Exclusive: Firearms industry distances itself from Cody Wilson, 3D-printed guns

Cody Wilson holds a 3D printed pistol

Cody Wilson, inventor of the 3D printed Liberator pistol. (Photo: The Statesman)

When the first 3D-printable pistol came on the scene more than three years ago, it shook the very foundation of the gun world and the federal regulatory structure attempting to keep a vice grip on the industry. Much like the internet itself worked to democratize the flow of information, Cody Wilson’s “Liberator” pistol broke manufacturing chains and put an untraceable gun in the palm of the masses.

That presented a problem for the U.S. government, who saw each download of 3D printer blueprints for the single-shot pistol as the arming of a ghost militia. The file was accessed more than 100,000 times in two days before the State Department ordered it removed.

Two years later, Wilson and his company, Defense Distributed, sued the State Department with the help of the Second Amendment Foundation. Wilson recently suffered a minor setback, when a three-judge panel ruled 2-1 against him over whether 3D printing was protected under the First Amendment.

“That panel took pains to avoid that exact interpretation,” Wilson said in an email. “They said we may indeed have strong merits and this may indeed be protected by 1A, 2A, etc. But they kept the ruling to an insane balance of harms judgment analysis regarding whether we should have a preliminary injunction before those questions are decided. They said no (preliminary injunction). They want me to go away and come back when I’ve had a ruling on the merits below.”

The controversy surrounding Wilson and how he’s handled his affairs may have caused a rift in relations between certain factions within the gun rights movement. An industry insider who spoke with Guns.com on the condition of anonymity said Wilson caused waves where they didn’t need to be.   

During the Second Amendment Foundation’s annual gun rights policy conference in Tamp, Florida last weekend, Wilson revealed he was denied membership to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s largest trade group, for reasons he is unsure of.          

“We’ve been controversial for so long to the point it’s normalized,” Wilson told Guns.com in an earlier interview. “Did Defense Distributed really do anything that is that controversial — especially within the firearms industry and the gun movement? No. They know who we are, they know who we represent. We’re mainline people. We’re represented by people like SAF in the courts. We represent your right to bear arms, we didn’t do anything irresponsibly.”

Wilson shared his rejection letter with Guns.com. It was addressed to Paloma Heindorff, Defense Distributed’s director of development.

Good afternoon Paloma,

To follow up on your phone message from Friday the 19th of August, Defense Distributed application was reviewed by NSSF staff including Steve Sanetti, Pres/CEO.  After reviewing the application and the NSSF bylaws it was determined that Defense Distributed is not qualified for membership because it was felt that Defense Distributed  would not “further the objectives of the Foundation in the promotion of the firearms, ammunition, hunting and shooting sports industry.”

Bettyjane Swann
Director, Member Services
National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc.

Heindorff and Wilson told Guns.com that after several phone calls later, it was still unclear how their company wouldn’t further the firearms industry.

“I promote industry,” Wilson said. “There’s totally not a case to make that we’re not a part of the industry and we don’t help the industry, so my suspicion is that it’s something else. Anything else is irresponsible for me to surmise. … But I know that it’s got to be a little bit more.”

That reason certainly isn’t because of the heat Wilson has brought to the industry in its suit against the State Department, the NSSF told Guns.com.

“NSSF’s record of advocating for the protection of lawful commerce in firearms on behalf of companies large and small in the courts, legislatures and the media across the country is well recognized,” NSSF spokesperson Michael Bazinet said in an email. “Defense Distributed’s lawsuit had no bearing on NSSF’s decision. Mr. Wilson’s opinion is his own and we will not be engaging in a debate with him.”

Nor would the group comment on why Defense Distributed wouldn’t further the interests of the firearms industry. Wilson took a wild guess:

“I know that NSSF has led or has claimed to lead the Export Control Reform Initiative,” Wilson said. “NSSF and NRA are part of a type of thinking which is about going along with, participating with, communicating with these agencies, these bodies, and we are actually suing these agencies and bodies.”

In August, NSSF wrote a letter to the State Department opposing the Obama administration’s blocking of the initiative, which the trade group argues would give U.S. firearms manufacturers a fair shot in the global marketplace, where competition is stymied by Cold War-era export controls.     

“It could be that we just represent a new generation of thinking, which is like ’nah, nah, there’s no time to even talk to these people,’” Wilson said. “Sue them when they’re clearly violating your rights. Maybe they were just thinking, ‘This just jeopardizes our relationships with people if we were clearly to give a platform to Defense Distributed.’ Maybe. That’s probably it, but I don’t know.”