Danger in 3-D: The Rapid Spread of Printable Pistols


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. Legal and Technological Hurdles Wilson estimated legal fees and costs for outside experts that he and his friends might have to hire seeing that all the members of his group were novices and no one had ever made a weapon. A few were engineers, and others had studied machine-building. When the list was complete, the figure at the bottom was $20,000 (€15,100).

It was more money than Wilson and his friends had, so they decided to place their campaign on Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing platform for raising money, hoping for donations -- charity for a deadly weapon.

About two weeks after Wilson had published his "Wiki Weapon Project" on Indiegogo, he received an email from the site's legal department, informing him that his call for donations had been deleted "because of unusual activities." Wilson filed an objection.

In a second email, he learned that Indiegogo's terms and conditions prohibit soliciting donations for weapons or the production of weapons or their components. Indiegogo returned the roughly $2,000 that had already been received for the project to the donors. Wilson was back at zero.

He programmed his own website and called it "Defense Distributed." He asked for donations -- and he got them. They were mostly small amounts, but there were many of them -- two-figure proof that there are many people in America who think the way Cody Wilson thinks.

When he had finally raised enough money for a decent printer, he leased a model called "uPrint," made by Stratasys, for three months. The printer was shipped to him in several packages. But before Wilson could even open them, he received an email from the Stratasys legal department.

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