Daring AM: New Jersey Gun Investigation Triggers Concern Over 3D Printed Firearm Switches

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Recent events across the United States have highlighted a concerning trend in the use of 3D printed firearms in criminal activities. These cases, ranging from New Jersey to Iowa and Oklahoma, highlight an increase in the production and use of 3D printed firearms in criminal activities. These cases reveal a consistent pattern: criminals are exploiting the anonymity and ease of access provided by ghost guns. These weapons, unserialized and difficult to trace, are made from readily available gun kits and 3D printing setups, highlighting significant challenges and growing concerns for law enforcement agencies.

New Jersey Investigates

The New Jersey State Commission of Investigation (NJSCI), an independent government agency, has been at the forefront of analyzing the surge in ghost gun recoveries. Their findings indicate a dramatic increase in firearms assembled from 3D printed components and gun kits, particularly those from brands like Polymer80. These firearms are often found in criminal hands, contributing to a cycle of repeat offenses within communities, and what NJSCI Special Agent Edwin Torres described as multishot firearms, which are used in two or more shooting events and are typically unserialized.

Public hearing on illegal firearms use and trends in New Jersey. Image courtesy of the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation (NJSCI).

According to the commission, a recent focus has been the ease with which individuals can manufacture lethal weapons, particularly machine gun conversion devices known as “switches,” using basic 3D printing technology. Described as a piece of plastic “no bigger than a Lego block,” these switches only cost a few dollars to build. Investigators explained that these switches transform simple firearms into fully automatic weapons capable of firing multiple rounds with a single trigger pull.

“With a single pull of the trigger, an individual can release a barrage of bullets at a target in a matter of seconds,” explained Detective Sergeant Brian Halaycio, a New Jersey State Police Ballistics Expert. “Even the simplest, cheapest version converts a pistol into a fully automatic by replacing a backpleat, once that backpleat is installed they are often hard to identify. First, the existing backpleat of a firearm is removed, then the switch is placed in its place, it overrides the trigger bar mechanism which ensures only one round is fired per pull of the trigger.”

The red 3D printed switch can be seen in installed in the Glock gun. Image courtesy of New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.

CAD to Criminals

Using a standard 3D printer from Bambu Lab, investigators demonstrated how easy it is to produce a switch in hours. Although they did not print the complete switch to stay within legal limits, their demonstration pointed out how quickly and anonymously these components can be created.

New Jersey Police Department conducted an investigation and 3D printed switches using a Bambu Lab. Image courtesy of the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.

Three primary types of switches were identified: a basic 3D printed plastic switch for Glock guns, which replaces the backplate of a handgun to allow rapid fire; the selective switch, which can be made from metal and let the user toggle between semi-automatic and fully automatic firing with the press of a button; and the swift link switch, designed for rifles like the AR-15, which is also available in 3D printed forms. These switches are not only easy and cheap to manufacture—ranging from $20 to $40 on the black market—but also difficult to detect once installed.

3D printed selector switch unassembled in the first image and then assembled in the second one. Image courtesy of New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.

Investigators found them for sale on various online platforms, including popular video-sharing websites and China-based e-commerce sites. Not only do the sites ship directly to any address, but the NJSCI found that the import documents had misrepresented contents, concealing the shipment of switches. The commission also revealed that at least one German company was aiding black market vendors in creating and shipping switches to buyers.

The widespread availability and the rapid production capability pose significant challenges for law enforcement, as these switches make the guns significantly more dangerous and difficult to manage in criminal situations. Also, law enforcement officials are at a disadvantage when encountering criminals armed with these switched guns, as they can significantly “outgun standard police issue firearms,” said the specialists. When asked if there was a reason for lawful gun owners to possess switches, Halaycio noted, “There is no legitimate reason that a law-abiding citizen to possess a switch,” especially since these devices “compromise weapons,” making them less reliable, less accurate and more dangerous for bystanders and the general public.

A 3D printed swift link switch for an AR-15. Image courtesy of New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.

While at the state level, possession of a switch is not criminalized, if someone places a switch on a gun, then possession of that firearm can be charged as an illegal machine gun. Federally, there are precedents that switches by themselves are considered an illegal machine gun, and their possession has been prosecuted as such across the country. However, for New Jersey, the investigation concludes that this situation highlights a critical gap in current regulations and the urgent need for updated laws to address these emerging threats effectively.

A recording of the results from the NJSCI investigation can be found here.

Des Moines’ “Minor” Incident

Meanwhile, in Des Moines, a shooting incident involving a teenager highlighted another use of 3D printed firearms. On April 9, 2024, police recovered two 3D printed handguns at the scene of the crime. According to official documents, Des Moines patrol officers responded to reports of gunfire and quickly apprehended 16-year-old Jamison Diaz, who allegedly shot a 31-year-old man now hospitalized in serious condition. While the origin of the 3D printed handguns remains under investigation, they highlight an ongoing concern from law enforcement around untraceable weapons, which can complicate the tracking of criminal activity.

Des Moines police searching for the 3D printed weapons in a crime. Image courtesy of Des Moines Police Department via Facebook.

Oklahoma’s First

In Oklahoma, Lawton’s police department encountered its first case involving a 3D printed gun when Matthew Palmer allegedly used a 3D printed 22-caliber firearm in a shooting. The 38-year-old suspect now faces a single felony count of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, which carries a maximum punishment of up to ten years in prison.

This incident has encouraged the local police to reconsider its training and policies concerning handling ghost guns. Although it is still unclear where or how Palmer got the weapon, the accessibility of 3D printing technologies, as highlighted by the availability of 3D printers in public spaces like libraries, complicates efforts to regulate these weapons, say local experts. Oklahoma has no 3D printed gun regulation; however, federal laws apply, like the Undetectable Firearms Act and the Gun Control Act by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which require that firearms manufactured for personal use do not need to be registered or have a serial number, as long as they are not sold or used for profit.

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