Since the first 3D-printed gun was fired more than seven years ago, the technique has loomed as a potential tool to arm individuals with lethal weapons they couldn't otherwise legally obtain. Now criminal charges against one West Virginia man suggest that the digital gunsmithing method has been adopted by violent, anti-government domestic extremists: the Boogaloo movement.
A criminal complaint filed last week accuses Timothy Watson, a resident of Ranson, West Virginia, of selling more than 600 3D-printed plastic components of automatic rifles through his website, Portablewallhanger.com. The FBI says Watson attempted to disguise the devices as wall hooks for keys or coats. Remove an extraneous bracket from the "wall hooks," and the remaining small plastic piece functions perfectly as a "drop-in auto sear," a simple but precisely shaped rifle part that can convert a legal AR-15 into an illegal, fully automatic machine gun. Those simple components have been banned in the US—aside from rare, grandfathered-in automatic rifle registration—for more than 20 years.
According to the FBI, Watson's customers included multiple members of the Boogaloo movement, a heavily armed extremist anti-government group whose adherents have allegedly wounded and killed multiple law enforcement officials in incidents across the US. The so-called Boogaloo Boys have aimed to incite violence amidst racial justice protests like those that followed the police killing of George Floyd, reportedly in an effort to start a civil war they call the Boogaloo. The FBI alleges that one of the recipients of Watson's 3D-printed auto sears, a California man named Steven Carrillo, is likely the same man accused of shooting members of the Santa Cruz police department and two Oakland courthouse security guards in May and June of this year, killing one guard and one police officer.
"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," says Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, which first spotted the criminal complaint. "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."
Watson's business allegedly exploited the fact that converting a semi-automatic rifle AR-15 to an automatic one is
a surprisingly simple process with the right component. When an AR-15 is fired, the expanding gases inside its chamber propel the bullet out the barrel and push the bolt back to pick up another round from the gun's magazine. When the bolt compresses a spring in the gun's stock and bounces forward again, it catches a tiny lip on the auto sear and immediately releases the hammer to hit the gun's firing pin again, without any interaction with the trigger.
Adding an auto sear to a semi-automatic AR-15 takes a matter of minutes, says John Sullivan, the director of engineering at Defense Distributed, a DIY gunsmithing and gun access group. 3D-printing the auto sear itself would take around 10 minutes, Sullivan says, given that it's less than a cubic inch of material. "It's a single piece of plastic. It’s not even something you have to print out and assemble," Sullivan says. Because the part doesn't directly receive any of the explosive pressures of firing off rounds, it can be made of plastic and still function reliably, Sullivan says, though might break eventually. "The part atrophies. But that's the whole point of these 3D-printed parts. When the part breaks you take it out and replace it. It takes two seconds."
Of course, for the vast majority of Americans printing a drop-in auto sear is also very illegal, Sullivan points out. In the eyes of US gun control laws, the auto sear component is itself considered an automatic weapon, which are federally banned if they weren't manufactured before 1986. "The part in and of itself is a machine gun," Sullivan says. "Everyone who prints this out is committing a felony."
That hasn't stopped 3D-printable blueprints for auto sears from spreading around the internet; the files themselves are legal, after all, even if the printed part isn't. The decentralized gun access group Deterrence Dispensed six months ago released a printable auto sear file called the Yankee Boogle, an apparent Boogaloo reference. A "trailer" for the gun file's release, which includes images of printed plastic auto sears, remains online and has more than 200,000 views on YouTube. Separately, two Boogaloo members were indicted in September for allegedly attempting to sell auto sears to representatives of the Islamic extremist group Hamas—the buyers were in fact FBI agents—though it's not clear how those auto sears were made.
According to the FBI, Watson had been selling his own 3D-printed auto sears on Portablewallhanger.com since at least March. The FBI found more than 600 PayPal transactions to the business account Watson created for the e-commerce site, and 362 Stamps.com shipments made to 46 states.
Aside from Watson's alleged sale of a 3D-printed auto sear to Carrillo, the FBI says it found other evidence of connections to the Boogaloo movement. One cooperating witness in the case, a Boogaloo member, told the FBI that he had learned about Portablewallhanger.com from advertisements on a Boogaloo Facebook group. And Portablewallhanger.com also advertised in March that it would donate 10 percent of proceeds to the GoFundMe campaign of Justice for Duncan Lemp, an anti-government militia member who was killed by police in March and has since become a martyr figure for the Boogaloo movement.
Court documents also reference conversations in emails and on social media accounts associated with the Portable Wall Hanger business that appear to be coded references to installing and troubleshooting drop-in auto sears. While Watson seems to have been careful in how he described his product, his customers weren't always so subtle. One Instagram user going by the name "Duncan Socrates Lemp" wrote that Watson's hooks "only work in armalite Walls," a clear reference to an AR-15 manufacturer. Another named booglordinc left a comment on an Instagram post for "Red Coat Hanger Packs," an apparent pun that references the term "redcoat," used to describe perceived enemies of the Boogaloo revolution. “I don’t mind seeing redcoats lying on the floor, but prefer to leave em properly hanging #twitchygurglythings," booglordinc wrote:
While 3D-printed guns and other DIY, digitally fabricated firearms and firearm components have been evolving for the better part of a decade, the Portable Wall Hangers case marks the clearest evidence yet that the technology is being embraced by organized violent extremist groups in the US. So-called "ghost guns," AR-15s with homemade lower receivers designed to circumvent gun control laws, have been used in multiple mass shootings in the US since 2013. And in an October a far-right terrorist in Halle, Germany used a homemade submachine gun to kill two people after a failed attempt at a synagogue mass shooting.
But Watson's alleged sales of 3D-printed gun parts, including to Boogaloo members, show not only that the domestic extremist group has been adopting its own DIY gunsmithing tricks, but also the scale of the group and its adaptability in its attempts to evade law enforcement, says George Washington University's Jon Lewis.
"Extremist actors will always try to adapt and make use of the newest technology to continue to engage in overt acts in furtherance of domestic terrorism," says Lewis. "What this really shows is the commercialization and the reach of this broader Boogaloo movement."