Hot Shot

Come and Take It: The Gun Printer's Guide to Thinking Free BY Cody Wilson. Gallery Books. Paperback, 320 pages. $16.

The cover of Come and Take It: The Gun Printer's Guide to Thinking Free

Cody Wilson was a twenty-four-year-old law student when in early 2012 he realized he could unite his two strong interests, open-source software and the right to bear arms. By distributing digital blueprints for a handgun, he and his friends would allow anyone with a 3-D printer to manufacture his own “Wiki Weapon.” As soon as he conceives it, Wilson imagines himself on the news. “And now we turn to another story, seemingly out of the pages of science fiction,” he fantasizes. “Three-dimensional printable guns, made at home.”

Wilson is a natural-born persuader. He is handsome, a little gleaming, disarmingly unpolished. He brings you over to his side. One of his moves is to describe a position he opposes, then say to his interviewer, “But you and I know that that’s a lie.” He has a lawyer’s subtle ability to draw the bounds of a conversation within the zone of his advantage.

At first Wilson attracted a smallish audience online and on conservative radio, people who donated to his project in the revolutionary denomination of $17.76. He was playing to a loving crowd, reaffirming what the gun-rights people believed about Obama’s tyranny, providing hope that the Second Amendment would survive the next mass shooting. Had the whole thing stopped there, we probably would have never heard from Wilson again. But then Stratasys, the maker of his rented 3-D printer, notified him through their law firm that as Wilson had no license to manufacture firearms, they were coming to take their printer back. Wilson filmed the repossession on his iPhone, gave the footage to Vice, and set loose a media bonanza.

The Liberator, Wilson’s handgun, proposed to swing a wrecking ball into the foundation of American gun law—the federal government’s ability to background-check buyers and then track their weapons’ serial numbers (even in the best of circumstances, not an easy task). Under the name Defense Distributed, Wilson registered a website,, and one hundred thousand people downloaded Liberator blueprints before the State Department ordered the plans removed. The New York Times warned that teenagers who say “they are ‘playing on the computer’” might actually be making guns in their rooms. On RT, the Russian state news channel, an anchor asked Wilson whom the Liberator liberated. “It can be a liberating device,” Wilson said. “You can use it to kill someone. You can also use it to begin a discursive practice.” Glenn Beck asked, “Is this guy a hero or a villain? What do you think you are?” Wilson encouraged him to read Foucault.

Cody Wilson, 2014. Reason TV.
Cody Wilson, 2014. Reason TV.

Wilson was arresting partly because he infused the musty gun-rights argument with fresh political language. He borrowed from libertarianism, anarchism, Marxism, and accelerationism. Where a gun-rights person might reach for his Reagan or his Patrick Henry, Wilson reached for Julian Assange. “The United States as a warfare surveillance state has an oppressively strong Cold War–era regulatory export apparatus,” was the sort of thing he said. “It wants to manage the Internet. It wants to spy on every government.” He called the Liberator an act of “radical equality.” He opposed Goldman Sachs, neoliberal capitalism, and the “institutionalization of the human psyche.” “It’s fun to challenge the state to greater and greater levels of its own hyper-statism,” he said on Reason TV.

Wilson had the sort of confidence that persuades you for as long as you don’t break eye contact with him. I’d listen to him talk about the redistribution of force and subverting the power of the state and taking Snowden as a possible model and think, Yes, sure, why not? Then I’d think, Wait a second: Snowden distributed information. Wilson distributes something a thirteen-year-old boy could kill me with. No sooner had I settled on it than he’d bring me around another way: Maybe a gun blueprint was the same as a leaked diplomatic cable. Maybe a gun was information. Maybe I didn’t even know what a gun was. I could not wrap my arms around his worldview. But I felt I was in the presence of a person who, if given more space, could contribute something sneakier and more lucid than these crypto-Snowdenian sound bites.

If this is so, Wilson’s book does not prove it. Reading Come and Take It is like swiping right at a profile photo on Tinder, then showing up to the bar to meet a person who looks nothing like it. The charismatic visionary fails to appear in these pages, replaced by a doppelgänger who unzips his pants and takes a WikiLeak on his imagined liberal critics.

Here is how Wilson describes the Sandy Hook massacre, in which a young man shot twenty children to death: “Sandy Hook had the chatterati apoplectic. The blogs had passed judgment. Like it had been that summer, it was time again to end the Second Amendment.” He turns to CNN. “Don Lemon was live at some corner stop not far from the scene of the murders, a miserable hysteric. It was too loud in the diner to make out what he said, but you know pleading when you see it.” When his website gets shut down, he writes that “the jackboots had finally got” him. We have retreated into the language of the right-wing blogosphere. What happened to all that Foucault?

Wilson assumes two distinct readers, on opposite ends of the gun-control spectrum: the “good” reader, who understands Wilson as a crusader for independence, and the “bad,” who believes that government can solve our problems. His characteristic move is torturing the bad reader before the gaze of the good. He calls President Obama “the Teleprompted.” Wielding an AKM assault rifle before a group of Vice journalists, Wilson laps up their evident fear. “And how they were drawn! And yet how they shrank away!” A TSA agent becomes “a slope-backed cretin.” When Wilson receives e-mails from stock characters like the “chaste progressive” and the “tolerant liberal,” he writes, “I toyed with them sparingly.” That “sparingly” tips us off. It’s sadistic.

Gradually we realize what has happened: The gun has dallied too long in production, leaving Wilson with many pages to fill. “Maybe once exams were out of the way I’d figure out how to actually make a gun out of plastic,” Wilson writes on page 102. “You want to make a printed handgun,” a friend observes on page 165. “I believe we can have a handgun within two months,” Wilson says on page 201. Twenty pages later, “I’ve got enough support to finish.” On page 270, he speculates, “Say we don’t quite get there? The gun doesn’t work. Wiki Weapon is a failure.” Finally, in May of 2013, he produces his prototype. Since this is the natural conclusion of his story, Wilson ends his book two pages later, driving south from Dallas. In a gas-station sign in his rearview mirror, he is distressed to see an allegory for America: The “stale flicker, in red and white and blue, would struggle tonight to beat back the wrathful blackness galloping from the east.” For a book about thinking independently this is a bad note to end on. The phrase “wrathful blackness” comes straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Writing about apocalypse in another writer’s language shows you’ve lost your foothold on the earthly realm.

The realm where, for instance, you must support your contention that 3-D printing will return the means of production to the hands of the labor class. The consumer case for 3-D printing has generally rested on simple, domestic objects. I have an extra dinner guest, I make a plate. If it comes out badly, I’ll make another. Guns are a different story. I don’t want the barrel to blow up in my hand, and I definitely don’t want the receiver jamming when I’m trying to fire. (When the police department of New South Wales, Australia, printed themselves a weapon, it exploded.) So the first users of the Liberator will be those willing to forego the reliability of a Glock or a Sig Sauer to prevent the government from knowing they own a gun. In a sense, these are the gun-owning equivalents of the anti-gun leftists who began encrypting our Web traffic after the Snowden files, a concordance Wilson recognizes. But most people don’t care what a gun means, they just want a gun that works. The vast majority, then, will pay a premium to have a weapon from an experienced manufacturer with an expensive Stratasys machine. Guns may be the exception rather than the rule, the 3-D-printed objects most conducive to concentrated production in the hands of a small group with plenty of start-up capital.

To say that the Liberator is definitionally a tool of freedom or subversion—a banana peel under the jackboots—requires an obstructed view of the system in which it will operate. There are three hundred million guns in the US. In the thirty-two states that allow private citizens to make sales without background checks, will supply me with a laser-sighted Ruger for under five hundred bucks. Still, given the obvious benefit of having a plastic weapon with no serial—it can pass through a metal detector and be melted down after use—it seems reasonable to assume a market for the nontraditional gun. A group of small-time producers will emerge to feed it. It’s not a bad business, either. The only expense after the printer is the liquid polymer and a single nail. No patent fees, no research and development. At the end of the day we’ll have a few more guns, some used as “radical equalizers,” some as tools of oppression. The Liberator will mean one thing in the hands of a woman shooting an abusive boyfriend, another in the hands of the boyfriend. Those below the poverty line will be twice as likely to be shot as those above it, just as they are by metal guns.

That a plastic gun may be the wrong objective correlative for the arguments Wilson makes about liberation is the wizard at the center of the book, the secret that must be kept behind the curtain. One possible explanation is that the object preceded the politics. In the book, the origin story for the Liberator involves a conspiratorial meeting at a hotel bar in Little Rock, where phrases like “We are the heartworms of history” ricochet off the marble. In the Vice documentary, events transpire on a more terrestrial level. “You know,” Wilson’s friend says over the phone, “we could be, like, arms manufacturers. That would be cool, right?”

Jesse Barron is a writer in New York.