Danger in 3-D: The Rapid Spread of Printable Pistols
A student from Texas has invented a plastic pistol that anyone can make with a 3-D printer. It is undetectable by metal detectors and capable of killing. And it is spreading unchecked across the continents.
A few days after Cody Wilson's invention had been created, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to the rest of the world. The officials, responsible for fending off terrorist attacks, wrote three pages about the dangers of a weapon against which they are powerless. They wrote that public safety is threatened. They also wrote that, unfortunately, it is impossible to prevent this weapon from being made.
When the police in Australia heard about Wilson's invention, they decided to build the weapon themselves. It took them 27 hours to produce all the parts, but only a minute to assemble the gun. Then they fired a bullet into a block of gelatin. After that, the police commissioner of the state of New South Wales said in a press conference that the device was capable of killing people, and that he expected it to sooner or later be used in a crime.
Wilson's invention has also attracted the attention of Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and intelligence agencies. There was reportedly a meeting at the Federal Chancellery in mid-May to discuss the matter. The Germans aren't issuing any warnings yet, nor are they shooting at blocks of gelatin. Instead, they are trying to downplay the issue, under the assumption that it will attract attention on its own. A spokeswoman for the BKA merely says: "We are working on being able to reproduce the manufacturing process."
Cody Wilson is a do-it-yourselfer from the United States. His invention, a pistol, is small, white, oddly clunky and has a ridiculously short barrel. It consists almost entirely of plastic. But what looks like a toy at first glance is actuality a new threat to security across the world.
You don't need a license to obtain this weapon, it can't be bought, there is no official market for it and it isn't regulated. In fact, anyone who wants to can make this weapon without assistance. All you need is an ordinary computer, an Internet connection, a roll of plastic, a nail and a 3-D printer.
In his last State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama said that 3-D printing "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything." That was in February, when the American president didn't yet know about Cody Wilson.
Before Wilson invented his gun, 3-D printers were modern tools of industrial production. They were often used to make prototypes out of plastic, a process in which thin streams of melted plastic flow out of nozzles to produce an object, layer by layer. The printers became cheaper over time, and today they stand in the workshops of do-it-yourselfers, who use them to make garden gnomes and all kinds of useful household items.
It all starts with data stored in a computer, which 3-D printers then convert into objects. Some technology specialists claim that 3-D printers will transform our lives as fundamentally as the personal computer did over the last two decades.
By using the instructions for Wilson's invention, within a few hours, it is possible to make a weapon capable of killing people. Wilson calls it the "Liberator."
Arms and the Man
It isn't difficult to meet Wilson. You write him an email, he replies within a few hours and several days later he amiably opens the door to his apartment.
Wilson is in his mid-20s, slim and fashionably unshaven. He loves weapons and likes to talk. He is no dummy. He recently suggested to conservative TV host Glenn Beck that he read the works of the post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault.
Wilson lives in Austin, Texas, where he attends law school -- with moderate enthusiasm. He seems to feel unchallenged at the university, and probably the only reason he sticks with it is that he believes in the importance of knowing the laws of your opponent if you hope to defeat him. Wilson wages his fight from a duplex apartment in an upscale neighborhood of Austin, with tree-lined streets, only a few minutes from the university. His BMW convertible is parked outside.
Inside, Wilson, after closing the door, begins the conversation by talking about freedom. He says that his pistol is intended to humiliate governments, both democratic and undemocratic. He says that it is intended to start a revolution. And if innocent people die in the process, he adds, it's an acceptable consequence because, "after all, freedom itself is in under siege."
For someone who is willing to bring terror and suffering to his country in the name of freedom, Wilson is surprisingly accommodating. He offers water and chocolate cookies.
He says that his weapon was downloaded from the Internet more than 100,000 times within two weeks, so that copies of the files are now on computers in countries like the United States, Russia, Egypt, Spain and Germany.
Exactly how many?
"I have no idea," says Wilson. "It isn't possible to determine that anymore."
Once something is online, it can spread like the bird flu.
Wilson likes to spend his free time at shooting ranges, and he proudly shows the rest of his apartment and the weapons he owns.
An AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle is in a carrying case under the kitchen counter, plenty of ammunition sits on a table in the living room, and books on the fracture strength of polymers share a chair with the works of Proudhon and Baudrillard.
In the combination bedroom and office, an American flag hangs on the wall, socks and underwear lie on the floor, a matte-black AK-47 stands against the wall next to the bed, a Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun, also black, is leaning against the AK-47, and there is an old Mosin-Nagant, the rifle with which Soviet soldiers fought the Germans in World War II, is propped against his desk. Wilson is particularly fond of the Mosin-Nagant. Commenting on the fact that a piece of wood in its stock was replaced, Wilson says: "It's possible that it was once used to smash someone's skull."
The tour ends at the desk and the bed, with Wilson, surrounded by guns, socks and underwear, standing there with a look of expectation on his face. For him, a day without provocation is apparently a lost day.
Plastic Pistol Pioneer
Whey you ask Wilson why he does what he does, and whether his motives are perhaps political, he says that he is a libertarian. Radical adherents to this political movement see governments as the stuff of the devil. Wilson also refers to his weapon, the Liberator, as the "great equalizer" and claims it proves that gun control by the government is an illusion.
Wilson could be seen as a lunatic. But he's more than that: He has introduced a new danger into the world, one that's invisible and free. His story illustrates the risks that accompany technological advances -- not those occurring in the secret laboratories of dictators and warmongers, but in a neighbor's living room.
Wilson's project began more than a year ago in his apartment. The idea took shape during several phone conversations with like-minded friends fascinated by the possibilities that the Internet and related technologies offer.
Wilson and his friends aren't the first people to try to circumvent gun laws with the aid of 3-D printers. But others have only managed to produce technically unsophisticated components, such as a magazine, which is little more than a narrow box made of plastic, or pistol grips. Before Wilson, no one has seriously tried to print an entire weapon. It was considered impossible to design a housing with a barrel that could withstand the pressure and heat released when a gun is fired.
But Wilson disagreed. Although he knew nothing about making guns, he believed that it would suffice to go online and study a few tables, information about various calibers and the pressure resulting from firing a gun. He believed that it would be enough to compare these figures with the data he found in the technical specifications of plastic manufacturers.
Then he estimated the costs. First, he needed a 3-D printer, not an entry-level model, but something professional with which the results can be controlled more effectively. He also needed printing material, preferably acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene copolymer (ABS), a thermoplastic also used to make Lego bricks.
- Part 1: The Rapid Spread of Printable Pistols
- Part 2: Legal and Technological Hurdles
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