Cody Wilson called it the Liberator.
It was a single-shot pistol with a short barrel. And it was the first gun built with a 3-D printer that worked.
A successful test run of the plastic weapon at his private property in Lockhart in 2013 garnered international attention for Wilson, now a University of Texas law school dropout and co-founder of the Austin-based Defense Distributed. But when Wilson, 27, posted instructions on how to reproduce it online, he also drew the concern of the U.S. State Department, which asked him to remove the blueprints he says were downloaded more than 100,000 times.
This week, two years since his 3-D firearm printing company became caught in what his lawyers call a “bureaucratic merry-go-round,” Defense Distributed has launched a federal lawsuit against the department and several of its top officials, alleging they violated its rights to free speech, bear arms and due process when they unlawfully applied International Traffic in Arms Regulations to restrict it from publishing public information.
The case, also filed by the Second Amendment Foundation, is virtually one of a kind, legal experts said, and could become even more significant in the coming decade as a burgeoning field of 3-D technology blurs the line between what constitutes a lethal weapon and what is technical data on how to make it.
Wilson, who has gained a reputation for his firearms as well as his rhetoric in support of their “democratization,” told the American-Statesman on Thursday that his idea has never been to sell guns. He said his intentions were always to print them — lots of them — with the mission of developing an open-source blueprint that could be widely shared and distributed online.
He helped create Defense Distributed in 2012 out of his Hyde Park apartment, and the online collective has since tested various models using 3-D printers, machines that allow people to “print” digital designs into physical objects from plastic and other materials. The first “cartoon-looking” guns were expected to melt after firing only one bullet.
The Liberator, which is made almost entirely out of plastic, was the first 3-D printed gun in the world to fully function. And it set off a firestorm of conflicting reactions in 2013. Critics called for a ban, saying such weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Others lauded the technology and defended Wilson’s right to share the blueprints on his site, defcad.org.
The State Department stepped in about a week after he test-fired it in Lockhart. It sent him a letter telling him to pull the design from the Internet and warned he could have wrongfully released technical data protected under International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which defense industry experts say provides the federal government with a means to prevent unrestricted proliferation of military-related material and technology outside of the United States — unless the State Department approves it.
The department told Defense Distributed it needed the authorization from its Directorate of Defense Trade Controls to post such information. So, the company took everything down, and in June 2013, it submitted various published files to the directorate for review of the “Ghost Gunner,” a machine used to manufacture a variety of items, including gun parts.
But last month, the lawsuit states, it received word that although the new tool didn’t fall under the international arms subject to regulation, its software and files did. Violation of those rules could lead to criminal and civil penalties, ranging up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $1 million.
State Department officials declined to comment.
Wilson’s lawyers call their case a matter of free speech first and gun rights second. They seek unspecified damages and declarations from the court to allow the lawful posting of his technology blueprints online. The way the State Department has applied the firearms regulations has been vague, arbitrary and a moving target, said Bill Mateja, a Dallas lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
“We want clarity that it is OK to post educational information about things that are legal for everyday Americans to have and to possess,” he said.
Wilson said he left the UT Law School when the State Department targeted him and has since been working to change the direction of Defense Distributed, which had sought to remain a software company but has since had to hire engineers and is now developing hardware to sell to the public.
He said he shouldn’t have to seek permission from the government to exercise his right to free speech, pointing to the 1995 case of Daniel Bernstein, a University of California student who successfully fought to overturn national restrictions on encryption software. “I want what Bernstein wanted — to invalidate the entire (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) system,” he said.
His case could rile free speech advocates and gun control proponents alike and is likely to resonate in Texas, where a heated debate is under way on looser gun laws, including allowing for openly carried handguns and weapons in college classrooms and dorms.
Legal and defense experts said homemade firearms are nothing new and exist in abundance all over the world, from gunsmiths living in caves in Afghanistan to Americans working in their garages. A single-shot, plastic pistol is more like a hobby than a threat or conspiracy, said Scott Lewis, a retired engineer employed in the defense industry for 30 years.
“People can make much more dangerous things,” he said. “But if the State Department doesn’t respond to this, they are going to have companies all over the world pushing the envelope on the types of technology that they proliferate. They don’t want the floodgates to open.”