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The User-Friendly Gadget That Makes Untraceable AR-15s

Defense Distributed's Ghost Gunner home CNC mill.Defense Distributed's Ghost Gunner home CNC mill.
Defense Distributed's Ghost Gunner home CNC mill.Defense Distributed

Cody Wilson is the Texas-based “crypto-anarchist” who set off a firestorm of controversy with his 2013 release of designs for the Liberator—the world’s first fully 3D-printed gun. Now, his nonprofit Defense Distributed organization is upping the ante with a machine that lets nearly anyone with basic tech skills manufacture an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, beloved by American marksmen, hunters—and mass shooters.

The machine is called the Ghost Gunner, because the weapons it produces have no serial numbers and are untraceable—what lawmakers have called “ghost guns.” According to Bloomberg, Defense Distributed has more than 600 orders for the machine, which costs $1,500. They’re manufactured in Austin, Texas, and there’s currently a lengthy waiting list, but buyers can put down a $250 deposit.

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The Ghost Gunner provides a technological shortcut through a narrow loophole in firearms law. It’s legal and easy to buy most of the parts for guns, such as barrels, stocks, or sights. The one element that is tightly controlled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is the receiver—essentially, the working core of the gun, which contains the firing mechanism and holds together components like the barrel and trigger. A receiver is considered a firearm by regulators.

To get around regulations—or, more generously, to cater to hobbyists and craftsmen—manufacturers have long offered what’s known as an “80% receiver.” This is a solid piece of metal that, while shaped like a full reciever, doesn’t include various holes and cavities for working components. An ATF official told the Washington Post that “tens of thousands” of these components have been sold in California alone.

Regulators do not consider these firearms, but the final 20% of machining required to produce a working receiver can be completed using commercially-available computerized machining (CNC) tools. CNC machines frequently cost more than $5,000, and require advanced skills to operate.

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The Ghost Gunner drastically lowers both barriers, putting a CNC mill in a box the size of a microwave, and providing users with point-and-click control software. Defense Distributed says the machine requires “no prior CNC experience” to produce a working AR-15 receiver from an 80% receiver (which Defense Distributed also sells).

As Bloomberg describes, Wilson has been in a legal battle with the Department of State since it ordered him to remove the design files for the Liberator 3D-printed gun from his site. Wilson considers the Ghost Gunner less a commercial product than a means to fund his legal fight against that order, which he argues amounts to a curb on free speech. Briefs in favor of his position have been filed by Republican lawmakers and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

According to Bloomberg’s profile, Wilson’s stormy career in gun tech is motivated by his crypto-anarchist belief system, which holds that new technology, including encryption and 3D printing, can help individuals achieve total freedom from any authorities, including governments. He’s not even, apparently, particularly interested in guns.