Cody Wilson used one word to summarize the culminating event in his years-long lawsuit against the U.S. government: “Epochal.”
This was in July, when news became public about the Department of Justice reaching a legal settlement with Defense Distributed, the Texas nonprofit Wilson founded in 2012 to help distribute 3D-printed firearms. And the response was what I expected from Wilson, a 30-year-old provocateur prone to self-mythologizing. I met him in 2014, when he was 26, after he had successfully designed, manufactured, and test-fired the Liberator, the world’s first fully 3D-printed gun. That breakthrough, and his subsequent effort to disseminate the blueprint to anyone with an internet connection, unleashed all manner of hell.
Wilson has long been a showman, equal parts ideologue and 1960s ad man, prone to philosophical meandering and asseverations about state tyranny and possessing a penchant for deliberately poking the political class. His sincerity was often questioned, but even four years removed, I knew what a victory over the federal government meant to him. It meant that Cody Wilson had come tantalizingly close to his dream of dismembering U.S. gun control.
“I don’t have to argue philosophically now,” he said during a short phone call at the end of August. “I only have to argue the law.”
Two weeks later, the law caught up to Wilson, albeit in a far different way. He was arrested in Taiwan and extradited to the United States for allegedly sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl. He met her on SugarDaddyMeet.com, used his real name, called himself a “big deal,” picked her up in an SUV registered to Defense Distributed, took her to a hotel, had sex with her, and paid her five $100 bills, according to an affidavit by Shaun Donovan, a detective with the Austin Police Department. On September 21, the day of his arrest, Wilson resigned from the company.
The scandal inspired a measure of glee in Wilson’s opponents. “But the NRA told us Cody Wilson was a good guy with a gun…,” Shannon Watts, founder of gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand, wrote on Twitter.
The following Tuesday, however, Paloma Heindorff, vice president of operations at Defense Distributed, introduced herself as the nonprofit’s new director. Heindorff, a three-year veteran of the company, struck a defiant attitude during a press conference, describing her employees as “resilient” and parrying all queries about Wilson’s new legal predicament. Reporters present asked the obvious question: How does Defense Distributed continue on without Cody Wilson? Heindorff had an answer at the ready. “We believe in something, and that something isn’t one man,” she said. “That something is an idea, and we are fully committed to that idea.”
For a moment, it may have seemed that the idea of 3D-printed guns might follow Cody Wilson down. But the idea Heindorff invokes — the idea that gun control as we know it can be destroyed by giving every American the capacity to build their own guns — may simply be too powerful to stop.