When the topic of 3D printing guns comes up, it’s always difficult to know what to do. On the one hand, we can cover it and add to the scaremongering around the topic. Or we can ignore it and let a potentially newsworthy story slip by. However, as the trend has evolved, it may become increasingly difficult to look past it, as demonstrated by a recent criminal complaint filed against a West Virginia resident accused of selling over 600 3D-printed plastic parts that convert semi-automatics into fully automatic rifles.
The FBI has claimed that Timothy Watson used a website, Portablewallhanger.com, to sell what is known as a “drop-in auto sear” that makes it possible to turn an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, legal in the U.S., into an automatic machine gun, banned in the country for over 20 years. The federal investigators suggest that Watson was disguising the device as a wall hook. Once an extra bit of 3D printed plastic was removed, buyers were left with a 3D-printed auto sear.
For the over 600 units Watson sold, customers included multiple members of the Boogaloo group, the FBI claims. The far-right movement is the latest manifestation of newer right-wing extremists that have emerged leading up to the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. The group was said to have been responsible for the murder of multiple police officers. The Boogaloos have been involved in inciting violence at racial justice protests that erupted in the U.S. in the summer of 2020 in response to the police murder of George Floyd.
Most alarmingly, among those Boogaloo customers was Steven Carrillo, according to the FBI. Carrillo is accused of shooting Santa Cruz police officers and two Oakland courthouse security guards in May and June, which resulted in the deaths of one police officer and one guard.
The 3D printed auto sear works by preventing the bolt within an AR-15 from stopping when fired. As a bullet is fired from the weapon, the gases within the chamber push the bolt back to retrieve a new round from the magazine. The bolt pushes a spring in the gun’s stock down before propelling forward. The auto sear stops the bolt and causes the hammer to push the firing pin once more. This allows the gun to continue firing without any further pulling of the trigger.
As we’ve covered in the past, 3D printed guns have so far posed little threat to the public at large due to the fact that the plastic parts are easily destroyed by the extreme forces of the weapon upon firing. They have been capable of firing but are dangerous to the users for this reason. However, this latest story represents a growing trend in the 3D printing of arms.
A consultancy group called Armament Research Services published a report in March 2020 noting that the current trend for DIY gun enthusiasts has grown to include individual components and not entire weapons. This has resulted in hybrid guns, made up of a combination of 3D printed and traditionally made or off-the-shelf parts, and market-bought weapons with 3D printed receivers. The report notes:
“At present, the material limitations of consumer-grade 3D printers, and the high cost of those small number of industry-grade printers capable of producing objects in metals, means that certain essential pressure-bearing components must either be fabricated from metals using alternative methods or substituted for commercially made parts. In the case of a Glock-series handgun, for example, the frame and magazine body may be printed from PLA while the slide, barrel and trigger would usually be original, factory-made parts. The emergence of other technologies such as ECM and desktop/micro-CNC milling machines have bridged the technological gap, and now mean that viable, capable self-loading hybrid firearms such as the FGC-9 can be produced by the home gunsmith without using any regulated components. Other areas for development, such as the production of 3D-printed ammunition, remain in their infancy.”
The auto sear part itself doesn’t take the stress of the bullets being fired, meaning that it can be used successfully even if made out of plastic. The piece would eventually wear away but could easily be replaced. With the price of industrial-grade polymer printers now dropping, it may be increasingly possible to print an auto sear from materials that can withstand the heat and impact of bullets firing.
In some cases, the 3D printing of guns or gun parts may just be a hobby or a means to procure weapons outside of government control. The Ghost Gunner from Defense Distributed, for instance, was focused specifically on CNC machining the lower receiver for an AR-15 so that it might not be traced by government authorities.
Watson was specifically selling a component that would convert an AR-15 into a fully automatic rifle. U.S. legislation frames the auto sear itself as an automatic weapon, making anyone who 3D prints one a potentially culpable in a federal crime. However, groups like Deterrence Dispensed have released their own files for 3D printable auto sears.
While there may be a plethora of reasons for crafting guns or procuring guns outside of government scrutiny, 3D printable weapons and guns rights activists have seemingly been aligned with the right wing of the country. Ghost guns have been involved in more than one mass shooting in the US since 2013. Just this October, a far-right terrorist in Halle, Germany used a homemade submachine gun to murder two people following an attempt performing a mass shooting at a synagogue.
One of the key creators of the 3D printed gun movement, Cody Wilson, is a self-identified libertarian that has been described as right wing and founded Hatreon, referred to as an “alt-right crowdfunding platform.” Wilson himself was charged with sexually assaulting a minor when he allegedly met a 16-year-old on a site, SugarDaddyMeet.com, and paid her $500 in exchange for sex. This led him to step down as CEO of Defense Distributed, the leading site for 3D printable gun files. However, news of Timothy Watson’s 3D printed auto sears suggests that the far right and the 3D printed gun movement continue to commingle
As detailed in a recent Wired article on the subject, the FBI claims that one witness in the case was a Boogaloo member who told the federal agency that he learned of Watson’s product from ads on a Boogaloo Facebook group. Portablewallhanger.com also advertised that it would donate 10 percent of its proceeds to Duncan Lemp, a militia member killed by police in March 2020.
Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, told Wired:
“To the best of my recollection, there has been very little in the way of tangible evidence that domestic extremist groups have successfully used 3D printing to modify guns, until now. When you have individuals who so strongly support the second amendment—pro-gun, anti-government individuals trying to evade any kind of gun control measure—it makes sense for them to shift to this kind of technology.”
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