AUSTIN, Texas—On the surface, everything appears to be normal at Defense Distributed, the firearms company founded by 3D printed guns activist Cody Wilson. Employees have been reporting to work as usual. Sales of the Ghost Gunner and the related 3D-printed gun files on a USB stick continue. And the Defense Distributed team has been working to fulfill those just like any other week.
But of course, it hasn’t been just any other week for the Austin company. On Wednesday, September 19, an arrest warrant was issued for Wilson related to his alleged sexual assault of an unnamed underage girl. And on Friday, September 21, Wilson was arrested in Taipei, Taiwan. He flew to the country roughly two weeks earlier, and the Austin Police Department said that Wilson had skipped his return flight to the US after they believe the man received a tip about the allegations.
So while business at Defense Distributed rolls along at the moment, the company founder likely faces criminal charges upon returning to his home city. And that means Wilson could be effectively out at Defense Distributed.
“A management restructuring is coming,” Stephen Sheftall, of Defense Distributed, said when Ars made an unannounced visit to the company’s offices on Friday. Sheftall noted that was all Defense Distributed was prepared to say at this time, but an official company statement is in the works (likely to be released through “pro-gun blogs”).
For now, the only message to potentially come out of Defense Distributed may be an unofficial thread on the company subreddit, r/Defense_Distributed. Five years ago, a user named redditmudder did an unverified AmA after the announcement of The Liberator pistol, something the self-identified employee said they engineered. That same account took to r/Defense_Distributed at the end of this week to, in their words, reassure customers that Ghost Gunner’s future is not immediately in jeopardy.
“We have operated without Cody’s presence for long periods in the past. While these allegations are generating a media frenzy, I can assure y’all that it’s business as usual for the most part,” redditmudder wrote. “You must know that Cody and I have long understood that he might end up in prison (although I didn’t think it would be under these circumstances), so rest assured we had a plan for when yesterday finally arrived.”
“You can’t separate the two”
Wilson founded Defense Distributed, or DefDist, as a legal corporation back in 2012. There remains only two named company directors listed on Texas state filings: Wilson and Zak Kubin, of Conway, Arkansas.
Kubin, who works for the libertarian Grassroots Leadership Academy, did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment on Friday afternoon. Wilson has not responded to Ars’ repeated requests for comment since news of the warrant broke.
The company’s website describes the operation this way: “Defense Distributed is a non-profit, private defense firm principally engaged in the research, design, development, and manufacture of products and services for the benefit of the American rifleman.”
During its six years of existence, the company has gained notoriety for initiatives like the Liberator, the first almost entirely 3D-printed pistol, and for continuing to tweak the Ghost Gunner itself to become more capable. That CNC Mill could originally only finish incomplete lowers for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, but in October 2017 Defense Distributed finally figured out how to have the Ghost Gunner finish handgun lowers, too.
Throughout, the company’s primary source of income has been sales of the Ghost Gunner. Just last month, Wilson told Ars that to date, Defense Distributed had sold approximately 6,000 of them at $1,500 each—or roughly $9 million in revenue. The company’s website says its next batch of Ghost Gunners (now priced at $2,000) are set to ship this quarter, although it’s unclear how or if Wilson’s legal troubles will impact this timeline.
Recently during an August 2018 press conference, Wilson announced Defense Distributed would also begin selling copies of its 3D printed gun files on USB drives for a “suggested” price of $10. The move allowed the company to comply with recent court orders while also continuing to distribute the files at little-to-no cost for consumers.
“We’re not desperate for cash, we’re just covering costs,” Wilson said at the announcement event. “I remember when Radiohead did this, they said they didn’t make real money for this… I don’t expect to either.” Defense Distributed soon after reached $20,000 on the first day of USB sales.
“It’s like Tesla and Elon Musk, you can’t separate the two.”
But despite its accomplishments to date, Defense Distributed has yet to know life under any leader outside of Wilson. Adam Bhala Lough, who directed and wrote a documentary film about Wilson entitled The New Radical, told Ars prior to Wilson’s arrest that he did not think that the company could survive in the long-term without its founder.
“Without Cody, it can’t last,” he emailed. “It’s like Tesla and Elon Musk, you can’t separate the two. If he comes home and faces the music, there is a chance Defense Distributed will survive because it is a totally independent company without a board or any regulatory body. And the buyers of these products—not to generalize, but at least the ones I met while doing the documentary—they won’t care about buying a product from an [accused] pedophile. In fact they may be even more emboldened by the idea that Cody was ‘set-up’ or that it is a ‘deep-state conspiracy’ against him, even if (or when) he admits to it.”
Lawyers staying quiet
Beyond Defense Distributed’s core business, the company is inarguably best known for its legal initiatives. As Ars has reported, the company has been involved in a years-long lawsuit with the Department of State over publishing CAD files for firearms and over making those files available to foreigners.
DefDist runs DEFCAD, perhaps the best-known online repository of gun files. And when the company first posted designs for the Liberator in 2013, the Department of State soon sent a letter stating DefDist was in violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). This sparked a five-year legal battle that only temporarily ended with a surprising June 2018 settlement between the company and the Department of Justice. DEFCAD reposted the files the very next month on July 27, a few days earlier than the company had initially said it would restore them.
But in August 2018, a group of states led by Washington sued the Department of State, claiming that allowing the files to be made available violated a federal administrative law. A Seattle-based judge ruled against the group of states for a preliminary injunction, and the case continues on appeals. Regardless of what’s happened or will happen in court, the gun files have been mirrored and distributed on numerous other websites.
Washington’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, told Ars in a statement this week that his office is not clear how Wilson’s arrest warrant affects State of Washington v. Department of State et al. Defense Distributed is also a named defendant in the case.
“We have not yet had any contact with his lawyers about this,” Ferguson wrote in the statement. “However, it’s disturbing that the Department of Justice continues to fight my office in court to allow this individual to distribute untraceable, undetectable 3D-printed guns over the Internet. I think it’s time for them to reconsider.”
None of the lawyers representing Defense Distributed or Wilson have responded to Ars yet, either.