Cody Wilson planned in the coming weeks to make and test a 3-D printed pistol. Now those plans have been put on hold as desktop-manufacturing company Stratasys pulled the lease on a printer rented out for Wiki Weapon, the internet project lead by Wilson and dedicated to sharing open-source blueprints for 3-D printed guns. Stratasys even sent a team to seize the printer from Wilson’s home.
“They came for it straight up,” Cody Wilson, director of Defense Distributed, the online collective that oversees the Wiki project, tells Danger Room. “I didn’t even have it out of the box.” Wilson, who is a second-year law student at the University of Texas at Austin, had leased the printer earlier in September after his group raised $20,000 online. As well as using the funds to build a pistol, the Wiki Weapon project aimed to eventually provide a platform for anyone to share 3-D weapons schematics online. Eventually, the group hoped, anyone could download the open source blueprints and build weapons at home.
Until Stratasys pulled the lease, the Wiki Weapon project intended to make a fully 3-D printed pistol for the first time, though it would likely be capable of only firing a single shot until the barrel melted. Still, that would go further than the partly plastic AR-15 rifle produced by blogger and gunsmith Michael Guslick. Also known as “Have Blue,” Guslick became an online sensation after he made a working rifle by printing a lower receiver and combining it with off-the-shelf metal parts.
But last Wednesday, less than a week after receiving the printer, Wilson received an e-mail from Stratasys: The company wanted its printer returned. Wilson wrote back, and said he believed using the printer to manufacture a firearm would not break federal laws regarding at-home weapons manufacturing. For one, the gun wouldn’t be for sale. Wilson added that he didn’t have a firearms manufacturers license.
Stratasys’s legal counsel wrote back: “It is the policy of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its printers to be used for illegal purposes. 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,” stated the letter, which Wilson posted to Defense Distributed’s website. The next day, contractors hired by the company arrived at Wilson’s apartment in an Enterprise rental van and took the printer.
Asked for comment by Danger Room, Stratasys provided a statement on Monday which read: “Stratasys reserves the right to reject an order. Members of Defense Distributed, like any U.S. citizens, are able to follow the well-established federal and state regulations to manufacture, distribute or procure a firearm in this country.”
After the letter, Wilson thought, “Damn, they’re going to take it no matter what,” he says. He added that “nothing we do violates the law.” He may be right. It’s legal in the United States to manufacture a gun at home without a license — provided it’s not for sale or trade. But this doesn’t include all weapons. Machine guns and sawed-off shotguns are illegal to manufacture without a license. There’s also a law requiring “any other weapon, other than a pistol or a revolver … capable of being concealed on the person” to be subject to review by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms an Explosives (ATF).
Wilson’s plans may have fallen under this review, which could have provoked Stratasys to pull the lease. There’s also another law, the Undetectable Firearms Act, which could mean a fully plastic pistol would be illegal regardless of how it was made. Guslick’s partly plastic AR-15 seemed to have circumvented this law by only building one component of a mostly metal rifle with 3-D printed parts.
“Of course I’m scrambling now. I’m trying to figure out, well, how can I rent an object from another party or a capital group?” Wilson says. “In the meantime, I’m doing everything else. It’s just added stress.”
Wilson visited the ATF field office in Austin on Monday to ask about the legal and regulatory issues surrounding the Wiki Weapons project, he tells Danger Room. Instead, he was brought into a room, questioned and was told the agency was preparing to visit his apartment this afternoon for an “investigation,” he says. He added that the ATF believes he’s not broken any laws, and that the agency believes 3-D printed guns fall into a regulatory gray area, but that he still needs to get licensed if he’s to manufacture a weapon.
This isn’t the first time the Wiki Weapons project has run into trouble.
Wilson says he’s consulted with a lawyer, and is considering acquiring a federal firearms manufacturing license, a process that could take at least two months at the earliest. He’s also thought it may be necessary to incorporate Defense Distributed, turning it into a company instead of a decentralized internet collective. He’s also considered leasing another printer.
“We want everyone else to not have to do these things, so fine, we’ll do them, we’ll fool around with it, we’ll pay the thousands of dollars per year,” Wilson says. “It’s just disgusting. I hate that that’s the way it is, but that’s apparently the regulatory landscape.”
In the meantime, Wilson says his group is looking at building an electricity-fired 3D-printed test chamber that can be used to test pressure and the interaction between heat given off by bullets with thermoplastic, which could cause the gun to melt. The chamber wouldn’t have a trigger, Wilson says, who also plans to send the schematics to the ATF for approval while waiting for a manufacturing license. “It’s not exactly the first Wiki Weapon, but it’s a step,” he says.