About Cody Rutledge Wilson
Cody Wilson’s trip down the rabbit hole of radical thought began in the aftermath of several mass shooting incidents. It led him to a confrontation with the U.S. State Department and positioned him as a merchant whose products exist solely to render moot any kind of gun safety regulation. The prefatory clause of the Second Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” is often disregarded by gun rights advocates who cite the operative clause, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" ad nauseam.
In his own words
"You're asking me how I would feel? If somebody shot a kid with a Liberator? I guess I'd feel bad. It would be bad. It'd become this whole event. I'm sure I'd have this sinking feeling, 'Oh my God, they're going to make a big circus out of it.'"
—Interview with The Guardian, February 10, 2014
“I know this matters. In a sense I’m a social casualty of a climate of persistent mass shootings. It’s not — the first thought you have sadly is okay there’s another shooting. This is babies murdered. I get that… I get it and feel it, I understand that it’s bad. But I’m already in a place, in this activist mentality. What is going to be done with this event? How is this going to be used? How is this going to be used against me?”
—Interview with NPR on “Planet Money,” January 12, 2018
Responding to an article by The New York Times columnist Nick Bilton: “He’s like ‘you know now felons and children and the insane’ okay, blah blah blah… you know, ‘This man wants children to have guns,’ I was like ‘All right, fine,’ you know, take the easy road, fine, you know? But at least he was saying it's intentionally disruptive. That's true!”
—VICE Motherboard, March 25, 2013
“And so, when I see, like, the elimination of a symbol, right, the elimination — I'm not just sympathizing with southern white racists — I'm basically recognizing a dangerous mode of post-politics: the need to eradicate a historical narrative. Not just the need to combat it, the need to make sure that its symbols are gone, the way to articulate it is gone.”
—Interview with Radio 3Fourteen, November 17, 2015
“When I’m talking about incitement or imminent lawsuits, I’m talking about like when you’re outside of someone’s home and there’s a mob and you say ‘There he is, get him!’ That’s not protected speech. But these personalities that use Hatreon right now, these people who have been kicked off these services, these people are at worst trolls, performance artists, provocateurs, vulgarians. And at best, they represent through their hyperbole or through their extreme thinking or presentations elements of a political speech that should not be censored. The closest my politics comes to any traditional school is anarchism. I don’t like the imposition of state controls over human flourishing, creativity, freedom, individuality. So the way to undermine these things is to undermine the power of traditional liberal institutions.”
—CNN Money, November 10, 2017
“There aren't genuine politics. There's the media telling you Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney is like, the epic clash of ideology, when we both know they're globalist neoliberals. I mean, they both exist to preserve, like, the interests of this relatively autonomous class of Goldman Sachs bankers!”
—VICE Motherboard, March 25, 2013
Though we are proud of what we've been able to offer the people in the last two years with GG, we know we must commit ourselves anew to the defense of our liberties and to offering you a machine that can last through prohibition and even the eventual breakup of this country.”
—GG2 announcement, November 7, 2016
Cody Wilson is the co-founder and CEO of Defense Distributed, a company which operates in the gray area between the gun manufacturing world and the online maker community, and he is the creator of Hatreon, a racist “alt-right” crowdfunding site. Wilson first gained notoriety in the early 2010s for developing an open-source, 3D-printed firearm known as the “Liberator pistol.”
Cody Wilson was born on January 31, 1988. Wilson’s family moved from Little Rock to the small town of Cabot, Arkansas (current population 25,000), when he was in elementary school. He graduated from Cabot High School in 2006 and studied English at the University of Central Arkansas, where he was elected student body president. After a gap year, Wilson left Arkansas for Austin, Texas, in 2011 to attend the University of Texas at Austin on a law scholarship.
Well before the creation of his 3D-printed firearm, and before a reactionary segment of online troll culture gelled into what is today known as the “alt-right,” Wilson showed a keen drive for disrupting politics as usual.
In his autobiography Come and Take It: The Gun Printer’s Guide to Thinking Free, Wilson describes an early discussion with fellow Central Arkansas alum Ben Denio around their desire to create a Super PAC.
Super PACs after 2010 had become a public issue and proliferated wildly. We, but then I should say I, wanted to make one that was toxic in nature. Pick [U.S.] House races with the least amount of spending, then buy up as much of the airwaves as possible for terrible ads. Turn people completely off to the electoral and political process. It was a fun thought experiment. I’d always had the trickster sensibility and this approach appealed to that part of me. Play by the rules, but ruin the game to show the absurdity of it all.
Wilson and Denio would quickly abandon their political ambitions. However, their thoughts around the crippling of the American political machine later bore fruit in a running discussion of open-source software and the growing debate around gun control.
The Wiki Weapon
Wilson is known in firearms communities for three projects developed under the banner of Defense Distributed, which Wilson founded in Austin in 2012. The first, and perhaps most notorious, is the “Wiki Weapon Project,” which resulted in the “Liberator pistol.” Named after an American military psy-op during World War II to arm dissidents in Nazi Germany with a simple, disposable mass-produced gun, Wilson’s Liberator is a single shot pistol 3D-printed out of extruded plastic. The weapon fires small pistol caliber cartridges with a nail for a firing pin and with poor accuracy due to low manufacturing tolerances and an unrifled barrel. The project files were uploaded to a website and downloaded for free hundreds of thousands of times before Wilson took them down in 2013 under threat from the U.S. State Department for alleged arms trafficking violations.
As Wilson was developing the Liberator, he also shared iterative development files for 3D-printed lower receivers, a core component of the AR-15 family of rifles. The website also hosted files for 3D-printed polymer magazines and even grenade shells.
Defense Distributed’s third and most successful offering is the Ghost Gunner, a tabletop machine designed to complete a functional lower receiver through subtractive milling. The Ghost Gunner is far and away the best-selling and most effective of Wilson’s DIY gun-making offerings, capable of producing a metal receiver that meets tolerances typically found in commercial and military grade products.
In early 2014, Wilson signed a $250,000 deal with Simon & Schuster’s imprint Gallery Books. The autobiography was to be titled Negative Liberty: A Gun Printer’s Guide to the Apocalypse. When the first edition was released in October 2016, the title had been changed to Come and Take It: The Gun Printer's Guide to Thinking Free. The book sells for $17.76 on Wilson’s site.
The shifting title of his book (and its listed price on his website) display a marketing savvy that has characterized Wilson’s interactions with the media.
Whether they describe him as a “cypherpunk,” “crypto-anarchist” or a “gun rights activist,” media portrayals of Wilson’s life, corroborated by Wilson’s teachers and colleagues — typically pay close attention to his professed left-leanings during his formative years and note his affinity for the writings of the Marx and Lenin. In interviews and media inquiries, Wilson often discusses his efforts through the discourse of Marxist critiques of late-stage capitalism.
Whatever Wilson’s early-life dalliances with leftist political thought, his present beliefs hew closer to a vein of radical libertarianism. He seeks not to debate the logistics of gun control or consider the social cost of hosting hateful and violent propaganda on monetized social media platforms, but to undermine the very question of regulation, whether under the auspices of a government or corporate power.
Through the lens of Marxist critique, Wilson projects a Hobbesian vision of the world wherein any attempts by the collective to advance its interests through democratic consensus is an egregious violation of the rights of the individual. This is an almost comically broad interpretation of the libertarian non-aggression principle.
Wilson often draws heavily on Jean Baudrillard, who he has referred to as “my master.” Baudrillard is perhaps best known for his critiques of the notion of “the end of history,” which Wilson often cites.
On December 12, 2017, Wilson responded to a post on Twitter from @lordkek_, who asked for a suggestion of “a good anarchy book for a pleb to read.” His advice? “Start with Stirner. Proceed to Nietzsche.”
In truth, Wilson’s worldview is perhaps closer to Max Stirner, author of The Ego and His Own, than any of the previously cited influences. In Ego, Stirner describes Socrates’ trial and suicide as a capitulation to a populace that had no right to judge him. Wilson’s views on the First and Second Amendments is embodied in the line:
“A people cannot be free otherwise than at the individual’s expense; for it is not the individual that is the main point in this liberty, but the people. The freer the people, the more bound the individual; the Athenian people, precisely at its freest time, created ostracism, banished the atheists, poisoned the most honest thinker.”
Come and Take It
By his own account, Wilson does not come from a family of firearms enthusiasts. In “The New Radical,” a documentary by Adam Bhala Lough about Wilson and bitcoin pioneer Amir Taaki, Wilson describes his father, a small-town Baptist minister, owning a “single shot shotgun pistol,” and being “around gun culture” in rural Arkansas. This level of exposure is a far cry from the total immersion in American firearm mania that Wilson would experience throughout the 3D-printed gun project, which Wilson and Denio launched on July 27, 2012, under the banner “Wiki Weapon Project.”
The accompanying website, defensedistributed.com (which now redirects to defdist.org,) included a video featuring a young, fresh-faced Wilson in a computer lab. Utilizing the growing maker community’s rhetoric of “disruption” and DIY post-consumerism, Wilson opines about the potential the project presented for the “liberation of information.”
“It's about living in a world where you just download the file for the thing you want to make in this life. I mean, as the printing press kind of revolutionized literacy, 3D printing is in its moment”
Wilson has acknowledged that the concept of a 3D-printed firearm was in and of itself not novel. The prologue of Come and Take It details the development of 3D printing from Chuck Hull’s solid imaging experiments and the later development of “open-source” software. The “Wiki Weapon Project” exists at the intersection of those ideas and early polymer firearms developed by a “Floridian gunsmith named Byron” and Gaston Glock.
In an interview on Wilson and the development of 3D-printed guns with Motherboard, The New York Times journalist Nick Bilton recounted his first recollections of seeing firearm parts in online maker spaces. “One day I was on Thingiverse, which is a website which allows you to upload parts for 3D printers and then download them, and I came across a gun part and I was kind of blown away,” he said. “I was like, ‘What is this thing?’ And the more I started to research the more I started to find out that there was a very very small group people that were exploring building a 3D gun.”
Wilson’s early comments about the Liberator project solidly couches its potential in a discussion of the First Amendment and intellectual property even in some ways deriding its clear implications for the gun debate, stating that the company’s goal “isn’t really personal armament.”
In Wilson’s early conception, the Wiki Weapon was an exercise through which “we break into new economies of scale for the production of goods and essentials, [and] border distinctions approach irrelevance. With the free and distributed nature of file sharing on the internet there is no longer the threat that certain information and thus material objects can be denied provision to men and women who need them.”
Nevertheless, in describing his libertarian idealistic world in which we “no longer must rely on limited production chains locations and, importantly, regulations for certain objects,” Wilson is clear that the project’s success would mean that “any bullet is now a weapon.”
The Wiki Weapon generated some buzz in the online maker community, fed in part by Wilson’s “pitch emails and letters… late-night fund-raising threads on 4chan” and appearances on local radio stations like Liberty Radio Network, Alex Jones’s show Infowars and Adam Kokesh’s web show.
Then, in August 2012, Indiegogo yanked Defense Distributed’s fundraising campaign for a terms of service (ToS) violation. This experience was instructive. Wilson would go on to face repeated setbacks as he was booted from platform after platform, and in the process he learned to build credit card processing relationships and websites resilient to the sorts of concerted campaigns that would plague the alt-right following the 2017 Unite the Right rally.
Wilson successfully parlayed the loss of Defense Distributed’s Indiegogo page into a grievous tale of censorship and generated his first donations in Bitcoin based on coverage in “3DP and tech blogs.”
After funding the lease of a Stratasys UPrint SE, Wilson’s efforts were once again stymied when the company revoked his lease on the machine after it had been in his apartment for less than a week. Citing potential legal violations, the company sent a crew of men to repossess it, an encounter that Wilson filmed and shared on the internet.
U.S. law regarding the manufacture, possession and sale of various classes of firearms is fraught with loopholes, exceptions and vague proscriptions. Firearms laws and regulations are interpreted by rulings published by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Of particular note to the Wiki Weapon Project are the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Undetectable Firearms Act (UFA).
The Gun Control Act (GCA) defines firearms as “(A) any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel ii projectile by the action of an explosive; (B) the frame or receiver of any such weapon; (C) any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; or (D) any destructive device.”
The UFA is a piece of 1988 legislation signed into law by Ronald Reagan that was intended to “prohibit certain firearms especially useful to terrorists.” It requires that any firearm contain at least 3.7 ounces of stainless steel. The “Liberator” pistol circumvents this by including the insertion of a chunk of stainless steel in its instructions.
The UFA and GCA paved the way for other gun control acts, including a campaign started after Reagan staffer Jim Brady was shot in the head in a botched assassination attempt.
A persistent myth on gun blogs holds that the UFA was signed into law based in part on an overblown reaction to a scene in Die Hard 2 where Bruce Willis’s character describes a fictional “Glock 7…a porcelain gun made in Germany [that] doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines.”
A Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia recently was investigated by the ATF for allegedly manufacturing a “short barreled rifle” after she filmed herself attempting to destroy an AR-15 to protest Congress’s inaction on gun control. The video and news of the woman’s investigation made the rounds on firearm sites which derided her lack of familiarity with firearm regulations.
The apocryphal tale of a legislative knee-jerk reaction to a movie scene and the real-life example of a well-intentioned but ill-informed politician and their prevalence in firearm forums and blogs is important context for understanding the milieu that Wilson entered and the branding he has used to capitalize on a contentious and convoluted legal terrain. Wilson recognizes the reflexive fear that has characterized the pro-legislation side of the firearms debate and has exploited that fear. Advertisements for Defense Distributed products featured California State Senator Kevin de Leon announcing a proposed gun ban while anachronistically referring to “magazine clips,” and unrealistic rates of fire for AR-15s.
A recent piece in the Washington Post noted that the firearms community frequently utilizes the opposition’s lack of familiarity with firearm jargon as a way of invalidating arguments for substantive gun control. Wilson has seized on gun control exponents’ lack of familiarity with the highly technical nomenclature of firearms as an advertising campaign to signal to the militant gun rights community that he is sympathetic to their views.
While this amorphous legal landscape is what allowed projects like the Wiki Weapon to proceed past the conceptual stage, there was some risk involved. Wilson sought and received a Class 2 Federal Firearms License (FFL) in March 2013, though per Wilson’s account the process was delayed considerably beyond that of a normal applicant.
Although the FFL would allow Wilson to serialize and sell the polymer lowers he developed, Wilson stated in the past that he has no intention of selling the 3D-printed AR-15 lower receivers that he produced alongside the development of the Liberator. It seems clear that then and now, Wilson’s desire is not to be a conventional arms manufacturer but to be a production enabler.
The University of Texas at Austin was at the time of Wilson’s arrival a leading academic institution in the development of 3D printing technology. Wilson credits his time in Austin with inspiring him to pursue the Liberator project. He was aided in his efforts by a group of local makers, machinists and firearms enthusiasts. A National Instruments employee purchased and repaired a secondhand Stratasys printer that was used throughout the project.
On December 19, 2012, Wilson was listed among Wired’s 15 most dangerous people, alongside an Iranian military leader, El Chapo Guzman and an African warlord.
Wilson had spent the latter half of 2012 tinkering with designs for 3D-printed polymer AR-15 lower receivers, a central component to the AR-15’s construction.
The lower receiver contains the gun’s trigger pocket and magazine well and serves as the mounting location for the upper receiver and buffer assembly, which bear the brunt of recoil forces generated in the upper receiver. The lower receiver is the only part of that family of rifles that requires a serial number for commercial sale. All other components are viewed as accessories and can be purchased without any paper trail tying them to the purchaser or point of sale.
In The New Radical, Wilson describes the process of manufacturing a 3D-printed lower receiver as much simpler than printing an entire firearm due to the lower stresses on that part during firing and cycling. Wilson’s design would go through several iterations to sufficiently stabilize the buffer column, which snapped off several times during interviews, “ vomiting parts onto the shooter’s shoulder.”
By February 2013, Wilson tested a lower receiver that fired over 600 rounds without breaking. A month later he received his FFL.
In late 2014, Wilson printed his first polymer lower receiver. He recently described the experience of handling his first 3D-printed lower in vivid detail during an interview with NPR’s Planet Money:
We lifted the printer head and bay open. We took it out, separated it from the plate. It was beautiful. There was this, this sheen on it, this kind of material that needs to be removed from it. This kind of — I would call it the afterbirth, this beautiful stuff that needs to be removed. They clean it up, literally like it had been born. I put it in my gun case and we just admired it. I felt full of purpose, I felt powerful even. I brought it to my car immediately after that. I put it in the passenger seat of my car.
Wilson describes passing the receiver around to a group of machinists, “It was green, it was fleshy, it was strange.”
On December 14, 2012, not long after Wilson’s encounter with his first 3D-printed lower, he and his colleagues were dealt another potentially catastrophic blow when a gunman armed with an AR-15 entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and opened fire, 20 children and six teachers.
The media response to the shooting was swift. Legislators attempted to leverage the event to pass long-called-for gun reform. When the governor of New York signed a law banning magazines with a capacity of greater than seven rounds, Wilson responded by uploading files for the “The Cuomo,” a 30-round, 3D-printable AR-15 magazine. Several months later, California’s Dianne Feinstein was honored with a Defcad file for a printable magazine for the Kalashnikov platform.
Later in the NPR Planet Money interview, Wilson discussed his first reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting after reading the news: "OK, I’m ahead of this...I knew immediately that this was gonna be, the next four months were gonna be about gun control.”
Wilson’s recollection of the event and its potential effects on his project are detailed in the interview with such calm that the interviewer stops Wilson to ask him to state on the record, what “emotional human response” he had to the incident. Wilson responded:
I know this matters. In a sense I’m a social casualty of a climate of persistent mass shootings. It’s not — the first thought you have sadly is okay there’s another shooting. This is babies murdered. I get that… I get it and feel it, I understand that it’s bad. But I’m already in a place, in this activist mentality. What is going to be done with this event? How is this going to be used? How is this going to be used against me?
Wilson shared similar sentiments in an interview with The Guardian: "You're asking me how I would feel? If somebody shot a kid with a Liberator? I guess I'd feel bad. It would be bad. It'd become this whole event. I'm sure I'd have this sinking feeling, 'Oh my God, they're going to make a big circus out of it.'"
Wilson expressed a similar inability to summon compassion for a human victim in the aftermath of the deadly Unite the Right rally in August 2017. In a piece for Jacobite magazine, Wilson derided efforts by Silicon Valley to address the problem of hate speech on various tech platforms. In it, Wilson states that this work is “…a form of violence more powerful than anything seen in Charlottesville, or any of the other cartoon demonstrations to come. This is the violence of consensus.”
Wilson’s ability to invest himself in his ideals and abstract physical objects was on full display in an interview with the white nationalist website Red Ice Radio’s “Radio 3Fourteen.” Prompted by host Lana Lokteff on the subject of the removal of Confederate monuments across the Southeastern United States, Wilson waxed on about the importance of maintaining the statues.
We do have to recognize that the Lost Cause narrative did win in the South. I'm speaking from Austin, Texas. If you go to the Capitol there's a monument to the Confederate States of America there and monuments to Robert E. Lee … down here the Lost Cause narrative won. But there's this recriminative view of history that all narratives that are not consistent with modernity, the narrative of progress — both ethical and material popular progress — all narratives that don't align with that narrative must be whitewashed. It's not just enough to say that it's untrue, the Lost Cause narrative of the South. It's important to eradicate its symbolic heritage and its thought because it's a threat to the progress of history. And so when I see, like, the elimination of a symbol, right, the elimination — I'm not just sympathizing with Southern white racists — I'm basically recognizing a dangerous mode of post-politics: the need to eradicate a historical narrative. Not just the need to combat it, the need to make sure that its symbols are gone, the way to articulate it is gone.
Shortly after Newtown, Thingiverse, a website dedicated to sharing 3D-printing files run by printer manufacturer Makerbot, pulled Defense Distributed’s page and all files relating to firearms and gun components.
Defense Distributed kept the ball moving by launching Defcad.org, which was intended as a digital clearinghouse for files to 3D-print guns, parts, and other weapons, including grenade shells.
Defcad was not the first site to host CAD files for firearm components. Cncguns.com and websites like it catered to the DIY firearms community before the launch of Defcad, though using their files required large and expensive equipment well out of the price range of most Americans. Wilson’s major innovation was applying the concept of free, downloadable files to the plug-and-play medium of 3D printing.
This concept has taken on a life of its own on other sites like FOSSCAD, which hosts files for the Shuty AP-9, a 3D-printed polymer pistol that is modeled largely on the AR-15 platform and capable of quick, sustained fire.
Every bullet is now a weapon
On May 5, 2013, Defense Distributed loaded a 52-second video titled “ Dawn of the Wiki Weapons.” The video opens on the first hand-held firing of the Liberator pistol, which was then uploaded to defcad.com.
Four days later, Wilson and Defense Distributed received a notice from the U.S. State Department informing them of an investigation into a possible violation of the Arms Export Control Act, part of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). ITAR is a broad legislative regime tasked with controlling the importation and exportation of hardware, software and technical data related to the production of firearms.
The complaint letter lists not only the site’s files for the “Defense Distributed Liberator pistol,” but also the “.22 electric, 125mm BK-14M high-explosive anti-tank warhead, 5.56/.223 muzzle brake, Springfield XD-40 tactical slide assembly, Sound Moderator – slip on, ‘The Dirty Diane’ ½-28 to ¾-16 STP S3600 oil filter silencer adapter, 12 gauge to .22 CB sub-caliber insert, Voltlock electronic black powder system, and VZ-58 front sight.”
As a result of the ITAR investigation, Wilson was forced to pull defcad and all of his files from the web. He dropped out of law school at the same time. At the heart of the investigation is the question of whether the files, which were downloaded hundreds of thousands of times during their short life on the surface web, represented exportable firearms or protected speech under the First Amendment. While they still exist on the so-called “dark web,” Wilson has been forced to take the State Department to court to question whether the government had the requisite jurisdiction to impose prior restraint on Wilson’s speech in the guise of defcad’s 3D files.
In defense of the Liberator, Wilson asserted that the issue at hand was a question of free speech, citing the case of the author of The Anarchist Cookbook, who the FBI investigated and declined to prosecute for violations of the ITAR United States Munitions List.
Wilson said, “The whole controversy is, can the government impose a prior restraint upon the posting of this data to the internet?”
Filed in May 2015 with help from the 2nd Amendment Foundation, Defense Distributed v. United States Department of State is Wilson’s attempt to get back at the government. In The New Radical, Wilson makes clear that the grievance generated by this lawsuit motivates the bulk of his actions. His sense of victimization has long-since subsumed the impish curiosity that characterized his early initiatives. Most recently, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case, meaning that it will return to Texas district court.
Standing in sharp contrast to emotional detachment as concerns the implications of his products, Wilson is clearly very upset about the government’s actions as they affect him personally.
Regarding his own sense of privacy and his relationship with his parents, Wilson described his anger and frustration at having to call his parents on unencrypted and likely tapped phone lines during his investigation by the State Department.
Wilson was also agitated when describing the “humiliation” he felt at having to call his bank and investors to ask them to delay processing checks from him or Defense Distributed after the company was forced to scramble due to losing access to PayPal in 2013.
The incident apparently stung. In the New Radical, the segment regarding the shuttering of his PayPal and other accounts is the closest Wilson comes to visually upset, describing “crawling on my belly” with clear rancor and disdain. In a tweet directed at PayPal, Wilson included a photo of his check from a class action lawsuit against the company with the caption “Suck My D--- @PayPal.”
Spurred on by these frustrations, Wilson turned some of his efforts away from the DIY firearms manufacturing industry toward better methods of securing payment. In early 2014, Wilson and partner Amir Taaki, a British cryptocurrency pioneer, announced their collaboration with unSystem, a coder collective, to produce “Dark Wallet.” Dark Wallet was intended as an alternative to traditional cryptocurrency platforms that allow the transmission of funds to be traced. Dark Wallet would hide account activity through a process known as “mixing,” that involves breaking up bitcoin transactions in between the sending and receiving addresses to make the transactions harder to trace through the blockchain.
The project was short-lived and does not appear to have progressed beyond the alpha stage. Dark Wallet was stymied in part by Taaki’s disappearance to aid in the Kurdish liberation effort in Rojava and subsequent investigation by British authorities after his return.
The Ghost Gunner
Although the Dark Wallet project has stalled, Wilson had another trick up his sleeve to secure cash. On October 1, 2014, Defense Distributed announced the arrival of the “Ghost Gunner.”
In a video directed “To California,” Wilson and Defense Distributed mock legislative efforts to curb the manufacture and sale of unregistered, 80% lower receivers, which can be purchased by any user and completed with a drill press and commercially available jigs. The process does require some machining skill, as detailed in a piece in Wired magazine.
80% lower receivers are available for sale to civilians under the provision that the completed receiver cannot be sold or transferred without the product first being serialized and registered with the federal government.
The Ghost Gunner is a table-top milling machine that allows a user to bolt a $60, 80% lower receiver to several plastic jigs inside a small cube. In order to avoid distributing gun manufacturing software while his lawsuit against the State Department is still pending, Wilson either ships it free on a thumb drive with the purchase of the Ghost Gunner or sells it individually with a background check.
The device plugs into an electrical outlet and a computer’s USB port and uses computer numeric controlled (CNC) stepper motors to drive an end mill in three dimensions to remove metal from a blank, frame, or receiver. After a few hours of whirring and drilling and some manipulation of the piece, a fully functional “firearm” emerges from the machine.
Wilson has claimed that his devices have produced “25,000-30,000 AR-15s,” and that many units are being held in states likely to ban the weapons as a sort of insurance policy.
There was some question over whether the Ghost Gunner would allow private individuals to operate as autonomous firearms manufacturers that owned and rented out a milling machine available to anyone who wanted to make an untraceable firearm. The ATF ruled on this question not long after Ghost Gunner’s release in its ATF Ruling 2015-1, which banned “Federal Firearms Licensees (FFL), or unlicensed machine shops,” from “the business of completing, or assisting in the completion of, the manufacture of firearm frames or receivers for unlicensed individuals without being licensed as a manufacturer of firearms.”
Nevertheless, this possibility has not gone without note to those who would advocate for nefarious and illegal uses of the Ghost Gunner.
On a recent episode of his podcast “Race Ghost Roast to Roast,” neo-Nazi hacker and troll Andrew “weev” Auernheimer referenced a potential (illegal) moneymaking scheme stating: “Gotta teach those n----- to use the Ghost Gunner my friend. That's a legal thing. You could literally rent out a Ghost Gunner to every f------ n----- that you wanted. Just rent time on it, go to the f------ hood and teach them how to...”
weev has previously spoken positively of the Ghost Gunner and its potential in the hands far-right militants. In a kiwifarms.net thread, an account associated with Auernheimer stated:
Get a Ghost Gunner and 80% lowers and mill yourself an AR-15 lower. Putting the rest of it together from there is as stupidly simple as legos. Fully legal, untraceable rifles of the same model that [Las Vegas shooter] Paddock used. I'll be happy to serve as a middleman for you for a fee if you want to buy this stuff with Monero.
The Ghost Gunner is a departure from Wilson’s earlier projects. While his 3D-printed creations relied on publicly available technology and the heady optimism of the early maker scene, as well as its steadfast belief that home users would be able to create any product or replacement part at will, the Ghost Gunner is something of a boutique offering, limited in its applications and restrictive in its cost.
The device’s $1,500 price point puts it well out of the price range of most hobbyists, and its dimensions were kept deliberately small in order to ensure rigidity. Consequently, the device does not lend itself well to objects larger than the AR-15 platform it was designed for. Although Wilson sells 80% receivers at a price that is competitive with other outlets, Ghost Gunner’s limited nature means that it falls short of the utopian ideal “that certain information and thus material objects can [not] be denied provision to men and women who need them.”
In early 2015, FedEx notified Wilson they would no longer ship Ghost Gunners, a setback that infuriated him. He told Reason magazine, “I told them, look you guys ship guns, this should not be a controversy. This is not regulated. This is totally settled law here.”
On June 21, 2016, an update to the Ghost Gunner, the Ghost Gunner 2, was announced.
At the beginning of 2018, Defense Distributed debuted an improved Ghost Gunner spindle — the component which holds the machine’s end-mill in place and twists it at speeds high enough to carve metal — that allows the machine to carve metal blanks for 1911 pistols and polymer frames that can accept Glock components, magazines and slides.
Although Ghost Gunner’s movement into concealable pistols of a decidedly higher quality than the Liberator might be alarming, it should be noted that while the AR-15 is generally recognized as a rifle platform, another gun law loophole has allowed users to construct “AR pistols” for some time. An AR pistol is characterized by a barrel of less than sixteen inches and the firearm’s lack of a shoulder stock. “Stabilizing braces” act as near-perfect substitutes for a typical stock while not qualifying as such due to a difference in their intended use as defined by the manufacturer and regulated by the ATF.
While still substantially larger than a conventional pistol, AR pistols occupy as much space as a typical short-barreled rifle, a class of weapon that is tracked by the ATF under the National Firearms Act. That means an easily concealable and transportable weapon firing rifle caliber ammunition can be constructed without the government having any knowledge of its existence.
Since the premiere of Defense Distributed’s first video, Wilson’s rhetoric has arched further and further away from the early maker scene’s idyllic rhetoric around “disruption.” This is perhaps best displayed in the contrast between Wilson’s first video announcing the Wiki Weapon and his announcement of the Ghost Gunner 2.
From Defense Distributed’s debut video: “We're not a company, we're not a corporation, we're not even a business association of any kind. We just call ourselves Defense Distributed. We want to share with you an idea.”
Compare this with “Orlando and the People’s Rifle, a Defense Distributed press release issued following the September 14, 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting, during which the gunman used an AR-15, among other weapons.”
“Orlando and the People’s Rifle”
The GG2 continues to be the same price as its previous iteration, at $1,500 total. We are still chasing demand, especially after the events in Orlando, so we still ask interested parties to claim a spot on our wait list if they would like to receive a GG in 2016. Our shipments remain at 150-160 a month, and we are committed to making at least 500-600 more Ghost Gunners in the wake of the upcoming election and the vicious calls for elimination and confiscation of the People's Rifle. DD has since the end of 2015 sold 80% receivers for our GG's, and we will now offer 80% .308 receivers as well. Both GG1 and GG2 are LR .308 capable, and we will have our .308 fixtures up for sale on our website by the first week of July. There will be more third party reviews of the GG2 out in coming days, and perhaps one or two more updates this summer. We are shipping quickly and thank you for your interest and orders. Your support has allowed us to continue to fight the federal government at the appellate level in Defense Distributed vs. U.S. Dep't of State. And a recording of our most recent argument before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is available here.
We continue to push for a means to disclose our research and software directly to the public. There are many more things to say, but I suppose the most important is this: We are not blind to the impending threat HRC, coming California legislation, and the prohibitionists in the media pose to our modern rifles and to the Second Amendment. And we are not relaxing. Though we are proud of what we've been able to offer the people in the last two years with GG, we know we must commit ourselves anew to the defense of our liberties and to offering you a machine that can last through prohibition and even the eventual breakup of this country. That's a tall order, but we have it in mind and pledge to make the best machine possible for you and a coming generation of American riflemen.
In Come and Take It, Wilson describes this commercial shift after receiving his FFL: “I told them I was starting a business! They want to ban every gun, sure, and in a month they’ll do it. But that doesn’t touch commercial manufacturing. This country wails for an end to the pain. The machine must be brutal and destroy any who disagree. But if you tell it you are an agent of the accumulation of capital, then everything is permitted.”
In propping up Defense Distributed as a sales venture in order to fund his lawsuit against the federal government, Wilson’s rhetoric has bent steadily closer to that of the most radical fringes of the gun lobby, replete with notions of the AR-15 as “the people’s rifle,” the hysteria around Hillary Clinton’s most recent presidential bid and an impending gun grab. This year, Wilson and Defense Distributed debuted a booth at Shot Show, the gun industry’s largest tradeshow and expo. With the advent of the Ghost Gunner, Wilson has abandoned his rosy belief in breaking up corporate consolidation and government power through the democratization of firearms manufacture and has profited mightily in the process.
In an October 2017 interview with Wired, Wilson indicated he had sold around 4,000 Ghost Gunner units. With the total purchase price at $1,675, that puts Wilson’s sales before last election at around $6,700,000.
Wilson told the Washington Examiner that he typically sells 200 Ghost Gunner units a month, meaning that he has likely netted an additional $2million in the interim based on a conservative estimate and Wilson’s claim that “sales of his Ghost Gunner auto-milling machine doubled in February , and he sold another 200 the first week of March, matching a typical month.” This sales spike was likely a panic response amid fears of a crackdown on AR-15s after the recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Some of Wilson’s funds have been rolled into cryptocurrency, which Wilson began accepting in 2013.
As of February 2018, analysis conducted by Hatewatch indicated that Wilson and Defense Distributed held more than 122 bitcoin in several different wallet addresses. That amount of cryptocurrency is valued at almost $1million as of April 2017.
Responding to an inquiry from Hatewatch regarding several transfers of Defense Distributed’s bitcoins to new, unused wallets, Wilson said,“Re: the BTC, I suppose your numbers are incomplete and I don’t recognize your characterization of my habits. What’s public is public, but I don’t ‘move’ bitcoin and also rarely spend any. I’d certainly never deny having it though.”
Wilson’s disdain for “corporatists,” the government or “globalist neo-liberals” cripples his ability to empathize with the flesh and blood victims of mass shootings. It also clouds his judgement, blinding him to the fact that this recent spate of attacks is an inevitable byproduct of massive corporate lobbying, military industrial complex profiteering and wanton cultural fetishization of gun violence. Wilson’s moral and ethical ambivalence extends to the ability of Nazis to fundraise and organize on the open web.
In June 2017, Wilson launched a new website titled “Hatreon.” The website, complete with a name riffing off of popular crowdfunding site Patreon, is deliberately intended to supplant traditional fundraising sources, which have increasingly moved to mitigate the amount of hate speech on their platforms.
By October 2017, the site had moved from its quiet “soft launch” to allowing many from across the alt-right to open platforms, including weev, Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer and Richard Spencer.
In remarks to Newsweek, Wilson said of the site: “I will allow [Hatreon] to become what it will become, but I don’t plan to spend marketing money or dedicate a large team to it. My best hope for it right now is it will piss off Germany and we can have a showdown with European internet law.”
Continuing his strategy of offering competitively-priced 80% blanks for the Ghost Gunner as an incentive to get buyers in the door, Hatreon’s website brags about only taking five cents on the dollar with the phrase “we eat least,” compared to other crowdfunding sites that take a larger cut of contributions.
In an interview with CNN Money, Wilson prided himself on the presence of members of far right groups on his platform:
Luminaries of the Alt-Right have decided to join, and they get a lot of the money because they know they can go there and not get censored. A lot of people have been leaving Patreon in protest…This is Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, and he’s been doing quite well. Andrew Auernheimer, you could call him a fascist probably... Sent to federal prison for things like how he trolled AT&T. You get somebody like weev, that’s a nice endorsement of your service. Mr. [Richard] Spencer I think is considered a pretty successful troll.
Regarding the site’s name, Wilson said, “My service was never meant to be a professional or serious one. Its name tells you that, but it seems like it already.”
Nevertheless, Wilson anticipated making a lot of money on it: “There’s over 1,500 Patrons, there’s almost 200 creators, over $7,000 in revenue every month. This is more than just a hobby at this point.”
This latter statement contradicted remarks to Newsweek two months earlier, where Wilson expressed a laissez-faire attitude towards the success or failure of Hatreon.
When questioned regarding the lengths of what speech he was willing to countenance on the site, Wilson continued:
The American Nazi Party is a legal political organization in this country. It would be welcome on a site like Hatreon.
In the same way that he denies any personal responsibility for one of his firearm creations being involved in a shooting episode, Wilson is similarly unwilling to acknowledge the role that hate speech has played in the well-documented and rising body count of the alt-right. There is a glaring inconsistency in Wilson’s support of a recasting of ages-old modes of thought intentionally cultivated to deny the largest possible segment of society of its rights and liberty at the expense of wealth and privilege for a select caste. Nevertheless, his pro-liberty sensibilities are apparently unencumbered by his aiding and abetting of a process wherein these ideas are A/B tested and applied to monetized platforms with unprecedented reach.
When asked in the same CNN Money interview whether he was concerned about hosting hate speech on Hatreon, Wilson responded:
No I’m not worried about it. When I’m talking about incitement or imminent lawsuits, I’m talking about, like, when you’re outside of someone’s home and there’s a mob and you say, ‘There he is, get him!’ That’s not protected speech. But these personalities that use Hatreon right now, these people who have been kicked off these services, these people are at worst trolls, performance artists, provacateurs, vulgarians. And at best, they represent through their hyperbole or through their extreme thinking or presentations, elements of a political speech that should not be censored. That’s entirely possible, and you don’t have to join my shitty little site with its dumb name. But you know no matter what that if you do won’t be kicked off of it.”
I like catching interesting fish. Creating interesting problems from small things. The 3D-printed gun got me to hook the U.S. State Department into a lovely federal case, right? I’ll probably end up creating a bigger turmoil out of a site like this, because it’s just sitting there waiting to be attacked by a government, a platform or something. And so, I’ll build it quietly, I’ll build it slowly and then we’ll see what interesting fish we attract…I think it could be very big… Maybe a service like Hatreon could be influential in the ultimate failure of the European project, the breakup of Europe. The closest my politics comes to any traditional school is anarchism. I don’t like the imposition of state controls over human flourishing, creativity, freedom, individuality. So the way to undermine these things is to undermine the power of traditional liberal institutions.
In spite of Wilson’s commitment to Hatreon and its vision of a platform and ultimately a world unencumbered by moral restraint, the website has been inactive for quite some time. The most recent update, on February 9, 2018, states that “Pledging is currently disabled while we upgrade our systems.”
In an email response to an inquiry by Hatewatch staff regarding the website’s future, Wilson wrote:
“Hatreon processing was suspended by Visa in November. I’m bringing another couple of merchant banks online for it but this can’t be a full time pursuit for me for now. I’ll advertise the site as open again if/when I have those merchant accounts live.”
Regarding weev’s comments on the use of the Ghost Gunner and potential role as a broker for interested but prohibited buyers, Wilson responded, “Ghost Gunner has no official business relationship with Weev. I don’t believe he’s sold or moved any of our products. Happy to discuss it with him though.”
In another response, Wilson detailed his opinion on the Alt-Right and listed some rationale behind the Hatreon project:
I think the best way to summarize my work with Hatreon is as an ongoing class in active measures and failover, if you will. This project has taught me more about server security, the payments industry, who is weak or soft on speech in tech, and many other things that I wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to learn.
Remember that one day I hope to share gun files on the Internet again. I have a personal interest in consolidating web hosting and payments relationships. Working with the deplorables amid our current moral panic has been valuable in ways beyond profits.
Many, perhaps even most, on the alt-right aren’t worth our respect, but they unquestionably have the right to speak and solicit support. The rest of Hatreon for me is in discourse, which I write a little about here: https://jacobitemag.com/2017/08/23/silicon-valley-struggle-sessions/
Whatever the fate of Hatreon might be, Wilson is clearly invested in his Ghost Gunner project. As of late March 2018, the company is still shipping orders from late 2017. Recent photographs of Wilson feature him brandishing what appears to be a new lower receiver milled for 9mm Glock magazines, an offering that has not yet been referenced on Defense Distributed’s website.
Wilson has referenced District of Columbia v. Heller as a justification for the move into manufacturing pistols, stating: “The handgun is at the center of what is protected in the Heller decision."
“So, whereas AR-15s may not ever be backed up by the Supreme Court, there's no way of getting around, right now, the protections that the Supreme Court gave to the handgun. And so this is the core of the Second Amendment liberty as it's currently understood.”
Cody Wilson has displayed a fervent devotion to his stance in the ongoing debate regarding the precise limits of free speech in American political life and civic discourse, though the mediums he has chosen to defend it are at best, questionable. The Liberator pistol, Ghost Gunner, Hatreon, even effigies of Confederate generals on horseback, all stand as totemic representations of Wilson’s oft-stated and amply documented contempt for any act of collectivized will. In Wilson’s conception, the idea that a website can prevent Andrew Auernheimer from detailing his genocidal vision of “every non-white in the world cowering before the altar of global white supremacy or else they worry about a flying death machine killing their whole family with ruthless efficiency of software” is tantamount to enslavement.
Returning to “Silicon Valley Struggle Session,” Wilson’s Jacobite contribution, the violent death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville is less monstrous in his view than the idea that Andrew Auernheimer might not be able to extoll the virtues of ethnic cleansing, or that SIEGE -pilled Atomwaffen Division members might not be able to take to Ironmarch to share their violent rape fantasies and to organize desert paramilitary camps.
Toward the end of his Jacobite piece, Wilson argues the recent challenges to extremist views in polite society “should be seen as a better test for determining who among us are trapeze artists versus those only bound to accelerate their post-historical plight.”
In advocating for unmitigated access to firearms, or for the total freedom from responsibility for speech on the internet, Wilson has not experienced a great deal of success. As previously mentioned, the Supreme Court declined to hear Defense Distributed v. United States Department of State on First Amendment grounds. The Liberator pistol generated some headlines and an intense amount of legal scrutiny, whereas Dark Wallet has not even issued a beta version. Were one released tomorrow, it would be past what is speculated to have been the cryptocurrency bubble and just in time for the U.S. regulatory regime to ban mixing of bitcoins, the feature that gave Dark Wallet an edge.
Hatreon appears to be floundering, and the alt-right is still seeking a platform. The Ghost Gunner is a bougie retail item that provides little advantage over a $100 drill press and some basic machining courses, but with a $1,500 price tag. Hardly the agent of mass liberation, it represents a furthering of the same impulse that has resulted in an estimated three percent of American adults owning 50 percent of its guns. In short, Wilson’s contributions have been flashy, and they have earned him some money and notoriety, all with the end result of building public interest in legislating the end of exactly what Wilson has been fighting for.