DEFENSE DISTRIBUTED LAUNCHED in 2012 with the goal of making a usable plastic handgun with a 3D printer. Founder Cody Wilson fired the first of those weapons, which he dubbed The Liberator, in front of reporters in May 2013. The company and its mediagenic leader soon became the living symbol of--depending on your perspective--either the possibilities for human liberation or the threat of violent chaos inherent in the rise of affordable home 3D printing and the unstoppable spread of computer files.
For Paloma Heindorff, who took over as head of the company last year after stints as director of development and vice president of operations, these innovations are an important part of keeping the powerful in check. "We've got to be developing technologies in the independent sector to be able to counterbalance the enormous control that the government has and the enormous access to information that corporations have," she says.
From the fragile plastic of the original 3D-printed pistol, Defense Distributed soon expanded into metal weapons. Its current leading product is the Ghost Gunner, a home-use computer numerical control (CNC) mill that allows anyone to turn an "80 percent lower"--a gun part that the federal government does not legally require to be stamped with a serial number--into an essentially untraceable working firearm.
The company has always deliberately tweaked the powers that be, and the powers have often tweaked it back. Days after Defense Distributed published the software files needed to make its plastic gun, the federal government insisted that distributing such data was illegal, tantamount to exporting arms without a license. The firm obeyed a demand from the State Department's Office of Defense Trade Control Compliance to take the files off its website. It then sued, insisting its code was First Amendment-protected speech.
The company should be free, it argued, to distribute its files just as all Americans are free to distribute a book, magazine, or pamphlet that discusses how to make a gun. Besides, whatever public safety benefit the government thought it was furthering was already moot: As is inevitable in the internet age, the files had already spread 'round the world and were widely available to anyone who cared--just no longer directly from Defense Distributed.
After many twists and turns, the federal government settled the case in July 2018. Defense Distributed regained the legal ability to publish its gun-making files--but not for long. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia quickly sued to prevent the settlement from going into effect, claiming among other things that the government's concession violated an arcane aspect of the Administrative Procedure Act. A preliminary injunction in that case forced the company to again take down its data files, something Josh Blackman, a lawyer for Defense Distributed, insisted was "a prior restraint of constitutionally protected speech that is already in the public domain."
That ongoing lawsuit is only part of Defense Distributed's legal troubles. Last year, New Jersey passed a law barring the distribution of digital gun-making files to anyone who is not a licensed gun manufacturer. The state's attorney general made it explicit that the intent of the legislation was to "to stop the next Cody Wilson, to fight the ghost gun industry." Defense Distributed is now suing to overturn the prohibition.
Amid the legal fights, the company lost its charismatic founder. In September, Wilson was arrested in Taiwan and deported to the U.S. to face charges of sexual assault of an underage escort. (The law under which he was charged treats sexual contact with a minor as assault even if it was consensual; the website Wilson allegedly used certified that its escorts were of age.) He is awaiting formal arraignment.
After Wilson's arrest, control of Defense Distributed shifted to Heindorff, who had kept a low media profile during her three years at the company to that point. The 30-year-old London native sat down with Reason's Zach Weissmueller in January--her very first media interview after taking the reins--to discuss her intellectual development, how firearm manufacturing specs are like a pizza recipe, and what's next for Defense Distributed.
Reason: You're a bit of a mystery. You're British, but...