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The New Radical, Cody Wilson, and the future of 3D-printed guns

Technoanarchist Cody Wilson and director Adam Bhala Lough discuss their new documentary on cryptowarriors, which covers issues from home-manufactured weapons to Bitcoin to Donald Trump.

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The mood in the room after an early Sundance screening of Adam Bhala Lough’s The New Radical was polite, but a little icy. Viewers who stayed for the post-film Q&A asked sarcastic questions like “Do you think it’s okay for my 12-year-old son to download gun plans off the internet?” and “If I have a machine shop that can produce a nuke, should I?” They were mostly aiming these questions at the film’s central subject, Cody Wilson, the face of the 3D-printable gun movement. The New Radical touches on other crypto-anarchists, hacktivists, and the Second Amendment enthusiasts touting printable guns as a form of “radical equality.” But the movie repeatedly comes back to Wilson and his company, Defense Distributed, which develops printable files for weapons, and sells a self-contained CNC mill called Ghost Gunner, used for making untraceable guns. In the documentary, director Adam Bhala Lough follows Wilson through the past several years of activism: putting 3D gun files online, being forced to pull them back off by the State Department, partnering with Iranian-British rebel Amir Taaki on the DarkWallet anonymous Bitcoin use project, suing the State Department on First Amendment grounds, and much more.

In the film, Wilson is openly positive about the election of Donald Trump, which may help explain the film’s chilly reception among the liberal-leaning Sundance audience. Then again, there are plenty of reasons for people on the left — Lough included — to find Wilson unsettling. Lough interviews him at length in The New Radical, about other pioneers of the crypto movement, other libertarian radical activists, and how printable weapons level the playing field for anyone who wants a potentially undetectable plastic gun without any government oversight. He also gets into Wilson’s smash-the-state philosophy at some length. The film is a useful overview of recent struggles between hacktivists and the state, from WikiLeaks’ exposure of Hillary Clinton’s emails to Edward Snowden’s NSA whistleblowing to the rise and fall of Silk Road. It’s also strikingly current; Lough had to go back and shoot a new ending after the 2016 election, to bring in Trump’s victory and address what it means for radicals and resistors. I sat down with Lough and Wilson at Sundance to talk about the current state of the art in 3D-printed guns, the current state of crypto-anarchism, and how a First Amendment activist can also be a moderately enthused Trump supporter.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

At the Q&A for the first screening of The New Radical, you said Julian Assange won this round of the crypto-wars, and you’re out to win the next. What’s that next battle look like?

Cody Wilson: I think the next round is about Silicon Valley and back doors. Will we have truly encrypted phones and messaging communication? And Bitcoin is part of that conversation. Will we have encrypted money? I don’t know if those two things are one together. I think Bitcoin is a much longer battle. I really think the deck is stacked against us now, though. Crypto is a very, very powerful thing. They’re upgrading Tor real soon. I think it’s all about, “Will we have kind of a permanent, separate peace with these massive institutions, or will ECHELON just totally invade us, and always be in our phones, always be in our devices, and there’s really no arm’s-length communication any more? That seems to be the battlefront to me. 

How did you guys get started together? What was the genesis of this film?

Adam Bhala Lough: I heard him on NPR, and it was one of those interviews that was so mind-blowing, I had to pull the car over to listen. So I flew down to Texas and self-financed a test shoot with him. We began filming, and through him, I met Amir and some of these other characters. I’m following these strands and hoping it all connects. That’s also how we got the Julian Assange interview. You’re just sniffing something out and following the tracks, and then trying to tell a cohesive story.

You touch on other radicals in the film, including Assange, Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, and DarkWallet’s Amir Taaki. But you always come back to Cody to comment on the issues and the figures in the crypto movement, to the point where it feels like he’s vetting them. How did you decide to use that structure? 

ABL: Well, it wasn’t deliberate. For me, storytelling comes first, story and characters. So, we track the characters changing and growing. I really want a beginning, middle, and end. I never wanted this film, or any film I do, to be just purely topical. Like, “Oh, here’s a movie about radicals, and we’re going to have 90 minutes of talking heads and footage of radicals.” I was really interested in following these characters, figuring out who they are, what they’re about, just getting deeper into them as humans. I’m trying to find something universal.

AR-15 sketch

“There are people all over the world downloading our files and we say 'good.' We say you should have access to this.” —Cody Wilson, in a 2013 Verge report highlighting the common ground between activist hackers and Second Amendment radicals.

You talked in the Q&A about how Cody and other technoanarchists you looked at were very young when they started, and hadn’t worked out their goals or mission statements. Given that feeling about them, how did you approach making a documentary about their philosophy?

ABL: With respect and care, as I would approach any subject I’m working with. Even if I loathe them, the fact that they’re willing to sit down and be on camera for me means a lot. So even if I disagree with a lot of things Cody is saying… a lot of what he said confounded me. It angered me. It put into question my safe, liberal views of society. But in the documentarian-subject relationship, none of that matters. What matters most is mutual respect and love for the subject from the filmmaker.

It seems like it’d be hard to work as an underground radical while conducting a public, mainstream-visible crusade. Do things like this documentary, or being interviewed by NPR, get in the way of contributing to your movement?

CW: There are so many things I can’t do now, as a true hacker, or with a hacker enclave. So many things they can’t do with me, even if I wanted to help fund or promote it. I get that. But I don’t feel like an icon, I feel like a has-been. I feel like my moment was a couple years ago, and now it’s just me tending to my own weird digital garden.

In the portion of the documentary just before the 2016 election, you identify Hillary Clinton as an immense threat because she’s in favor of stronger gun control. But now you have someone in the presidency who opposes net neutrality, who favors censorship and propaganda. How does a free speech advocate balance those issues?

CW: But remember, Trump just as a pure egotist knows who his voters are. So even if he’s bad for the periphery of rights related to gun rights, he knows the red-blooded gun-owning American male is his voting block. Like Hillary Clinton said in the third debate, “I reject Heller.” [Heller is a landmark 2008 gun rights court case.] Well come on, give me a break. That’s the lifeblood of all Second Amendment jurisprudence. So it’s a simple question of practical politics. Who is nakedly coming after the Second Amendment? It was night and day, in that sense. I hope that doesn’t come out as a full-throated endorsement of Trump.

Would I have rather Trump won over Hillary? Yes. But that’s all I was expressing. There was a great New Yorker article about the conservative intellectuals that back Trump, and there’s just a “yes, but” about him. Yeah, we know everything that’s wrong with him, but come on. I think that’s the main reason people are voting for him — this idea that anything new is refreshing, any disruption is preferable to the status quo.

How does Trump’s election change Defense Distributed’s business model?

CW: Honest to God, I thought my sales would dip hard, because people would think, “I don’t need this anymore, I’ve got my Second Amendment safe for a long time.” And perhaps that did happen to my normal consumer, but just as many new consumers are coming, because they’re thinking “Oh, maybe I can enjoy this machine for a long time. It won’t become illegal in the next four years.” So I’m actually not seeing a change at all in our sales. It’s stayed very solid and consistent in demand. I’m totally surprised, because I just got out of SHOT Show in Las Vegas, and a lot of people are seeing their sales dry up. That’s curious to me.

This isn’t an entry-level doc. It uses a lot of unidentified news clips where it really helps if viewers can visually identify James Eagan Holmes, or Dylann Roof. And it assumes a lot of knowledge about hacktivist philosophy and surrounding issues. Who’s the ideal audience?

ABL: On the one hand, the Baby Boomer NPR-generation liberals, who would watch it because they’re scared to death and they don’t understand these kids. And then on the other hand, it would be these kids and their millennial generation, regardless of whether they’re into tech or any of these things. But this generation automatically knows so much more about this kind of stuff. Internet-enabled thought has proliferated. In this generation, everyone is just so much more educated in current events than ever before. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re smarter, but they know about all these things that 10 years ago, you’d really have to go to the library and research. Like, you see 10 articles on Bitcoin one week, and you’re like, “I gotta know a little bit more about that.” But within five minutes, you know everything there is to know about Bitcoin.

Much of the point of your movement is democratizing weaponry. But can you promote real equality through devices that require a lot of disposable income and technological familiarity to use?

CW: That was an early criticism of Bitcoin, too. Look, these are technologies that only white male Silicon Valley types are using. It’s like, “You haven’t saved the world, you’re not gonna save the world. It’s not going to trickle down like you think, or if it does, it’s going to take 30 years. So stop acting like you solved the problem.” All that criticism is well received. At our maximum as an organization, we were always trying to project these images of a future that was unwilled, or unwished for, on the part of our enemy. I was never actually trying to say, “The solution is here, oh my God, we’ve done it.” I was trying to inject an undeniable nightmare-like scenario for power to receive, the power we believed we were opposing.

Now power is changing. Do I really believe everyone’s going to have the instant ability to reproduce guns for themselves anytime soon? No. This is complex, and the [Ghost Gunner auto-milling] machine is still needed, and this is a very long art. But I do believe there are incremental steps being implemented that are truly changing your access to this technology. I hype this idea of this permanent, unavoidable negative future where guns are going to be everywhere. I’m engaging in that propaganda. But I actually do believe we’re achieving something real.

ABL: I think it trickles down, like with the internet. I was in second grade when my first friend got on the internet, and it was because his mom was a sports writer for The Washington Post, and she needed to get sports scores first, so she could write her articles. So it starts there, and it eventually all branches out. It doesn’t concern me. It’s a long arc that’s getting shorter and shorter.

CW: Are we being technological utopians? Yes. That’s a specific kind of escape from politics, even an escape from solutions. “Oh look, we solved this problem on the internet! Yay!” And then there’s a whole world outside that doesn’t even interface with that. Still, everything’s bleeding into itself. I think internet communications and encrypted phones are part of the fabric of how people do things now. The fact that you can now download a gun file to your phone, that’s important. I think it’s significant.

The documentary mentions the First Amendment lawsuit you filed against the State Department, calling the right to post 3D gun print files is a freedom of speech issue. But you don’t cover the progress of the court case, apart from one celebratory scene along the way. Why do you say so little about it?

ABL: The first cut of the film was four hours long, and the feeling in the room was that that stuff was dry and boring. We tried to spice it up, but that’s how the decision came about — looking at the arc of the story, tracking the characters and their development, figuring out what worked and what didn’t.

If you’re openly trying to smash the state, why pursue your rights through the state? Is there any chance of getting a fair hearing there?

CW: I don’t want to be bitter. I can’t complain. I felt like we got a decent hearing at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and our briefings have been good. We’ve gotten lots of amici [curiae]. The EFF was involved. I think that is necessary, to exhaust that process, the pursuit of that particular remedy, before I can do more interesting things. I want to have the moral authority to go beyond that, but first, I have to show I was willing to do that. And as long as we need to, I’m willing to do that.

Cody Wilson, testing a 3D-printed rifle in The New Radical.
Cody Wilson, testing a 3D-printed rifle in The New Radical.
Chris Messina

Toward the end of the documentary, you make it clear that you’re kind of tired of working on 3D-printed gun rights. If you weren’t devoted to this cause, is there another one you’d be pursuing?

CW: I don’t know. I think now I’m totally created by this, I’m just this dogged slave of this thing I built when I was just a kid. I don’t know. I think about having a family sometimes. I don’t want to get maudlin or whatever. But you get caught up in it, you get ground up by it. And I thought that was one of the best things Adam captured, is how these causes consume you. It consumed Amir. It exhausts you. And maybe that’s good for people to see. I don’t know how much more patience I have with it, to be honest. But I’m trying to continue.

How much are you still working on refining the designs of your guns, as opposed to chasing the right and ability to get them out there?

CW: We’ve done such cool things with the new generation of printers that people aren’t expecting, with printers we shouldn’t have had access to. And I can’t wait to show you. It’s great stuff. There are revolver concepts. We have access to latest-gen materials. I don’t want to preview them for you yet, but they’re out there, and you can go find them. The digital techniques of milling, and quick use of carbide tools with really cheap machines — digital production of guns is at the highest level it’s ever been, and there’s so much to show. There’s so many files to put out there. They just haven’t been shared. This was actually in the Fifth Circuit’s recent opinion. They were like, “Look, we can’t give them relief now, they’ve said they’re going to release all this stuff if we do. So let’s just wait until the end of the case.” That hurts, but at least everyone knows we’re sitting on a ton of stuff right now. In fact, I’ve got this great network — I don’t want to give you the name yet, but I’ve built this huge network with a more robust ability to share things than I was able to before. We’re ready to disclose a lot of information, and it’s not going to come back down, if you know what I mean.

But technology moves so quickly these days, and court cases move so slowly. Are you concerned that your designs are going to be obsolete by the time the case gets to the Supreme Court?

CW: I know. I understand, it’s like, “Isn’t that stuff old hat after a while?” But in terms of the specifics of the 3D-printed gun movement, a lot of those people are stuck with the technology from two to three years ago. A lot of them haven’t had the time and resources to really play with the new stuff, the expensive stuff. And the people who have, they’re already part of Remington or Solid Concepts or Stratasys. It’s already locked down. Still, we’re sitting out here twiddling our thumbs, out in front of it all, because it’s going to take another couple years for these guys to catch up to where we are. And it keeps going that way, because I continue to pay for this kind of R&D. And a lot of that stuff makes it into our machinery. We have a lot of cool prototypes. But really, the big stuff is software and solid models, and we’ve had a lot of time to develop that stuff.

Adam Bhala Lough’s The New Radical will screen several more times during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It is currently seeking distribution.