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.


Before 2013, Cody Wilson had used 3D printing to successfully manufacture rifle magazines and the AR-15 lower receiver (the piece, regulated by the federal government, that is required to actually operate the rifle). But it wasn’t until he released the Liberator that he became notorious. After Wilson uploaded the digital blueprints to Defcad.com, a clearinghouse Defense Distributed set up to share its various computer-aided design files for gun components, plans for the Liberator were downloaded 100,000 times. Two days later, Wilson dropped out of law school at the University of Texas. A couple days after that, the State Department ordered him to take his files offline, citing arms export control law. Because people in other countries could download those files, the government argued, Defense Distributed was illegally trafficking guns. Wilson complied and shut down Defcad.

The Defcad files had been offline for a year and a half when I visited Defense Distributed’s Austin-based factory in 2014. That December, Wilson was preparing an entirely different project: the Ghost Gunner, a desktop milling machine that enables even know-nothing machinists to mill a four-fifths-finished aluminum lower receiver to completion. Because purchasing what’s called an “80 percent lowerdoesn’t require a background check, users of the Ghost Gunner could complete the component and then purchase the remaining parts of an AR-15 rifle — also without a background check — to build an untraceable firearm. Wilson said he sold out a preorder of 500 machines, grossing $700,000, and teased his forthcoming legal battle. “There will be a Defense Distributed v. United States that those bastards at UT law will have to read one day,” he told me then.

True to his word, in May 2015, Defense Distributed used the money from Ghost Gunner sales to sue the State Department, essentially arguing that the federal government ordering files off the internet is akin to a prior restraint of speech. In doing so, it coupled the First and Second Amendments by contending that digital files are a form of expression. The move found unlikely supporters. Even the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted an amicus brief in Defense Distributed’s favor. “To come after the Second Amendment now, you increasingly have to come after people’s ability to publish and communicate,” Wilson speculated four years ago.

When the State Department ordered the company to shut down Defcad in 2013, its argument concerned only the alleged violation of federal arms export control law, not the act itself of publishing digital gun files. After all, technical data about guns, including their manufacture, is readily available elsewhere online and in library books about gunsmithing.

When the government settled this year, the State Department denied that it violated Defense Distributed’s First and Second Amendment rights — and yet the settlement itself indirectly conceded the point. It gave Defense Distributed a license to publish all the files it had previously ordered the company to take offline, effectively agreeing with Defense Distributed’s take on the fundamental question underlying the entire legal conflict: that computer code, even code that can lead to the production of a functional firearm, is protected speech.

It was a bold gambit, but a winning one. On July 27, 2018, 10 files — including the full technical plans of the AR-15 and the 3D-printable design file of the Liberator — reappeared on Defcad.com. No longer was Wilson a mere tech-savvy Dennis the Menace. He was now a fully sanctioned arms dealer with the law on his side.


The fact that Defense Distributed could continue distributing files is far less important than the broader implications of the fight. By savvy and subversive use of technology, Wilson had not only muddled what it means to sell, obtain, and own a gun; he had also called into question what a gun actually is, thereby transforming a legal question into a far more complicated technological problem practically inextricable from the concept of free expression. “I believe what I’m doing immeasurably enables the Second Amendment,” said Wilson during an interview with CBS on August 2. “It immeasurably expands it in a technical era.”

Like Napster before it, Defense Distributed pushed America toward a new order where ownership is disordered, accountability is next to nil, and technology is always a few steps ahead of the law. This — anarchy, essentially — was always the plan. “What separated Defense Distributed from the impotent,” Wilson wrote in Come and Take It, the memoir he published in 2016, “was that when we said ‘universal access to arms,’ those who listened understood we meant just that… We not only meant it; we intended to take the fanatical steps to enact it.”

Alarmed by the settlement with the federal government, state attorneys general moved in on July 30, four days after Defense Distributed’s files went back online. Eight of them sued the State Department, arguing that the settlement itself was unlawful. The next day, Judge Robert Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington granted a temporary restraining order. Defense Distributed had to take down the files it had just reposted. On August 27, by which point attorneys general from 11 other states had joined in, Lasnik extended the order by granting a preliminary injunction, effectively blocking Defense Distributed, for the time being, from publishing its files online.

“Regulation under the [Arms Export Control Act] means that the files cannot be uploaded to the internet,” Lasnik wrote in his court order, adding, “but they can be emailed, mailed, securely transmitted, or otherwise published within the United States.”

True to form, the very next day, Wilson announced the company would sell the files via thumb drive to verified U.S. persons with verified U.S. addresses, likening Defense Distributed to the iTunes of digital gun sales. On the first day, Defense Distributed made $20,000 selling branded USB sticks that contained the 10 gun files it had just been forced to remove from the internet. The move smacked of the same counter-maneuvering that has marked the company’s efforts from the beginning.

It is ongoing. “We’re still shipping and have no intention of stopping,” Heindorff said at the September press conference. “We believe that people have the right to have these files.”


But the vision was always bigger than computer files, bigger than just getting a single-shot, 3D-printed pistol to fire. No mass shooting, no resurgent gun-control movement, no form of U.S. government could ever stand in the way of Defense Distributed’s first order of business: universal access to arms. Given many Americans’ strong attachment to the power of firearm ownership, this is an idea whose resonance will only deepen.

The idea of universal access finds its perfect vessel in Paloma Heindorff, Wilson’s successor at Defense Distributed. Born and raised by artistic parents in central London, she grew up in a “socialist-leaning” family who was “definitely anti-firearm,” as she said during an episode of Tom Gresham’s syndicated radio show, Gun Talk, that aired in October 2017. It was only after she moved to New York City that Heindorff began her journey into pro-gun activism.

“I was dismayed by the narrative in the world today, the idea we can be looked after by our government,” she told Gresham. “Not only is it ridiculous fundamentally, it also erodes the power that one can feel as an individual.”

A libertarian friend of Heindorff’s originally turned her on to Defense Distributed. After spending a weekend watching slick YouTube clips of the nonprofit’s work, she emailed Wilson, received a reply, and in five weeks had moved everything she owned to Austin and took up a position at the company. In the span of two years, she went from having never fired a weapon to pulling the trigger on a .50-caliber M2 Browning machine gun.

Heindorff didn’t respond to several email requests for comment, but it’s evident to anyone who has followed her that the idea of immeasurably enabling gun rights is as potent in Heindorff as it was in Wilson. “It’s obvious to everyone here that he’s been an incredibly powerful figurehead,” she said at the September press conference. “But this is about an idea.” Wilson may have the verve of a showman, but Heindorff has the zeal of a convert.


Still, Heindorff must contend with one last obstacle: the preliminary injunction granted in August, a crucial, last-ditch effort for the states involved.

“It’s been a happy coincidence for the states that the export laws have also protected the states themselves and their residents from these 3D-printed gun blueprints,” says Mary B. McCord, a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law School and former attorney with the Department of Justice. (In an article published over the summer, McCord called the First Amendment argument Wilson used in Defense Distributed’s legal fight mere “window dressing for his real goal: to put guns into the hands of every person who wants one.”)

Since the preliminary injunction that took Defense Distributed’s files offline yet again, the company has raised about $400,000 to continue a legal fight it thought was over as of July. Defense Distributed filed its motion to dismiss in late October. If the case in Washington is thrown out, that protection the states have enjoyed goes away. (In the time since the motion was filed, a gunman killed 12 people at a bar in Los Angeles. Less than 24 hours later, a New Jersey law that outlaws 3D-printed guns and “ghost guns” went into effect. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said the law was passed “to stop the next Cody Wilson.”)

Yet this fresh legal imbroglio has done little to halt Defense Distributed’s ultimate goal of expanding Americans’ access to guns. In a rebuttal to the state attorneys general, an unassociated website, CodeIsFreeSpeech.com, began hosting all the company’s files. (“Defense Distributed’s not posting its files, but you can find them in five seconds on Google,” says Josh Blackman, the group’s attorney.) Or you can simply buy a branded USB drive, a tiny source of terror that can’t be controlled: the samizdat of lethal weaponry, coursing through the underground, forever.

Regardless of Cody Wilson’s fate, we’ve turned a corner. There’s likely no going back. His bitterest opponents, as much as anyone, know that fact all too well.

“Cody Wilson was the face of Defense Distributed and 3D-printed guns, but we doubt that his movement will die with his resignation,” the co-presidents of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement after Wilson resigned. “The Pandora’s box has been opened, and it will not go away with Wilson.”