For over half a decade, Cody Wilson has been a unique thorn in the side of anyone who advocates even the most minimal form of gun control. More than any person else on the planet, the creator of the world’s first 3-D printed gun has advanced the dangerous idea that with digital DIY tools, anyone can make a deadly weapon at home. Now, with Wilson removed from that fight, the anarchist gun-making machine that quietly formed around him over those years—and the community of DIY gunmakers he inspired—has no intention of slowing down its progress.
On Tuesday, Defense Distributed announced in an Austin press conference that Wilson has resigned from his role as director of the company, which he founded in 2012 to promote the advance and spread of 3-D printable guns. Wilson faces charges of sexual assault of a minor, stemming from an incident earlier this year in which he allegedly had sex with a 16-year-old girl he met online. Wilson was released on $150,000 bail Monday. But Defense Distributed’s new director, Paloma Heindorff, said in Tuesday’s press conference that neither the company Wilson built nor the legal battles he has waged will stop in his absence.
“I am extremely proud to say that over the past few days the entire team at Defense Distributed have recommitted to enabling the sharing and publication of CAD and 3D printing files,” Heindorff told reporters. In the wake of Wilson’s arrest in Taiwan, she added, “We didn’t miss a beat. No one blinked.”
Defense Distributed’s staff have refused to comment on Wilson’s criminal case, and Wilson himself didn’t respond to WIRED’s request for comment. But in Tuesday’s press conference, Heindorff and Josh Blackman, a lawyer for Defense Distributed, emphasized that not only are Defense Distributed’s sales of gunmaking tools unaffected, but the company will also continue its legal battles with a group of attorneys general from more than a dozen states around the country, who have sued Defense Distributed and the State Department to reverse a legal win that would allow the gun rights group and others to post digital blueprints for firearms online.
In June, those attorneys general won an injunction against Defense Distributed that has, for now, frozen its plan to digitize as many gun designs as possible and post the models on a repository called Defcad, intended as a library of files for DIY gunsmiths. But Wilson didn’t personally fund those legal conflicts, Defense Distributed says, nor did he serve by name as the plaintiff in the case against the State Department that resulted in May’s landmark settlement. “The case is proceeding apace, as it was before,” Defense Distributed’s lawyer Blackman told reporters.
“We didn’t miss a beat. No one blinked.”
Paloma Heindorff, Defense Distributed
Defense Distributed’s adversaries in the gun control movement haven’t claimed victory over Wilson’s exit, either. In a statement to WIRED, the copresidents of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which also sought a court injunction against Defcad last May, write that the legal fight continues. “Cody Wilson was the face of Defense Distributed and 3D-printed guns, but we doubt that his movement will die with his resignation. The Pandora’s box has been opened, and it will not go away with Wilson,” their statement reads. “Because of his actions, 3D-printed guns now pose a danger all over the world, from the United States to Europe to Taiwan. The next Cody Wilson is merely waiting in the wings, and we will continue to do everything in our power to combat this threat until it is no more.”
Meanwhile, Defense Distributed continues its other core project undeterred: selling a milling machine called the “Ghost Gunner,”, capable of carving gun components out of aluminum in anyone’s workshop or garage. The company has sold 6,000 of those $1,675 tools since it started selling them in 2014, netting millions that have helped to fund its legal efforts and allowed it to expand to around 20 employees. In her press conference, Heindorff said the company has received orders for 1,500 more of those machines it has yet to ship.
When WIRED visited Defense Distributed’s Austin headquarters in June, most of the company’s employees were working on that Ghost Gunner assembly line, building the desktop milling machines, packing them, or manning phones for sales and customer support. “Everything that was happening last week is still happening this week,” says John Sullivan, an engineering consultant at Defense Distributed and Wilson’s first hire there. “We’ve had one deposit canceled. Did our revenue drop at all? The answer is no.”
But Wilson was more than a kind of business manager for Defense Distributed’s mission of universal, no-limits gun access. He also served as its central innovator and provocateur. Since 2012, he has led the group to repeatedly push the legal and technical envelope of homemade guns, from the first fully 3-D printed gun known as the Liberator, to the Ghost Gunner’s ability to create untraceable metal firearms, to the ongoing legal fight to let anyone publish gun files online. With every new advance in that brazenly controversial mission, Wilson also served as frontman and agitprop artist, creating highly produced YouTube videos and offering slick, erudite interviews to promote each new hyper-libertarian innovation.
Without Wilson, Defense Distributed’s Sullivan admits, the company’s ideological marketing will be tough to replicate. But he insists its message will still get out. “The public agitation, we’ll change how it’s done, but it will still happen,” he says. “The technology speaks for itself.”
As for the evolution of DIY guns, Sullivan argues Defense Distributed won’t slow its pace in Wilson’s absence. “Cody was a visionary aspect of our company,” he says. “But we have a team now that doesn’t necessarily require him for the technical goals we want to achieve.”
Beyond Defense Distributed, too, the larger community of DIY gunmakers on sites like GrabCAD and FossCad has for years been developing its own 3-D printable gun designs. They’ll continue that underground work regardless of Wilson’s fate, says a pseudonymous gunsmith who calls himself Derwood. A hobbyist, Derwood has posted to YouTube and FossCad numerous designs for partially 3-D printed guns, including semi-automatic weapons. “It doesn’t affect me, I’m still going to do what I do,” he says. “Life goes on.”
Derwood argues that after the invention of the original 3-D printed gun, his community of gunsmiths has never depended on Wilson for inspiration. And their innovations will continue without him, just the same. “He got it all started,” Derwood adds. “But it’s gone beyond him.”