Having lunch with the 14th Most Dangerous Person in the World is less scary than you might think. Unless you happen to have a morbid fear of hipster beards, Cody Wilson, a good-looking 26-year-old who blends with the crowd in the east London cafe where I meet him, doesn’t immediately strike fear into the heart.
He chats away with the waitress, discussing the possibilities before ordering east London’s hippest sandwich – the pulled pork burger – and has an easygoing, amiable manner. He is, frankly, about as threatening as a barista. A barista who has happened on a spectacular method of killing people.
Last year, Wired included him in its list of the deadliest people on the planet, alongside Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s special forces, and the former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, though Wilson’s notoriety is not to do with human rights abuses and killing. It’s for uploading a bit of software. A bit of software that could unleash a whole new world: one in which anyone can download a set of blueprints and print their own gun at home.
Wilson made news when he unveiled plans for the Liberator in 2012, but in May last year, he went one step further: he successfully fired it, and uploaded the plans on to his website, Defense Distributed. Two days later, the US state department removed them, but by that time they had been downloaded 100,000 times. This is a cat that is well and truly out of the bag. The 3D gun is with us whether we like it or not.
Mostly not, I would say. It’s a gun. It works. And any nut with access to a 3D printer can print one in the privacy of their bedroom and then … well, you get the picture. The plans include a metal shank so that it’ll show up in an x-ray scanner, but it is the work of moments to remove it. And while it is an argument that has a different resonance in the US, where any aforesaid nut can simply go out and buy a gun in a shop, and the rights of nuts to go and buy such guns is enshrined in the constitution, even there, it has caused shockwaves. In Britain, where we hope our robbers carry nothing more than a big stick and arm our police officers accordingly, it’s a potential societal revolution that none of us asked for.
But then, that’s generally the way with societal revolutions. Listening to the radio, just before setting off to meet Wilson, I hear a bulletin that includes the news that the Home Office has updated its firearms rules to make it clear it is illegal to manufacture, sell, purchase or possess 3D printed guns.
“Really?” says Wilson. “I didn’t know about that.” The legislation surrounding 3D guns is moving so fast that it seems not even he is keeping up with it. It follows a news story that a police raid in Manchester uncovered what police believed to be the country’s first 3D-printed gun parts. They weren’t, it turned out, and we already have plenty of laws that cover guns, 3D or otherwise, but it’s a measure of how scary we consider the technology, and how seriously it’s being taken, that this is before a single 3D-printed shot has been fired in anger.
Though, it is perhaps only a matter of time. The technology is there. Hundreds of thousands of people have downloaded the blueprints. And while the Liberator is made of plastic and exploded when the FBI tried to test it, a Texan company has successfully made a metal version
I’ve been emailing Wilson for months, and we finally meet while he’s visiting Britain and we chat for a few minutes about what he’s been doing – picking up a design award, speaking at a conference, being followed around by a documentary crew, talking to publishers. Then before I can stop myself, I ask him the question that eventually everyone asks him: what happens when somebody downloads your design, prints it off and kills someone? When a child is shot with a Liberator?
He stumbles a bit and then says: “Well, I mean, we have to ground it in … I mean it’s a hypothetical … People ask me all the time …”
No, but how would he react?
“I want to reserve a space for the humane. I hope I would react humanely. And I hope it would affect me. But does that lead me to apologise for what was done? And I appeal back to standard discussions about respect for civil liberties. What does that mean? It means people will abuse these rights. But what does it mean, as a structural feature, to have access to military weapons as a society? I’m not trying to brush it off but it means accepting people will abuse their liberties, but that’s why they deserve protection. If no one is going to abuse a gun, it wouldn’t be a right worth protecting. If no one was going to make a speech, we wouldn’t need to defend the principle of freedom of speech. The same thing with the right to be secure in your possessions.”
The problem with Wilson’s argument is that’s it’s an argument, one that you might formulate in the sixth-form debating society. And on the other side, there would be a dead person. Your mother, perhaps. Or your son who, if it hadn’t been for Wilson, and his desire to push the boundaries of internet freedom further, would still be alive. But I can’t get through on this point.