In his own words, Cody Wilson is an "anti-state anarchist." But he's also a disciplined businessman. This contrasting personality is the force behind Ghost Gunner, a Texas gun company and Wilson's latest effort to make DIY gunsmithing feasible. Ghost Gunner's eponymous product is a $1,500 CNC mill that "manufactures mil-spec AR-15 and AR-308 lower receivers to completion," per the company's website. In other words, you can print your own assault rifle. Prospective buyers are encouraged to "manufacture unserialized AR rifles in the comfort and privacy of your home."
Ghost Gunner doesn't dance around its value proposition. Cody Wilson wants to unleash the democratizing force of the internet on gun manufacturing and distribution. Harnessing the home-production technologies brought into vogue by the maker movement has allowed Ghost Gunner to help its customers evade conventional gun-control legislation. Critics call Wilson's work "open-source terrorism," and the label "provocateur" is attached to his name more often than "entrepreneur."
Unsurprisingly, Wilson has been embroiled in legal battles almost from day one. Selling the Ghost Gunner machine is legal, albeit controversial, but Wilson and his lawyers also believe that the First and Second Amendments protect the right to publish gun-manufacturing blueprints. The government disagrees.
In fact, doing so was the entire raison d'être of Wilson's first startup, Defense Distributed, which designed and shared CAD files for printing guns, such as the Liberator pistol. At least until the State Department stepped in, making the argument that Defense Distributed was essentially exporting firearms without following the rules. Wilson says he founded Ghost Gunner to carry on the fight for Defense Distributed. "Literally, the conversation was, 'How do we start another company, a totally different kind of company, that can make the millions of dollars necessary to fight something like this?'" Wilson recalled in a phone call.
Astoundingly, the gambit worked -- Ghost Gunner has generated millions in sales. The company employs roughly 20 people, including dedicated sales and business development staff. And Wilson is reveling in beating the odds: "Major, major federal lawsuits, threats from the State Department, all these problems, and we still make money." He added, "I was profitable the last two years, with all these expenses."
Those expenses have been mounting since Wilson decided to sue the State Department, in 2015, citing prior restraint -- essentially arguing that the CAD files are protected speech. The government contends that Defense Distributed poses a threat to national security and that it wants to violate munitions export regulation, because publishing gun files online means that foreigners can access them. Wilson estimated that his litigation spending is "easily approaching half a million." Why does he persist? "It's not determination," he mused. "At this point I'm an insane person." The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the government's position, but in mid-August Wilson petitioned the Supreme Court to take the case.
Wilson is an admitted radical who'd like to see the government overthrown or otherwise abolished, but in order to protect Defense Distributed and Ghost Gunner, he follows most laws to the letter. "I'm constantly in the yellow zone. Someone is always going to try to take away what is mine, because they don't like what I'm doing," he said. "So, look, I'm completely over-compliant in some areas as well. Like I have incredible OSHA compliance. I have incredible export compliance. I have so many attorneys. You would not believe the attorneys that I employ and retain."
"Literally it's all the problems of a normal startup, plus the fact that the state wants to end you," Wilson says. The anarchist may still be able to defy the might of the United States government, since the state that wants to end him is bound by the rule of law.
Correction: This article originally misstated the price of the Ghost Gunner. $250 is the deposit; the full price is $1,500.