UT Austin Law Student Tries To Print A Pistol, Gets the Printer Seized Instead

Cody R. Wilson, a second-year law student at UT Austin, has a hobby that's gotten a fair amount of media attention over the last few months: He wants to print out some guns. But his plan to make and test a pistol using a 3-D printer ran into an unexpected snag last week, when the company leasing him the printer came and seized it from his home, Wired reports.

Wilson heads a group called Defense Distributed, whose dream is to make what they've termed "the Wiki Weapon": a printable gun whose blueprint could be downloaded online and built at home using a 3-D printer.

"Printable guns aren't my interest," the 24-year-old Wilson, who describes himself as a "civil libertarian," told us. "I like the philosophical components, the democratization of manufacturing itself ... Basically it's disruptive technology. I like that. And I went a step further with it. It comes from a political perspective."

"WikiWep is about challenging gun control and regulation," Defense Distributed writes on their website, explaining why they want to make printable guns, when the regular kinds are readily available. "Economic or reliability advantages vs. traditional guns or gun production aren't even at issue. We look to inspire and defend those who live (and are threatened to live) under politically oppressive regimes. Firearm Rights are Human Rights."

But Stratasys, the desktop-manufacturing company that leased the printer to Wilson and his friends, apparently had some second thoughts about the whole thing. Last week, they emailed Wilson asking politely for their printer back. Wilson declined, stating that he wasn't breaking any federal gun manufacturing laws. He was merely making a prototype, which wouldn't be for sale.

As best Wilson can tell, it would also probably explode after firing one round.

"The materials are weak and brittle materials," he says, calling them "impractical." "We're experimenting with other rounds. But that's the thing, right? We just want the freedom and the latitude to do some R&D on these materials." He readily acknowledges that there are "things to be worried about" with the at-home manufacture of the guns. "It's not like an obviously great thing. I'll be the first to admit it. There's a lot of stuff to talk about, a lot of stuff to engage with."

Stratasys was not appeased by his assurances that he was simply experimenting with a prototype. "It is the policy of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its printers to be used for illegal purposes," they wrote to him, according to Wired. "Therefore, please be advised that your lease of the Stratasys uPrint SE is cancelled at this time and Stratasys is making arrangements to pick up the printer." The next day, some guys in an Enterprise van came and took the printer away. He hadn't even taken it out of the box yet.

Undaunted, Wilson visited the Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms field office in Austin yesterday to ask some questions about legal issues surrounding his project. The ATF agents were happy to see him, as they told him, since they'd been planning on paying him a home visit anyway.

"It ended up being OK, knock on wood," Wilson says. ATF advised him that in order to proceed legally, he'd really need to get a firearm manufacturers license. "That was their advice, and I don't think they can advise me like that. But there is no way out of the woods here. The technology is getting ahead of the law."

Wilson could get licensed as an individual to manufacture firearms. But Defense Distributed has decided to become registered as an LLC instead, he says, although they'd really rather not.

"I hate to undermine our set of values," he says. "There was something special about being -- we don't want to be some official legal entity. It kind of defeated the purpose to become one." But he also has no interest in going to jail.

After becoming an LLC, Defense Distributed still has to find another 3-D printer in order to proceed.

"That'll be easy," Wilson says breezily. "Right now, people are offering me printers. It won't be hard. But we have to get our legal ducks in a row."

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan