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I first heard about Colorado’s Spring Fire on July 1, when I was driving right back from the camping journey. My mom texted me from the woman home in Florida: “How close are these fires?” We pulled over to a sleep end, called up the federal catastrophe internet site Inciweb, and delivered her back a screenshot for the wildfire’s perimeter. It seemed far from my house on the Huerfano County line, enjoy it would need to get across impossible acres to come close. “Looks like we’re good,” I published back.
The Spring Fire may be the 3rd biggest into the state’s history. By the time I discovered it, the fire had already burned through significantly more than 40,000 acres. A plume of smoke unfurled right into a constantly replenished mushroom cloud. It absolutely was 0 % “contained,” and thus no human-made or natural barrier had been stopping the fire’s advantage from expanding. Costilla and Huerfano counties had evacuated around 2,000 households by July 2.
The fire had, by then, grown to above 56,000 acres, simply 5 per cent included.
We arrived at my cabin on the 3rd, hose at hand, knowing I couldn’t really assist the home yet not once you understand what else to do. The Spring Fire had bloomed to nearly 80,000 acres. The Department of Transportation closed the highway right on turnoff to my destination. Big-bellied planes filled with retardant crossed the sky overhead, their trip course traversing area of the bullishly-named Wet Valley.
That evening, the sunset, showing off the smoke particles, was spectacular. The hills all appeared to be these people were on fire—even those that weren’t.
Forty kilometers south, from their base into the Huerfano county seat of Walsenburg, friends called Rocky Mountain Incident Management Blue Team had taken fee of taming and containing the north element of the blaze; another team, Rocky Mountain region Incident Management Team Black, had been assigned to cope with the southern part. To direct the crisis response personnel—nearly 1,800 people worked the fire at its peak—the team needed plenty of data, a tightly wound plan, plus weirdly Office Space organizational structure.
Fire behavior analyst Shelly Crook, Blue Team, is paramount to that endeavor. She’s in control of figuring out just what the north percentage of the fire is performing and what it will do. Each morning during the Spring Fire, she has woken up in the sleep she keeps in the rear of her vehicle. By 5 am, she turns up on ad hoc event demand post—at John Mall High School—to see if an infrared plane sought out immediately. “we take stock of that information, and see where the fire relocated through the past border, to observe much it’s grown,” she states.
This is Crook’s fourth fire this present year, so when we spoke, it absolutely was her 60th day into the industry (she is “retired”). “each time a fire starts, you type of drop every thing,” she states. So did others Western-based people of her group, whom converged quickly on Spring Fire following the call went from Geographic Area Coordination Center, which assists mobilize emergency resources.
At their short-term demand post in Walsenburg, they will have all the divisions a small business might, including finance kinds, HR reps, and PortaPotty procurers. Every day, a planning team writes out a 30-page packet of data about every thing a firefighter might need, from where frequencies to make use of for communications to what the current weather is likely to be like.
For that second component, there’s a separate meteorologist. He sits next to Crook included in a product that prints more than 150 maps every day—county roads and structures, topography from United States Geological Survey, GPS places from the ground. After Crook checks regarding infrared journey, she gets information from the woman officemate towards general humidity recovery—she’s hoping so it increased significantly immediately. “If it’s good, the fire will not be active as early,” she says. They dig into data from weather stations—permanent ones and seven RAWS, remote automated climate systems, specially set up at critical Spring Fire locations—informing a forecast Crook can have during early morning meetings.
That’s just the beginning of Crook’s time, which she dedicates to predicting—as most readily useful she can—the north fire’s next techniques.
That sort of information fundamentally makes its option to the community—via in-person meetings and day-to-day one-sheets. The public document released in the Fourth of July waffled in its optimism. “Overnight, calmer winds and lighter fuels slowed fire development over the south and eastern flanks for the North Spring Fire,” it said. “Fire task increased along the northwest flank near Sheep hill because it moved into dry, mixed timber.”
By the afternoon, information from an infrared flight unveiled the fire’s total extent to be 95,739 acres. The preevacuation zone, shown for a Google map, now extended to two miles from my house. South, the view through the porch had morphed as a wall surface of smoke. I did so what exactly on a preevacuation checklist, in the event: defeat curtains, close and unlock windows, switch off the gas, turn on the lights, bring everything in from the porch. We utilized the hose to fill buckets with water and place them around the house. I did son’t need to (pre-pre-evacuation is non-evacuation), but my nerves had history: once I was 12, a Florida wildfire destroyed 30 structures within my rural area, and my children didn’t escape with time: On our course down the highway, the trail was blocked by fire, and we spent hours in a landfill entryway, surrounded by flames.
You will find concrete steps specific citizens can take to be much more firewise generally speaking: have the gunk from gutters, clear defensible no-brush room around home, keep lumber heaps and propane several dozen foot away, display screen all spaces so embers don’t sneak in. But sometimes, despite most useful efforts, nature wields an top hand. By this aspect inside fire, in the 4th, a lot more than 100 domiciles have been lost.
At six p.m., I tuned in the community briefing, streamed via Facebook Live from the tiny city of Los Angeles Veta.
“Happy Fourth of July, everybody,” stated David Detray, fire chief of this La Veta area. “i wish to supply this picture of your La Veta Fire Protection District personnel.” On screen behind him, eight firefighters, two keeping US flags plus one holding a giant teddy bear, endured in a V, apparently paused in a march via an otherwise empty road.
This image had been from the primary road in Cuchara, an 8,500-foot-high village that had been evacuated. Citizens couldn’t hold their annual Independence Day parade, which they’ve done for a few 50 years. Therefore the firefighters took a moment to stage a miniature, type of morbid one for them.
“These are your individuals,” Detray said.
Inside Blue Team’s enhance, operations area chief Chris Zoller noted where in actuality the fire was “pushing,” expanding its side by 6,000 to 7,000 acres. He moved on to a place, high in woods, where the fire would quickly strike a road and transfer to a region called “Paradise Acres.” “This will probably be our trouble area for the following twenty four hours,” he states.
After presenting the woman initial forecast at Rocky hill Incident Management Blue Team morning meetings, Crook goes back into prediction mode. She feeds information into models that forecast the fire’s behavior, an element of the Wildland Fire choice Support System—a powerful tool that gobbles up information from numerous sources to support wildfire strategy-making. A number of the information it sucks in originates from a federal program called Landfire, which can help firefighters inform what exactly is growing regarding affected ground, exactly how it burns off, and exactly how topography flows beneath it.
Although the help system itself is significantly newer, these federal prediction models will be in development for about 30 years. “They’ve morphed and start to become better made,” states Crook. Crook has two favorites: the three-day perimeter projection, as well as the fire spread probability prediction. “It informs me throughout the next seven to fortnight what is the probability of the fire impacting any point on the landscape,” she claims.
But simulations can only just simulate. Therefore in the afternoon, Crook heads out using the firefighters and returns with ground truth. She can feed certain information back in the models—essentially calibrating them to the North Spring Fire. Nevertheless, it is not really a perfect system. “There’s a mystery on every fire,” she says.
There’s also a bit of logistical challenge: not merely where you should place the PortaPotties but additionally how to get the people and heavy gear you’ll need. Once the Spring Fire began and Rocky hill Incident Management Blue Team arrived regarding the scene, the fire had been going fast. They needed seriously to work. Nevertheless the remaining portion of the state additionally was burning. “It took like four days before I happened to be in a position to have the resources to even come near what we needed seriously to assist begin suppressing the fire,” states Jay Esperance, the Blue Team’s event commander.
But that, he states, is life. “There’s only countless firefighters and equipment, so we were the newest show in town.”
After the heavy machinery did arrive, it was significant: At one point, there were 17 bulldozers to clear out lines of land to retain the blaze; two “masticators” to chew up brush along with other small-diameter material; and skidders to move logs.
In addition to ground-bound resources, the Spring Fire fighters also took toward sky. They used planes and helicopters, although Zoller calls them “fixed-wing” and “rotor-wing” aircraft. The planes that combated this blaze—stashed in fire-prone areas across the country during the volatile season—included single-engine leaflets and VLATs: Very Large Air Tankers. Both carried fire retardant that spilled from their bellies like paintball powder. The helicopters took care associated with the H2O. “Water is for the instant have to cool things down,” says Zoller. Retardant, meanwhile, slows the fire down.
Over the winged art flies an “eye in the sky”: an in-the-air air-traffic controller. “He directs all the traffic, and keeps the rotor-wing out of the way associated with the fixed-wing,” states Zoller.
Since the last thing anyone requires during a wildfire is really a plane crash.
At a July 11 evacuee conference in Fort Garland, which as soon as hosted a functional armed forces fort, a southern-section public information officer took the stage. “We’re going to start off with some good news,” she said. The whole fire ended up being 83 % included, and also the southern border had been entirely in order. Team Ebony ended up being going house.
Crook’s Blue Team took over the entire procedure, which, two times later on, had been 91 % contained. The north edge of the fire stayed far sufficient from the house that we never ever had to evacuate, and the Blue Team soon packed up, leaving operations to regional groups on July 16. On the way to avoid it of city, they decontaminated their gear, to avoid transporting invasive species, “weed-washing” the outside with high-pressure hoses and burning the insides of tanks with 140-degree water.
The path to recovery is long and difficult, just like the roads that climb up through the high hill passes here. Based on the Denver Post, the area has taken inside tragedy cleanup nonprofit Team Rubicon to aid, and a team called the Voluntary businesses Active in Disaster will help, too. More than 225 structures had been destroyed, in accordance with a July 18 report through the nationwide Interagency Coordination Center. The thing that was forest is charred trunks, scorched earth.
No matter simply how much information anybody or any satellites just take, it’s impractical to anticipate what will take place next the communities. However if one of Crook’s models could offer imperfect post-fire forecasts, it might most likely say that life will slowly develop right back toward normal.
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Right now, an attempt to make history takes flight: John Collins, otherwise known as The Paper Airplane Guy, will try to fly a paper airplane further than any paper airplane has flown before.
Collins set the standing world record for paper airplane flight—226 feet and 10 inches—in February of 2012. But now, Collins has even higher hopes. “In terms of breaking the record, our worst practice day of that year was world record day,” he says. “We’d routinely thrown beyond 230 feet, and sometimes beyond 240 feet. Adding a couple of meters to the record is likely if conditions are good.”
With a moniker like The Paper Airplane Guy, it should come as no surprise that Collins takes the business of paper airplanes seriously. Besides the world record, his vigorous studies of aerodynamics and origami have led to the creation of a “boomerang” paper airplane that flies back to him and a “bat plane” that can flap its wings in mid air by itself. Earlier this year, Collins showed WIRED exactly how he made the world-record breaking plane.
In the days leading up to the attempt, Collins will fold dozens of paper airplanes while his “arm”—former arena football quarterback Joe Ayoob—will perform hours of practice. Collins says it takes about 25 minutes to make a competition-ready plane, and he plans to show up with no less than 24 on the day of the attempt. That might mean very little sleep, because when it comes to these perfected planes John says the fresher they are, the better. John and Joe will have 10 attempts to break the current world record from the sprawling Pomeroy Sports Centre in Fort St. John, British Columbia.
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He’d launched the site months earlier along with an anarchist video manifesto, declaring that gun control would never be the same in an era when anyone can download and print their own firearm with a few clicks. In the days after that first test-firing, his gun was downloaded more than 100,000 times. Wilson made the decision to go all in on the project, dropping out of law school at the University of Texas, as if to confirm his belief that technology supersedes law.
The law caught up. Less than a week later, Wilson received a letter from the US State Department demanding that he take down his printable-gun blueprints or face prosecution for violating federal export controls. Under an obscure set of US regulations known as the International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Wilson was accused of exporting weapons without a license, just as if he’d shipped his plastic gun to Mexico rather than put a digital version of it on the internet. He took Defcad.com offline, but his lawyer warned him that he still potentially faced millions of dollars in fines and years in prison simply for having made the file available to overseas downloaders for a few days. “I thought my life was over,” Wilson says.
Instead, Wilson has spent the last years on an unlikely project for an anarchist: Not simply defying or skirting the law but taking it to court and changing it. In doing so, he has now not only defeated a legal threat to his own highly controversial gunsmithing project. He may have also unlocked a new era of digital DIY gunmaking that further undermines gun control across the United States and the world—another step toward Wilson’s imagined future where anyone can make a deadly weapon at home with no government oversight.
Two months ago, the Department of Justice quietly offered Wilson a settlement to end a lawsuit he and a group of co-plaintiffs have pursued since 2015 against the United States government. Wilson and his team of lawyers focused their legal argument on a free speech claim: They pointed out that by forbidding Wilson from posting his 3-D-printable data, the State Department was not only violating his right to bear arms but his right to freely share information. By blurring the line between a gun and a digital file, Wilson had also successfully blurred the lines between the Second Amendment and the First.
“If code is speech, the constitutional contradictions are evident,” Wilson explained to WIRED when he first launched the lawsuit in 2015. “So what if this code is a gun?”
The Department of Justice’s surprising settlement, confirmed in court documents earlier this month, essentially surrenders to that argument. It promises to change the export control rules surrounding any firearm below .50 caliber—with a few exceptions like fully automatic weapons and rare gun designs that use caseless ammunition—and move their regulation to the Commerce Department, which won’t try to police technical data about the guns posted on the public internet. In the meantime, it gives Wilson a unique license to publish data about those weapons anywhere he chooses.
“I consider it a truly grand thing,” Wilson says. “It will be an irrevocable part of political life that guns are downloadable, and we helped to do that.”
Now Wilson is making up for lost time. Later this month, he and the nonprofit he founded, Defense Distributed, are relaunching their website Defcad.com as a repository of firearm blueprints they’ve been privately creating and collecting, from the original one-shot 3-D-printable pistol he fired in 2013 to AR-15 frames and more exotic DIY semi-automatic weapons. The relaunched site will be open to user contributions, too; Wilson hopes it will soon serve as a searchable, user-generated database of practically any firearm imaginable.
All of that will be available to anyone anywhere in the world with an uncensored internet connection, to download, alter, remix, and fabricate into lethal weapons with tools like 3-D printers and computer-controlled milling machines. “We’re doing the encyclopedic work of collecting this data and putting it into the commons,” Wilson says. “What’s about to happen is a Cambrian explosion of the digital content related to firearms.” He intends that database, and the inexorable evolution of homemade weapons it helps make possible, to serve as a kind of bulwark against all future gun control, demonstrating its futility by making access to weapons as ubiquitous as the internet.
Of course, that mission seemed more relevant when Wilson first began dreaming it up, before a political party with no will to rein in America’s gun death epidemic held control of Congress, the White House, and likely soon the Supreme Court. But Wilson still sees Defcad as an answer to the resurgent gun control movement that has emerged in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting that left 17 students dead in February.
The potential for his new site, if it functions as Wilson hopes, would also go well beyond even the average Trump supporter’s taste in gun rights. The culture of homemade, unregulated guns it fosters could make firearms available to even those people who practically every American agrees shouldn’t possess them: felons, minors, and the mentally ill. The result could be more cases like that of John Zawahiri, an emotionally disturbed 25-year-old who went on a shooting spree in Santa Monica, California, with a homemade AR-15 in 2015, killing five people, or Kevin Neal, a Northern California man who killed five people with AR-15-style rifles—some of which were homemade—last November.
“This should alarm everyone,” says Po Murray, chairwoman of Newtown Action Alliance, a Connecticut-focused gun control group created in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2013. “We’re passing laws in Connecticut and other states to make ensure these weapons of war aren’t getting into the hands of dangerous people. They’re working in the opposite direction.”
When reporters and critics have repeatedly pointed out those potential consequences of Wilson’s work over the last five years, he has argued that he’s not seeking to arm criminals or the insane or to cause the deaths of innocents. But nor is he moved enough by those possibilities to give up what he hopes could be, in a new era of digital fabrication, the winning move in the battle over access to guns.
With his new legal victory and the Pandora’s box of DIY weapons it opens, Wilson says he’s finally fulfilling that mission. “All this Parkland stuff, the students, all these dreams of ‘common sense gun reforms’? No. The internet will serve guns, the gun is downloadable.” Wilson says now. “No amount of petitions or die-ins or anything else can change that.”
Defense Distributed operates out of an unadorned building in a north Austin industrial park, behind two black-mirrored doors marked only with the circled letters “DD” scrawled by someone’s finger in the dust. In the machine shop inside, amid piles of aluminum shavings, a linebacker-sized, friendly engineer named Jeff Winkleman is walking me through the painstaking process of turning a gun into a collection of numbers.
Winkleman has placed the lower receiver of an AR-15, the component that serves as the core frame of the rifle, on a granite table that’s been calibrated to be perfectly flat to one ten-thousandth of an inch. Then he places a Mitutoyo height gauge—a thin metal probe that slides up and down on a tall metal stand and measures vertical distances—next to it, poking one edge of the frame with its probe to get a baseline reading of its position. “This is where we get down to the nitty gritty,” Winkleman says. “Or, as we call it, the gnat’s ass.”
Winkleman then slowly rotates the guage’s rotary handle to move its probe down to the edge of a tiny hole on the side of the gun’s frame. After a couple careful taps, the tool’s display reads 0.4775 inches. He has just measured a single line—one of the countless dimensions that define the shape of any of the dozens of component of an AR-15—with four decimal places of accuracy. Winkleman’s job at Defense Distributed now is to repeat that process again and again, integrating that number, along with every measurement of every nook, cranny, surface, hole, lip, and ridge of a rifle, into a CAD model he’s assembling on a computer behind him, and then to repeat that obsessively comprehensive model-building for as many guns as possible.
That a digital fabrication company has opted for this absurdly manual process might seem counterintuitive. But Winkleman insists that the analog measurements, while infinitely slower than modern tools like laser scanners, produce a far more accurate model—a kind of gold master for any future replications or alterations of that weapon. “We’re trying to set a precedent here,” Winkelman says. “When we say something is true, you absolutely know it’s true.”
One room over, Wilson shows me the most impressive new toy in the group’s digitization toolkit, one that arrived just three days earlier: A room-sized analog artifact known as an optical comparator. The device, which he bought used for $32,000, resembles a kind of massive cartoon X-ray scanner.
Wilson places the body of an AR-9 rifle on a pedestal on the right side of the machine. Two mercury lamps project neon green beams of light onto the frame from either side. A lens behind it bends that light within the machine and then projects it onto a 30-inch screen at up to 100X magnification. From that screen’s mercury glow, the operator can map out points to calculate the gun’s geometry with microscopic fidelity. Wilson flips through higher magnification lenses, then focuses on a series of tiny ridges of the frame until the remnants of their machining look like the brush strokes of Chinese calligraphy. “Zoom in, zoom in, enhance” Wilson jokes.
Turning physical guns into digital files, instead of vice-versa, is a new trick for Defense Distributed. While Wilson’s organization first gained notoriety for its invention of the first 3-D printable gun, what it called the Liberator, it has since largely moved past 3-D printing. Most of the company’s operations are now focused on its core business: making and selling a consumer-grade computer-controlled milling machine known as the Ghost Gunner, designed to allow its owner to carve gun parts out of far more durable aluminum. In the largest room of Defense Distributed’s headquarters, half a dozen millennial staffers with beards and close-cropped hair—all resembling Cody Wilson, in other words—are busy building those mills in an assembly line, each machine capable of skirting all federal gun control to churn out untraceable metal glocks and semiautomatic rifles en masse.
For now, those mills produce only a few different gun frames for firearms, including the AR-15 and 1911 handguns. But Defense Distributed’s engineers imagine a future where their milling machine and other digital fabrication tools—such as consumer-grade aluminum-sintering 3-D printers that can print objects in metal—can make practically any digital gun component materialize in someone’s garage.
In the meantime, selling Ghost Gunners has been a lucrative business. Defense Distributed has sold roughly 6,000 of the desktop devices to DIY gun enthusiasts across the country, mostly for $1,675 each, netting millions in profit. The company employs 15 people and is already outgrowing its North Austin headquarters. But Wilson says he’s never been interested in money or building a startup for its own sake. He now claims that the entire venture was created with a singular goal: to raise enough money to wage his legal war against the US State Department.
After his lawyers originally told him in 2013 that his case against the government was hopeless, Wilson fired them and hired two new ones with expertise in export control and both Second and First-Amendment law. Matthew Goldstein, Wilson’s lawyer who is focused on ITAR, says he was immediately convinced of the merits of Wilson’s position. “This is the case you’d bring out in a law school course as an unconstitutional law,” Goldstein says. “It ticks all the check boxes of what violates the First Amendment.”
When Wilson’s company teamed up with the Second Amendment Foundation and brought their lawsuit to a Texas District court in 2015, they were supported by a collection of amicus briefs from a shockingly broad coalition: Arguments in their favor were submitted by not only the libertarian Cato Institute, the gun-rights-focused Madison Society, and 15 Republican members of Congress but also the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
When the judge in the case nonetheless rejected Defense Distributed’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have immediately allowed it to continue publishing gun files, the company appealed, and lost. But as the case proceeded toward a ruling on Defense Distributed’s first amendment argument, the government surprised the plaintiffs by suddenly offering them a settlement with essentially everything they wanted. It even pays back $40,000 of their court costs and paperwork fees. (Wilson says that’s still only about 10 percent of the $400,000 that the plaintiffs spent.)
Goldstein says the settlement may have had as much to do with ITAR reforms begun during the Obama administration as with the gun-friendly Trump administration that took over the case. But he doesn’t rule out that a new regime may have helped tip the balance in the plaintiffs’ favor. “There’s different management at the helm of this agency,” Goldstein says. “You can draw your own conclusions.” Both the Department of Justice and the State Department declined to comment on the outcome of the case.
With the rule change their win entails, Defense Distributed has removed a legal threat to not only its project but an entire online community of DIY gunmakers. Sites like GrabCAD and FossCad already host hundreds of gun designs, from Defense Distributed’s Liberator pistol to printable revolvers and even semiautomatic weapons. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in doing things yourself, and it’s also a way of expressing support for the Second Amendment,” explains one prolific Fosscad contributor, a West Virginian serial inventor of 3-D-printable semiautomatics who goes by the pseudonym Derwood. “I’m a conservative. I support all the amendments.”
But until now, Derwood and practically every other participant on those platforms risked prosecution for violating export controls, whether they knew it or not. Though enforcement has been rare against anyone less vocal and visible than Wilson, many online gunsmiths have nonetheless obscured their identities for that reason. With the more open and intentional database of gun files that Defcad represents, Wilson believes he can create a collection of files that’s both more comprehensive and more refined, with higher accuracy, more detailed models for every component, giving machinists all the data they need to make or remix them. “This is the stuff that’s necessary for the creative work to come,” Wilson says.
In all of this, Wilson sees history repeating itself: He points to the so-called Crypto Wars of the 1990s. After programmer Phillip Zimmermann in 1991 released PGP, the world’s first free encryption program that anyone could use to thwart surveillance. he too was threatened with an indictment for violating export restrictions. Encryption software was, at the time, treated as a munition and placed on the same prohibited export control list as guns and missiles. Only after a fellow cryptographer, Daniel Bernstein, sued the government with the same free-speech argument Wilson would use 20 years later did the government drop its investigation of Zimmermann and spare him from prison.
“This is a specter of the old thing again,” Wilson says. “What we were actually fighting about in court was a core crypto-war problem.” And following that analogy, Wilson argues, his legal win means gun blueprints can now spread as widely as encryption has since that earlier legal fight: After all, encryption has now grown from an underground curiosity to a commodity integrated into apps, browsers, and websites running on billions of computers and phones across the globe.
But Zimmermann takes issue with the analogy—on ethical if not legal grounds. This time, he points out, the First Amendment–protected data that was legally treated as a weapon actually is a weapon. “Encryption is a defense technology with humanitarian uses,” Zimmermann says. “Guns are only used for killing.”
“Arguing that they’re the same because they’re both made of bits isn’t quite persuasive for me,” Zimmermann says. “Bits can kill.”
After a tour of the machine shop, Wilson leads me away from the industrial roar of its milling machines, out the building’s black-mirrored-glass doors and through a grassy patch to its back entrance. Inside is a far quieter scene: A large, high-ceilinged, dimly fluorescent-lit warehouse space filled with half a dozen rows of gray metal shelves, mostly covered in a seemingly random collection of books, from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Hunger Games. He proudly points out that it includes the entire catalog of Penguin Classics and the entire Criterion Collection, close to 900 Blu-rays. This, he tells me, will be the library.
And why is Defense Distributed building a library? Wilson, who cites Baudrillard, Foucault, or Nietzsche at least once in practically any conversation, certainly doesn’t mind the patina of erudition it lends to what is essentially a modern-day gun-running operation. But as usual, he has an ulterior motive: If he can get this room certified as an actual, official public library, he’ll unlock another giant collection of existing firearm data. The US military maintains records of thousands of the specs for thousands of firearms in technical manuals, stored on reels and reels of microfiche cassettes. But only federally approved libraries can access them. By building a library, complete with an actual microfiche viewer in one corner, Wilson is angling to access the US military’s entire public archive of gun data, which he eventually hopes to digitize and include on Defcad.com, too.
“Ninety percent of the technical data is already out there. This is a huge part of our overall digital intake strategy,” Wilson says. “Hipsters will come here and check out movies, independent of its actual purpose, which is a stargate for absorbing ancient army technical materials.”
Browsing that movie collection, I nearly trip over something large and hard. I look down and find a granite tombstone with the words AMERICAN GUN CONTROL engraved on it. Wilson explains he has a plan to embed it in the dirt under a tree outside when he gets around to it. “It’s maybe a little on the nose, but I think you get where I’m going with it,” he says.
Wilson’s library will serve a more straightforward purpose, too: In one corner stands a server rack that will host Defcad’s website and backend database. He doesn’t trust any hosting company to hold his controversial files. And he likes the optics of storing his crown jewels in a library, should any reversal of his legal fortunes result in a raid. “If you want to come get it, you have to attack a library,” he says.
On that subject, he has something else to show me. Wilson pulls out a small embroidered badge. It depicts a red, dismembered arm on a white background. The arm’s hand grips a curved sword, with blood dripping from it. The symbol, Wilson explains, once flew on a flag above the Goliad Fort in South Texas. In Texas’ revolution against Mexico in the 1830s, Goliad’s fort was taken by the Mexican government and became the site of a massacre of 400 American prisoners of war, one that’s far less widely remembered than the Alamo.
Wilson recently ordered a full-size flag with the sword-wielding bloody arm. He wants to make it a new symbol for his group. His interest in the icon, he explains, dates back to the 2016 election, when he was convinced Hillary Clinton was set to become the president and lead a massive crackdown on firearms.
If that happened, as Wilson tells it, he was ready to launch his Defcad repository, regardless of the outcome of his lawsuit, and then defend it in an armed standoff. “I’d call a militia out to defend the server, Bundy-style,” Wilson says calmly, in the first overt mention of planned armed violence I’ve ever heard him make. “Our only option was to build an infrastructure where we had one final suicidal mission, where we dumped everything into the internet,” Wilson says. “Goliad became an inspirational thing for me.”
Now, of course, everything has changed. But Wilson says the Goliad flag still resonates with him. And what does that bloody arm symbol mean to him now, in the era where Donald Trump is president and the law has surrendered to his will? Wilson declines to say, explaining that he would rather leave the mystery of its abstraction intact and open to interpretation.
But it doesn’t take a degree in semiotics to see how the Goliad flag suits Defense Distributed. It reads like the logical escalation of the NRA’s “cold dead hands” slogan of the last century. In fact, it may be the perfect symbol not just for Defense Distributed’s mission but for the country that produced it, where firearms result in tens of thousands of deaths a year—vastly more than any other developed nation in the world—yet groups like Wilson’s continue to make more progress in undermining gun control than lawmakers do in advancing it. It’s a flag that represents the essence of violent extremist ideology: An arm that, long after blood is spilled, refuses to let go. Instead, it only tightens it grip on its weapon, as a matter of principle, forever.