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November 11, 2013 | 15 Comments

The Liberator (Defense Distributed)

From the curators: Defense Distributed, a Texas-based non-profit group, was formed with the goal of creating a firearm that anyone could fabricate using a 3-D printer. Invoking civil liberties and challenging notions of gun control and perceptions of information censorship, they created a block-like polymer .380 caliber gun printed in 16 pieces, now known as ‘The Liberator.’ The 3-D weapon’s fabrication files were immediately made available online and have been downloaded over 100,000 times.

Cody Wilson first demonstrated “The Liberator” for the masses on May 5, 2013, by way of a YouTube video and a barrage of media coverage. It was a curious-looking pistol, cream-colored and blocky, but it appeared to work. This was remarkable, because this deadly object was built almost entirely from plastic parts produced by a 3-D printer. (“Almost” because its design included a common nail that served as the firing pin.)

The implications were clear enough. We’d already been hearing, for years, how 3-D printers could enter our lives as an efficient, humane, empowering alternative to mass manufacturing. Now Wilson’s video suggested that the very same techno-magic that produced fun toys and handy housewares could also be used to whip up a functioning firearm. The design plans were made available online, and downloaded 100,000 times before the government intervened (and the plans, of course, resurfaced via unofficial channels).

It’s possible that, as an actual weapon, The Liberator is overrated. It still requires traditional ammunition, not to mention a rather expensive 3-D printer. And at least one set of police tests found it had a tendency to essentially blow up on discharge. But if we concede that it still appears capable of the core task of inflicting violent damage, then I think we can only conclude that it is a highly successful design.

That’s because the real function of The Liberator has very little to do with making an excellent weapon, and everything to do with making a point. Wilson, whose Liberator work competed with law school studies, is a strident Libertarian. He might choose a different label, but clearly his project means to express a point of view about the individual’s relationship to the state in general, and gun regulation specifically. Thus the Liberator has—consistent with that self-important name—been promoted with bombastic, sometimes bellicose, and essentially propagandistic rhetoric and aesthetics. Wilson and his associates, for instance, operate under the name Defense Distributed. They are freedom-loving rebels, you see.

This is why it’s almost more useful to think of the Liberator not as an object but as an example of “design fiction”—the practice of devising plans for or prototypes of objects and systems that, while impractical, express some critique of the present or vision of the future. It’s a trendy strategy these days, but I’m guessing almost no one associated with it shares Wilson’s politics. Similarly, tech enthusiasts who have rhapsodized about the “disruptive” possibilities of 3-D printing frequently strike quasi-libertarian notes, but they have largely recoiled from Wilson and his Liberator.

But really, he has done nothing more than call their bluff. He didn’t subvert the dream of a future where we can all manufacture whatever we want, whenever we like. He’s hijacked it. And in doing so, he’s made plain the full stakes of that dream—something that should probably happen more often in our global discourse about how to reckon with technology’s powers.

I don’t share Wilson’s politics, so I’m somewhat sympathetic to technologists who look at the Liberator and complain it’s mucking up their project, setting back their progress, spoiling their utopia. But I wish they could recognize that there’s something more important going on here. Wilson is not out to thwart utopia; he is pursuing it. And with the Liberator, he’s made his vision so clear that it deserves, demands, a considered, thoughtful, reasoned response that accounts for the full implications of the system he has so brilliantly exploited.

For a design provocation, there’s no higher goal.

Keywords:

Is there such a thing as a right to violence?

  1. November 12, 2013, 7:25 pm

    Meg Durlak

    Prototype vs. Conversation

    It’s very hard to see a gun, as anything other than what it is—a weapon that can enact real violence. This is obviously why the ‘Liberator Gun’ caused so much chatter amongst such a diverse community. Regardless of its material, it still carries the profound weight of the form that it has taken on.

    As a Designer, prototypes can act as representational interventions for how you might tweak and alter an ongoing theory or idea. As expressed by Rob Walker, they enact a design fiction—they implore something that could be, not necessarily what is. With The ‘Liberator gun’, this fictitious reality is wickedly hard to grasp because the first thing you see is the iconic aura of the ‘gun’, which you already have knee-jerk notions of. You might say to yourself ‘how can you see a gun as anything other than a gun?’. But once you let go of these preconceived ideas you can start to disassociate the design from the form, and recognize it as an elaborate prototype that comments on gun rights, violence, the future of technology, etc. This object leaves room for that revelation, and let’s be honest here, the ‘Liberator Gun’ is essentially just a bunch of printed plastic parts put together, much a like a model car. It’s a provocative prototype, that happens to be in the form of a gun.

    Last week, however, ‘Solid Concepts’ announced that it had successfully produced the world’s first 3D printed metal gun—and let me tell you, this looks nothing like its plastic predecessor. The technology used to create this gun, Laser Sintering, something I had never even heard of, is claimed to act as a ‘barrier’ of entry for the public to be able to produce this weapon, as it is at such a high cost. Perhaps it’s this ‘barrier’, or the fact this it is made out of metal, or even it’s highly accurate attention to detail, that makes this concept anything other than a ‘design fiction’. It is solely recognizable as a weapon. If we want to continue the conversation about the future of gun rights, or the rights we have to enact violence, then we need to consider better defining the differences between a prototype that starts a conversation, and a prototype that isn’t open for discussion. In the case of the 3D-printed metal gun, it really does just seem to be a gun, in the form of a gun.

    Read the article about the 3-D Printed Metal Gun here: http://www.theverge.com/2013/11/7/5077718/worlds-first-3d-printed-metal-gun-fires-over-50-rounds

  2. November 12, 2013, 10:14 pm

    Keith Eggener

    At the risk of straying into “guns don’t kill people…” territory, it occurs to me upon reading this that I can’t think of a single technology that couldn’t–for one with the will and creativity–be used for nefarious purposes. Whatever his motivations, Wilson opened a door vis-a-vis this technology that would have been opened by someone else sooner or later. And given our current gun laws and the ready availability of firearms, it’s unclear that this adds all that much to the conversation beyond a certain fashionable DIY element–like making your own pickles versus buying a jar of them at the store.

  3. November 13, 2013, 2:10 pm

    Anne Burdick

    It is real!

    Neither prototype nor fiction, the power of this object is that it is real.

    Like many designed things, this printed gun makes tangible the systems of power that define who can do what, when, and how. The real threat behind this gun—and behind all open systems—is to the governments, corporations, and institutions that have historically controlled the means of production, distribution, and access. Regardless of whether this version works or not, crowdsourcing has proven to be quite reliable and a version that is better than you can imagine will appear soon enough.

    The hard fact of this gun’s existence brings to life how legal abstractions such as rights, speech, belief, or thought rely upon the vulnerability of our bodies to make control real.

    (with a nod to Foucault)

  4. November 24, 2013, 11:18 pm

    tucker viemeister

    Fire!

    There’s a difference between freedom of speech and and freedom of things.
    This thermoplastic pistol is kind of like yelling “Fire!” in a gun show.
    Does that help?
    There are plenty of good things to print – why waste time on making things that can only end badly?
    (plus it’s not even a good design!)
    But the main thing is behavior. We civilized people shouldn’t encourage people to behave badly.
    I was a Conscientious Objector during the war in Vietnam – because violent behavior does not serve a good purpose – especially war is not the best way to live peacefully together!
    it seems that the goal of this Design and Violence “exhibit” should be to help people become less violent by revealing the messages that artistic and design objects express. Thus defusing them.
    This goal may have backfired when people talk about high heel shoes as weapons and promoting “guardian angel” hand bags where the angel is the angel of death!
    the point we need to publicize is: the Liberator pistol is bad. not only does deliver lethal weapons into the hands of any nerd with a Makerbot – it encourages them to print them and by inference – use them. It validates the idea that people need guns to be “liberated”. It encourages terrorism.
    The only thing worse than making one, is when someone fires one!
    it’s sad that so many people spend so much time and effort working for violence in the name of peace!
    there are millions of better roads to liberation: conversation, sports, fashion, music, cooking, meditation . . . . design.

  5. December 2, 2013, 2:09 pm

    Florian Pfeffer

    what do we want?

    This object reminds me that at the dawn of a new technology we tend to not ask ourselves anymore if we really want it because we believe we can’t stop it anyway – so: deal with it (and print yourself a gun because your neighbour most probably already did …).

    When is was visiting the U.S. some years ago someone told me that one should be carefull how to talk to people or how to act on the street because everybody might carry a gun. I am not sure wether this reflects the common attitude to life in Americas cities or is rather hysterical – but: it shows how Foucault is already perfectly working. It does not matter if everybody has a gun. It only matters if everyody could have a gun to establish control.

    Words have connotations: open, transparent, democratic … sounds all great. But there is also a terror of transparency and there is obviously a terror potential in openess.

  6. December 7, 2013, 10:46 pm

    James Laslavic

    What is liberty without the ability to make choices?

    What is it with Libertarians and guns? (Don’t shoot: that’s rhetorical!)

    Rob Walker, who I realize has identified himself as not being a Libertarian, has written a post that praises the 3D-printable gun designed by Cody Wilson earlier this year. The praise is heaped not on the merits of how well the gun works – thankfully, not too well – but its success as a design fiction that illustrates the future Wilson hopes for and requires a serious, thoughtful reaction by society. “The Liberator has very little to do with making an excellent weapon, and everything to do with making a point,” explained Walker.

    But fine, if it’s all about the point being made, then let’s think Wilson’s point all the way through. Let’s imagine his proposed future. In fact, let’s make an effort to very charitably interpret his future.

    The year can be 2016, and 3D-printers are already available at the nearest major grandparent-friendly consumer electronics store for a sufficiently reasonable price to entice the middle class, and they’re adopting them in droves. New brands have risen thanks to the disruptive technology, and older established brands have gotten on board. The technology has gone from being a marvelous fantasy of the future to just another mundane consumer product for the home office.

    Now that we’ve thought about the “what it’s like” of Wilson’s world, let’s see how it compares to his platform’s claims of “what it should be like.”

    At the core of Libertarianism is the belief that others, especially the government, should be as minimally restrictive and demanding as possible. Wonderful! Now, who would we presumably be hoping to share this DIY gun technology with? Everybody, of course, but who will be in a position to benefit from the technology? Certainly not the poor, who are least likely to have a 3D-printer even after 3D-printers crosses where society has drawn the finish line for widespread adoption.

    In other words, the technology would not bring new liberties to the citizens most lacking in the ability to act on liberties they are told that they have. The poor might theoretically be more free, but they would actually be no more empowered to make choices. The inability to act on a choice undermines the idea that there is a choice at all. Furthermore, if well-being is at all dependent on how we fare in comparison to others, then the widespread availability of the 3D-printable gun will actually make these citizens even less free than they are now.

    Perhaps this could be ameliorated if 3D printing was a service? People could show up to places like drugstores and supermarkets to have things printed, just like how it used this be done for consumer photography. No more need to pay for a printer. However, this concession would come at the cost of giving away the power to decide what’s allowed to be printed. It would also be a major blow to the hopes for privacy and self-reliance. These sacrifices would leave very little of the Libertarian ideal within the technology. We must assume that even if the technology develops in this service-based manner, Wilson’s fiction is still only even intended for those who buy their own printer. Therefore, the argument about false enablement still stands.

    Wilson’s design fiction is blinded by his own privileges, plain and simple. If his notion of liberty goes beyond theoretically having options into the realm of actually being capable of exercising those options, then as far as I can see, he’s shot himself in the foot with his design fiction of a 3D-printable gun.

    P.S. Unless the printers can generate gunpowder from thin air, the guns will have no bullets to shoot – not unlike theoretically having liberties without the ability to actually make choices based on them!

  7. December 9, 2013, 12:36 am

    Veronica Uribe

    The violence hidden in plastic

    Being made out of plastic, the Liberator is undetectable by metal detectors. It is undetectable because plastic devices, contrary to metal devices, have never been seen has a threat until now. Whether it properly works or not, the Liberator makes it explicit that a largely domestic material like plastic is now a matter of security concern. If the Liberator is a prototype or a design fiction that shows how 3D printers offer new agency to humans, it is also a piece of fiction that shows the possibilities of the material it self.

    More than 50 years ago, Roland Barthes wrote in his book Mythologies that: “more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous substance: a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature. Plastic remains impregnated throughout this wonder: it is less a thing than the trace of a movement.”

    Plastic has no proper natural state, its form is always an enactment of human will, and in that sense, it can enact violence. We might have ignored its potential because we associate it with seemingly innocent things like toys and kitchen tools. As Barthes points: “It is the first magical substance, which consents to be prosaic”.

    Until now plastic has passed unnoticed; the Liberator gun and 3D printers in general reveal its violent potential: that of being the substance that can imitate all others.

  8. December 9, 2013, 9:42 pm

    James Auger

    Verisimilitude

    I have to admit that I am jealous – for me it is a perfect speculative design piece – extrapolating a disruptive technology’s potential to suggest and communicate a plausible future use. It works on a number of levels: first, the choice of a gun as subject fully exploits the DIY non-legislated nature of the technology. It is both functionally and politically provocative.
    Second, the design of the object is unusual, but this oddness helps in providing a more enticing representation of the project, it also brings to mind the (functional) plastic gun that John Malkovich’s character constructs in the film ‘In the Line of Fire,’ this familiarity enhances its plausibility.
    Third, we don’t know how to read it. It blurs the line between fact and fiction meaning that it is impossible to dismiss. We have to take it seriously and as a consequence the emotional, ethical and political thoughts it raises are more powerful and sincere.
    The project encourages contemplation and debate on the subject 3D printing and home manufacture before they happen – many other projects have explored this technology but almost all fail to suggest a tangible benefit that lives up to the dream, this means that the subject is only discussed within specific communities. In this case the dream is a dark one but regardless of your political standpoint it is hard to ignore.
    What is liberty without informed discussion?

  9. December 18, 2013, 10:40 am

    Stephen Cohen

    Retired Educator

    The ability for an average individual to produce a simple gun using basic tools has existed for a long time.

    “The essential part of any improvised firearm is the barrel and chamber. For small, low pressure cartridges, like the common .22 caliber (5.5 mm) rimfire cartridges, even very thin walled tubing will suffice. Author Harlan Ellison describes the zip guns used by gangs in 1950s New York City as being made from tubing used in coffee percolators or automobile radio antennas, strapped to a block of wood to serve as a handle. A rubber band provides the power for the firing pin, which is pulled back and released to fire. The use of such weak tubing results in a firearm that can be as dangerous to the shooter as the target; the poorly fitting smoothbore barrel provides little accuracy and is liable to burst upon firing.[1] Wikipedia

    There is a significant amount of literature on the internet as to how to greatly improve these design.

    A metal lathe is capable of producing reliable weapons made out of metals, plastics, ceramics, and other materials. Two semesters of adult education in lathe operation or a text book and a motivated individual will enable a person to have the skills they need to make a usable gun.

    Open source DIY 3D metal printing is here. “3D Printing With Metal: Engineers Create DIY Welding 3D Printer For Under $1,500″ http://www.ibtimes.com/3d-printing-metal-engineers-create-diy-welding-3d-printer-under-1500-1492114

    The fact is we are a violent society. Somehow the argument for realistic gun control has been politicised despite the numerous tragedies that occur every day due to gun violence. As well as the mountain of data that shows gun control works. This same society seems to think that the best way to address this is with more guns.

    “The number of privately owned guns in the U.S. is at an all-time high, upwards of 300 million, and now rises by about 10 million per year,” said the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action in a firearms safety fact sheet released Jan. 17, 2013.

    The concern about the ability to print guns is real but is overshadowed by the ease of obtaining weapons and is overwhelmed by the acceptance of violence as a daily event.
    According to USA Today

    In the United States in 2010, the rate of firearm deaths was 10 people per 100,000, while for traffic accidents it was 12 per 100,000. Firearm-related deaths totaled 31,672 in 2010.

    This statistic demonstrates our ability to accept violence as a part “of the cost of doing business.” I add the stat on auto death to point out that gun violence is just one aspect of this multiple part disease. We face a larger problem then gun violence.

    How can we use design as a tool to help get society to recognize the deep seated fundamental problems regrading violence and act on them with trust and compassion rather then fear and suspicion?

  10. April 9, 2014, 3:05 pm

    […] Read about the design that serves as the “lens” for this debate, the 3D Printed Gun, “The Liberator,” here. […]

  11. April 18, 2014, 2:14 pm

    […] usata come leva per discutere di violenza ad esempio partendo dalla pistola stampata in 3D “The Liberator” e dalla domanda “We cannot limit open source design, even when we do not support the […]

  12. April 19, 2014, 4:29 pm

    […] usata come leva per discutere di violenza ad esempio partendo dalla pistola stampata in 3D “The Liberator” e dalla domanda “Non possiamo limitare l’open source design, anche quando non ne […]

  13. April 24, 2014, 10:40 am

    […] Defense Distributed (USA, est. 2013). The Liberator pistol. 2013. BSplus thermoplastic, nail. 2 1/2 x 8 1/2″ (6.35 x 21.59 cm). Photograph by Michael Thad Carter for Forbes. Courtesy of Defense Distributed. via http://designandviolence.moma.org/the-liberator-by-defense-distributed/ […]

  14. May 15, 2014, 5:17 pm

    […] Kennedy: A lot of the objects on the Design and Violence website are controversial – the open-source 3D-printed gun, for […]

  15. July 1, 2014, 3:07 am

    Herb

    Military historian

    The part of this story I enjoyed most was the title of the gun. During WWII the Allies prepared a one-shot metal plate pistol for the Partisans in the countries occupied by Germany. The gun was cheaply made and meant to be used just once. A partisan was expected to walk close behind a German, shoot him in the head and take his weapon and ammo. It strikes me funny that this gun bears the same name and to be honest, even bears a slight resemblance to its WWII cousin.

    http://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/the-liberator-pistol

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