incredibly enthusiastic e-mails from Red-Staters,” he says. “And I can even get some Occupy people on our side.”

Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.

Daniel FosterDaniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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