Cody Wilson, who leads Defense Distributed, is working on an open-source schematic that will let people print out a plastic pistol at home using a 3D-printer. Wilson talks to Bob about his project, and explains why he's not worried the guns will fall into the wrong hands.
BOB GARFIELD: The 3D printer is one of those pieces of technology that seems downright Jetsonian. Get on the Internet, download a schematic for an object and, using a 3D printer, you can print out the object itself. People have printed, in plastic, objects as varied as clocks, prosthetics, and bikinis. If Cody Wilson has his way, soon they’ll be printing guns, as well. Wilson is a law student at the University of Texas, Austin and the head of Defense Distributed, an open source group working on the schematic for a plastic pistol - not a toy – that would be available to anyone.
Wilson says he's not worried that his plastic guns will be that attractive to criminals, since, he says, they currently have easy access to much more dangerous weapons, like the semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle or the semi-automatic TEC-9 pistol.
CODY WILSON: Criminals and gangs already have access to the most lethal weapons out there, the military grade weapons. I'm not concerned about this flimsy technology anytime soon, you know, opening some new era of open violence on the streets or anything. It’s just not there. I am optimistic that really 3-D manufacturing is here to stay. Yes, a great number of terrible things would be possible in this future but also a great number of extraordinary things.
BOB GARFIELD: To take the question to the extreme, if you can do in your home, using technology, the kinds of things for which there is no legitimate consumer use, let's just say weapons- grade anthrax, you’d nonetheless have no objection to it?
CODY WILSON: I think as a civil libertarian would say, why criminalize the possession of something or the creation of something, in itself? It isn’t that weapons-grade anthrax is, is evil, in and of itself, it’s what you could do with that weapons-grade anthrax. And so, the educated civil libertarian would say, you could only punish the use of that anthrax for criminal purposes, not its creation or possession. You know, and you use the word “legitimate.” “Legitimate” is a scary word. legitimate to whom? Who makes the rules of legitimacy?
BOB GARFIELD: That’s a fetching argument, but I wouldn’t present it to somebody who has lost a loved one to a burglarized gun. The very existence of dangerous things is, in and of itself, dangerous, is it not?
CODY WILSON: I’m not sure that you can say there are, quote, unquote, “dangerous things.” I, I don’t know. It seems to me a gun is very safe, I mean, very low rates of failure, designed to do what they’re intended to do, you know. I think we’re dancing around things that are more emotional in nature than anything else. And I’d – no, I would never walk up to some – some victim or, or some family member of someone slain by a gun and say, well, you know, better that we have these rights.
But, at the same time, we all recognize the respect of civil liberties, even though we must suffer some social cost. I think gun rights are no exception to that.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you not run a very high risk of seeing them distributed in exactly the place where you, as a citizen, do not wish to see them?
CODY WILSON: Yeah, I think you run that risk. I mean, liberty is risky, right? But let’s take your extreme case. Let’s imagine a future where I can immediately print out a TEC-9, unserialized, and it works like a charm. Yes, you risk some very scary things happening but – I don’t know, I just do not see the argument that this is something that must be stopped. And, in fact, how could you stop it?
BOB GARFIELD: A lot of people, in discussing distributed weapons, will immediately go to the terrorism possibility, right, that terrorists get ahold of this capacity and start smuggling plastic guns onto airplanes, with God-knows-what consequences. It's not a difficult scenario to envision. But you can one up that scenario. Tell me about your Islamic Banking Project.
CODY WILSON: Well, right now I’m studying just the principles of retail Islamic banking. You know, there’s a rich history there, a multi-century history of not charging interest. How could we use the principles of virtual communities online, like Reputation and these other things, to enable pseudonymous or anonymous parties to engage in commerce with each other and, and borrow and lend interest-free bit coins in a way that would be sustainable, basically bit coin banking? Right, a Peoples’ Bank of Bit Coin but it’s interest free; it’s designed to compete with the financial capitalists.
BOB GARFIELD: If this were to come to pass, it would arguably be an enabler on a grand scale for financing terrorism.
CODY WILSON: Right. It’s just like the gun argument. Well, you’re allowing terrorists to print guns. Well yes, but you’re also allowing people the dis-intermediated possibility of, of manufacturing things for themselves and planning their own futures and doing what they will. There are potentially bad consequences to something like this but, again, are we going to say, well, because this right can be abused, we should take it away? No. I think, I think no one’s a consequentialist when it comes to things like the First Amendment, you know, the Fourth Amendment, the Ninth Amendment, the Tenth Amendment. You know, so why is the Second Amendment an exception?
We all believe in, I think, better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished. But we must honor certain liberties and allow certain bad things to happen, in the interests of protecting the innocent and respecting and honoring civil liberties.
BOB GARFIELD: You know how Jim Fixx, the runner and cardiovascular guru died of a heart attack, and the owner of Segue segued himself right over a cliff?
CODY WILSON: [LAUGHING] Sequed -
BOB GARFIELD: Do you worry about the irony of the universe leading you to be shot by a plastic gun?
CODY WILSON: I don't worry about it, but I think it's a strong possibility. Nick Bilton at the New York Times asked me the very same thing, aren’t you worried that someone’s gonna, you know, print one of these out and shoot you to make some point? Well, yeah, it’s probably gonna happen, right? But it’ll be some progressive, some frustrated progressive who thinks that I ruined the world by, you know, disabling his nanny state. So, well fine, perhaps I have to suffer a death, but it only makes their cause a little bit more futile.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I’m just saying that I was at the movies the whole evening, and that’s my story, and I’m, I’m stickin’ with it.
Cody, thank you very, very much.
CODY WILSON: Oh, it’s a pleasure. I thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Cody Wilson is the founder of Defense Distributed, creator of the Wiki Weapons Project.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Julia Barton, with more help from Lita Martinez and Ariel Stulberg. And the show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Ken Feldman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts and read our fabulous blog at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and you can e-mail us at email@example.com. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.