For the past five years, Cody Wilson has applied every possible advance in digital manufacturing technology to the mission of undermining government attempts at gun control. First he created the world’s first 3-D printed gun, a deadly plastic weapon anyone could print at home with a download and a few clicks. Then he started selling a computer-controlled milling machine designed to let anyone automatically carve out the body of an untraceable AR-15 from a semifinished chunk of aluminum, upgrading his provocations from plastic to metal. Now his latest advance in home firearm fabrication allows anyone to make an object designed to defy the most basic essence of gun control: A concealable, untraceable, and entirely unregulated metal handgun.
On Sunday, Wilson’s gun rights advocacy group, Defense Distributed, announced a new release of software for his computer-controlled milling machine known as the Ghost Gunner. The new code allows the 1-foot-cubed tabletop machine—which uses a spinning bit to carve three-dimensional shapes with minute precision—to not only produce untraceable bodies of AR-15s but to carve out the aluminum frame of an M1911 handgun, the popular class of semiautomatic pistols that includes the Colt 45 and similar weapons. Wilson says he plans to follow up soon with software for producing regulation-free Glocks and other handgun models to follow.
Wilson’s goal now, he says, is to do for small arms what Defense Distributed did for AR-15s when it first released the $1,500 Ghost Gunner milling machine exactly three years ago to the day: Give people the ability to make a lethal weapon at home with no regulation whatsoever.
The latest model of the milling machine can finish a handgun’s frame in about an hour, with minimal human interaction. And that frame is the only regulated part of the pistol: Under current US law, every other part of the gun, from its barrel to its slide to its tiny firing pin, can be ordered online with no questions asked. Making that one element at home means the entire process of assembling a working weapon requires no identification, no background check, no waiting period, not even a serial number that would allow the Department of Justice to track the gun’s existence.
With little more than a software file, Defense Distributed has made its anarchic, DIY path to gun ownership available for a class of weapon that’s both more concealable and used far more often in violent crimes than the large, semiautomatic rifles its gunmaking machine produced in the past. “The whole cypherpunk attitude of total gun privacy is more coherent in this smaller package,” says Wilson, referring to the group whose first libertarian adherents in the 1990s advocated gun rights, encryption, and other technologies designed to hamstring government surveillance. “Now you can have a private 1911 or a private Glock, and it’s at the level of automated manufacturing.”
A More Violent Market
Of course, Wilson’s machine could also help customers who otherwise wouldn’t legally be able to obtain a gun—minors, people with a mental disorder, or those with a criminal record—obtain one. California, in fact, already outlawed so-called “ghost guns”—homemade firearms without serial numbers—last summer. But no such law exists at the federal level, allowing anyone to bypass virtually all gun control laws if they make a gun at home and don’t sell it or give it away.
“The ghost gun threat is real and growing,” says Kevin De Leon, the California state senator who introduced the statewide ghost gun ban. “Are they being made by gang members? Are they being manufactured to sell to individuals who are prohibited from possessing firearms? Technologies that make it possible for the general public to manufacture guns raise serious questions.”
It’s not clear in just how many cases ghost guns have been used for actual violence. In 2013, a mentally ill 23-year-old man named John Zawahiri used one to kill five people in a Santa Monica shooting spree. But by making it easier to create a homemade handgun, Defense Distributed is bringing the ability to circumvent gun control to a class of weapon that’s used far more often in violent crime—while semiautomatic rifles are often used in high-profile mass shootings, they still account for just a single-digit percentage of total gun deaths.
In a phone call earlier this year, Wilson himself admitted that the notion of updating the Ghost Gunner for homemade handguns worried him too—in part because the increased threat of violence could inspire new laws prohibiting it. “We’re going to see orders from Chicago we haven’t seen before,” he said, referring to Chicago’s high rate of gang-related gun crime. “Even I’m a little scared.”
“Like Building a Model Ship”
Wilson’s update for Ghost Gunner will hardly be the first time Americans will be able to make industrial-quality handguns at home. Gun part vendors already sell so-called 80 perfect frames, unfinished aluminum parts that lack just a few slots and cavities and thus don’t legally qualify as frames until those parts are manually drilled or milled out. But the Ghost Gunner’s update automates that finicky process and makes it vastly easier, even for gun enthusiasts with practically no gunsmithing skills. (I have none myself, and I used it two years ago to build an AR-15 in WIRED’s office.)
Of the 4,000 Ghost Gunners that Defense Distributed has already sold, more than 1,000 are the most recent model, which Wilson says is precise enough to let his customers start making 1911 frames immediately. They do need special jigs necessary to hold the 1911 frame in place inside the machine (which can be ordered online or 3-D printed), a few specific milling bits specific to the handgun design, and the software, which Defense Distributed will send to customers on a USB stick. (In 2013 the State Department forbid Defense Distributed from posting gun model files online, a decision the group is still fighting in a lawsuit.)
Wilson argues that despite the dangers of helping people produce untraceable handguns, assembling a 1911 ghost gun from parts won’t be as easy as building an untraceable AR-15, as the Ghost Gunner was designed to make possible in the past. “If the AR is like Legos, the 1911 is like a model ship,” he says. “If you’re a gangster at home trying to build one, you’ve bought a problem for yourself more than you’ve solved one.”
“Universal Access to Arms”
State senator De Leon nonetheless warns that it’s another sign of gunmaking technology’s progress. And he argues that it’s well past time the federal government passed a law similar to the one he helped bring to California, where DIY gunmakers now must apply for a serial number and etch it into the frame of any gun they make. “It’s always going to be very difficult to curtail the advancement of technology,” says De Leon. “But this is not a technology issue. This is a leadership issue, and it’s incumbent on policy makers to understand what the consequences are for our communities.”
The current Republican president and Congress, of course, have practically zero interest in any new gun control law. But Wilson’s mission has never been to merely exploit loopholes in America’s existing gun control regime. As a radical libertarian, he’s sought to demonstrate that technology is rendering all government obsolete. “This is a way to jab at the bleeding hearts of these total statists,” Wilson told WIRED when the Ghost Gunner first launched in 2014. “It’s about humiliating the power that wants to humiliate you.”
Since then, Wilson’s provocations have evolved in other directions too: Earlier this year he launched Hatreon, a crowdfunding site that welcomes white supremacists or anyone else who’s been kicked off other fundraising platforms, including neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer and Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin. Wilson insists the project is a trolly, reactionary response to calls to ban hate speech online, and that he’s not a member of the alt-right—just a “free speech extremist.”
But gun rights—and using DIY manufacturing technologies to expand them—remains Wilson’s central ideological project, he says. And even if his latest innovation risks contributing to actual criminal violence, he has no plans to stop. “Of course it’s worth the risk. The right is protected because it can be abused, not because there are no consequences,” he says. “There is going to be universal access to arms. Even if I’m the only one working on it, it’s going to happen.”