A West Virginia man named Timothy Watson was arrested last week for allegedly selling a 3D-printed wall hook that, when disassembled, was actually a “drop-in auto sear,” a small piece of plastic that could turn the popular AR-15 rifle into an illegal machine gun.
The product, still available at the excitingly-named portablewallhanger.com, consists of two 3D printed parts, which you can see in the photo above. When connected, the object looks kind of like a wall hook. When you remove the base, the hook can be placed inside an AR-15, according to federal authorities. The piece then prevents the trigger from locking in preparation for the next round and instead allows the hammer to fly pack and fire again automatically. This essentially turns a semi-automatic weapon into a fully automatic one.
These sorts of workarounds aren’t unusual in gun fandoms. People have been making sears out of strings, wire hangers, and bent metal and 3D printing this piece, while illegal, is trivial. Gun fans, for their part, enjoy thumbing their noses at authorities by snorting that a piece of metal can’t be illegal. In every mention, however, they note that no one should do this at home unless, as one wag wrote, “you want ATF to come to your house and shoot your dog.”
In a criminal complaint, the FBI wrote:
As detailed below, the FBI’s investigation, assisted by the ATF and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, has revealed that Timothy John WATSON, hereinafter “WATSON,” a resident of Ranson, West Virginia, is the registrant of the website named “portablewallhanger.com.” Since at least in or about March 2020, the online retailer, “portablewallhanger.com,” purports to sell 3D printed innocuous hooks, made with two pieces, however, when disassembled, one of the pieces functions as an illegal drop in auto sear which has been confirmed by ATF to convert a semi automatic AR-iS into a fully-automatic machine gun.
According to investigators, Watson sold one of his hooks to a white supremacist named Steven Carrillo who is accused of shooting Santa Cruz police officers and two Oakland courthouse security guards in May and June. Carrillo is allegedly a member of the Boogaloo movement, a white supremacist faction bent on launching a second Civil War.
Beyond the obvious, a problem with 3D printed products like this one is the plastic, in its current form, is too weak and will break with constant use. While this particular product is easily replaceable, other DIY gunsmiths are milling entire lower receivers out of metal, which can be used to build an unregistered rifle.
The resulting products generate a great deal of fear over the potential of 3D printed guns and lots of confusion about their limitations. What Watson was doing could be replicated by anyone with a piece of sheet metal and some tin snips. That he allegedly mass-produced these things and sold them under false pretenses—“Har har, just printing some wall hooks over here, guys!”—is the real issue. The bottom line is this: People can 3D print illegal parts, but the more gun fanatics do this, the worse things become for 3D printing as an industry, not to mention anyone in their crosshairs.