Cody Wilson was Defense Distributed—so who is the organization’s new leader?


Enlarge / Paloma Heindorff (center) in Austin, announcing herself as the new head of Defense Distributed. (Attorneys Josh Blackman, left, and Chad Flores, right, joined her to field questions about the company’s legal efforts against various states’ attorneys general.)

Nathan Mattise

Prior to 2015, Paloma Heindorff had never even shot a gun. But last month, on September 25, the nearly three-year employee of Defense Distributed officially stepped into one of the most high profile firearms’ related positions in the US: director of that same 3D-printed guns activist organization.

Like most Defense Distributed employees, little is known about Heindorff even after her introductory press conference. That’s because throughout the organization’s nearly six-year-existence, only one public face has been available to onlookers—that of founder Cody Wilson. But in light of Wilson’s recent arrest and the related allegations of sexual assault against a minor, Defense Distributed felt the need to change both its leadership and public face. And through what she would later call a unanimous decision from the Defense Distributed board of directors and staff, Heindorff became the choice.

“[Cody Wilson] has been an incredibly powerful figure, but this is about an idea,” Heindorff said at the recent press conference when asked about how the organization would move on. “We believe in something, and that something isn’t a man—it’s an idea. And we’re fully committed to that idea”

Ars expressed interest in interviewing Heindorff following that initial press conference, and we also followed up with a request via email. We were and remain curious to hear exactly how Heindorff came from well outside gun culture to lead such a high-profile activist organization. We also wanted clarification on how Defense Distributed has structured its non-profit and business endeavors, but no one involved seems willing to discuss those nuances at the moment.

For now, the new Defense Distributed director hasn’t been available, but a little Internet sleuthing does begin to paint a picture of Heindorff—particularly through a quartet of interviews she gave in recent years. Maybe she couldn’t shoot in 2014, but nowadays she can casually tell a radio show host about shooting a .50Cal M2 Machine Gun.

A younger Paloma Heindorff delivers a poem in 2013.
Enlarge / A younger Paloma Heindorff delivers a poem in 2013.

YouTube

From liberal London to DefDist

In these public comments, Heindorff doesn’t shy away from an upbringing that seems at odds with her current position. Born and raised in central London, her parents dabbled in the arts (including, according to Heindorff, her mom working as an extra in things like Little Shop of Horrors and Blade Runner). Heindorff herself remained active in poetry circles as recently as early 2015, and she worked in media upon first reaching the US. Her home area itself leans liberal, including overwhelmingly supporting the “remain” faction of the 2016 Brexit vote according to Heindorff (she leaned that way, too, if curious).

“I started off more traditionally in left-wing social groups,” Heindorff told The Crypto Show in July 2016. “But ever since I was super young, as Cody spoke about, I had this deep dissatisfaction and distress. There wasn’t a healthy amount of debate in those circles, and people for a long time have steadily relinquished the responsibility they feel for the world and for living in a society they feel is acceptable. That was always a sticking point in debates I’ve had.”

Heindorff echoed that passion for individuals taking explicit action she first expressed in 2016 during the recent Defense Distributed press conference announcing her new role as director. When describing her initial interest in DefDist that day, she said, “I found [Defense Distributed] to be the most elegant and effective activism I’ve seen performed, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Still, admiration does not necessarily lead to overall administration. How does someone with no explicit background in firearms or tech end up at the most infamous company at the intersection of those two things? Like all good ideas, it apparently started over drinks.

As Heindorff described in October 2017 it for Gun Talk, in 2015 she went to lunch with a friend from work in NYC and they got to talking about her “anti-statist thoughts.” Next, the friend asked a question that quite literally changed her life: ever hear of Cody Wilson? For the next two days, Heindorff discovered herself “absolutely enthralled watching things online and educating myself,” she said. Heindorff found it “super interesting how they 100 percent subverted the gun control argument,” and she sat in her apartment trying to argue with that but couldn’t.

Wilson and Defense Distributed <a href="https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/10/making-a-homemade-metal-semi-automatic-rifle-just-got-crazy-easy/">introduced the world to the Ghost Gunner CNC mill</a> (which could simplify the process of manufacturing an AR-15 starting from an 80 percent lower) in 2014, months before Paloma Heindorff would first learn of the company and its founder.
Enlarge / Wilson and Defense Distributed introduced the world to the Ghost Gunner CNC mill (which could simplify the process of manufacturing an AR-15 starting from an 80 percent lower) in 2014, months before Paloma Heindorff would first learn of the company and its founder.

“The technologies they were developing, promoting—the idea of manufacturing one’s own firearms, the idea of a tech as a tool to subvert the government—I found that fascinating,” she said on Gun Talk. “My British brain couldn’t help but think these people must be crazy, but it seemed to make sense.”

Heindorff soon reached out to Wilson and got the response she wanted: ‘Come to Austin and we’ll talk,’ she recalled. “It took me five weeks before I put everything I owned in a Chevy [and drove to Austin].” She started with the company in some capacity in November 2015, and she told the Crypto Show in 2016 that she began “properly working on the project at the beginning of the year.”

“There was no great event, I didn’t get attacked or have anything that made me feel vulnerable,” she later explained on Gun Talk. “Now, I obviously own a firearm, but I don’t even carry it for self-protection. That’s not for me. The way I’ve become involved in pro-gun, pro firearms activism focuses on the Second Amendment. I was in NYC and dismayed by the narrative today—the idea that we can be looked after by our government, that they will somehow insure that we never experience harm or difficulty.

“That’s been a consistent thing I’ve always believed: that narrative, not only is it ridiculous, it erodes the power you can feel as an individual. If you expect your government to protect you more than you can protect yourself, what does that say as an individual? It mentally erodes the confidence and motivations, the survival instincts we have as human beings… so I’ve always been anti-statist in that way. The narrative of peace and love all the time is a lovely idea and I wish i could say I believed in it, but it’s a distraction from the stuff we should always talk about. But, I’d never really gotten into the gun thing before… The first time I taught one of my British girlfriends to shoot was a very surreal moment, but I’ve had a lot of surreal moments in two years.”



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