Cody Wilson, the man who designed downloadable plans for 3D-printed guns, has been charged with sexual assault in Austin, Texas, for allegedly having sex with a 16-year-old girl. The girl told police that she met Wilson, 30, on a sugar-baby website. On August 15th, she said, she met him in a parking lot and went with him to a hotel, where he paid her $500 for sex. The legal age of consent in Texas is 17.
Wilson has not been apprehended by authorities, as his last-known whereabouts were in Taiwan. Authorities say Wilson missed his scheduled flight back to the U.S., and that a friend of the 16-year-old informed Wilson before he left for Taiwan that he was under investigation. Taiwan does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S.
Wilson entered the public sphere in 2013, when he designed a 3D-printed pistol called the “Liberator,” and put the design online for anyone to download. This raised concerns because downloadable guns would be untraceable, easy to destroy after use, and accessible by people who would be barred from purchasing guns through traditional channels. Within weeks, the Liberator had been downloaded more than 100,000 times. The federal government stepped in, claiming that the blueprints amounted to an export under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), and were therefore illegal. Wilson complied and took the blueprints down, but sued the government, arguing that the downloadable code was free speech.
In June, the State Department reversed its position and settled, but before the design could go back online, a judge issued a temporary restraining order after eight states sued to block the settlement. Wilson called the order a “farce” and vowed to put the designs online anyway, which he did. He made them available through Texas nonprofit Defense Distributed at whatever price people want to pay — as little as a penny — circumventing the injunction against making them available for free download.
“We wanted to be the wiki for guns,” Wilson told the Washington Post. Inspired by Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Wilson identifies as a crypto-anarchist, meaning he believes in obfuscating state control over the Internet through encryption, peer-to-peer networks, and anonymity online. The code, he said, was “equally everyone’s and no one’s.”
When arguing in the press and in court for his right to publish blueprints for untraceable guns, Wilson stood on the principles of free speech and an open-access Internet. But will the sexual assault charges against him undermine his cause?
Regardless of whether the argument holds water in this particular case, or whether the greater risks of untraceable guns outweighs the free speech issue, it’s one thing to argue that certain rules shouldn’t apply when they impinge on free speech. But there’s no higher moral ground for Wilson to claim in the current criminal case. The charges against him make it look like perhaps his defiance was never about ideals or freedom, but about a guy who doesn’t think the rules apply to him in general.
The sexual assault charges may undercut Wilson’s claims of activism and flouting the law for a noble cause. But since the designs are sold through Defense Distributed — not by Wilson personally — it’s unclear whether his personal legal troubles will have any impact on the 3-D printed gun project, whether he’s convicted or not. And it’s unlikely that his supporters will care enough that he had sex with an underage girl for this to tarnish Wilson’s reputation among those who see him as a champion. As we’ve seen in the past weeks of right-wing hand-wringing over whether allegations of an attempted rape should prevent someone from becoming a Supreme Court Justice, people on the Right don’t tend to see allegations of sexual violence as a deal-breaker.