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AutoKeyCard Explained: Why Did the ATF Shut It Down?

We explain what an AutoKeyCard is, why the ATF takes issue with it, and what legal defenses its creator might mount against the Feds.

Florida resident Kristopher Ervin was arrested in early March 2021 as part of a joint operation by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. (Yeah, that’s a thing.)

The ATF claimed Ervin sold auto sears — components used to convert semi-automatic AR-15s into rifles that are fully automatic and fully fun…but also illegal without the proper paperwork.

AutoKeyCard Armslist
Potential AR-15 auto-sears??? (Photo: Armslist)

So, on today’s agenda, we’re going to take a look at the AutoKeyCard debacle. We’ll answer what an AutoKeyCard is, find out why the ATF is so upset over it, and break down similar cases that might help Ervin on his upcoming legal battle.

Disclaimer:  While the information provided here is legal in nature, it is not to be construed as legal advice, and is for educational and entertainment purposes only. 

Table of Contents


What is an AutoKeyCard?

In short, these were business-card-sized metal bottle openers sold through Ervin’s websites AutoKeyCard.com and AutoKeyCards.com.

(Well, they were sold there before the Feds shut it all down.)


The cards came laser engraved showing the parts of an AR-15 automatic connector, commonly known as a “lightning link.”

The lightning link, when assembled from its separate components and installed in an AR-15, could convert it to full-auto without any additional modifications to the firearm.

AR-15 Lightning Link
AR-15 Lightning Link

Because of this, the ATF decided the cards were close enough to auto sears to fall under the machine gun restrictions under the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act amendment of the National Firearms Act.

Therefore, ATF and U.S. Postal Inspection Service agents purchased a few of these bottle openers as part of a sting operation.

USPS Inspection Service
USPS Inspection Service…who knew that was a thing.

Agents later determined Ervin was illegally selling auto sears, since customers who purchase the keycards would be able to take the product and convert semi-auto AR-15s into full automatic rifles.

Investigators with both agencies arrested Ervin, and seized his websites. 

But this begs the question, what does this mean in the grand scheme of things for the gun industry and owners?

What’s the Big Deal?

Aside from the fact the ATF hates anything fun (i.e. alcohol, tobacco, and firearms), the agency took issue with the AutoKeyCard because the product could potentially convert a semi-auto AR-15 into a full-auto.

ATF Meme Guy
ATF be like…

As part of its findings, the ATF reported that “an ATF expert analyzed one of the devices that had been purchased undercover and was able to convert an AR-15 style firearm into a machinegun by cutting out the etching for an auto sear using a commonly available tool and then inserting the auto sear into the firearm.”

Based on this determination, the AutoKeyCard fell under the NFA as a “machine gun.”

Full Auto Rifle
ATF, why won’t you let us have fun?

The NFA also bans civilian transfer or ownership of machine guns except for those already legally owned at the time the law went into effect on May 19, 1986.

According to the ATF, this meant Ervin was effectively selling machine guns in violation of the law.  

For those of you who have looked into buying a machine gun, or even just a suppressor, you will know the lengths that you need to go through, in terms of time, money, and paperwork, before the ATF will allow you to own one.

Rifles Only HAD Suppressor Cover
Even suppressors are subject to the ATF’s rules.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then, that the ATF would jump all over someone for selling an item that could potentially be used as an auto sear.

What’s a Guy to Do: Possible Defenses

Fortunately, in the United States, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. So Ervin has a shot to make his case.

The current law — in this case the Hughes Amendment of the FOPA — bans civilian transfer or ownership of machine guns, except for those already legally owned at the time the law went into effect.

What I Carried M16A4 Clone (1)
M16A4 Clone…because the real thing is tough to get.

In addition, the broader NFA restricts the manufacturing of certain types of firearms, including machine guns.

To overcome the ATF’s main case against him, Ervin will need to prove he did not violate the law under either of those parts of the NFA.

However, it doesn’t really help that his product was called the “AutoKeyCard.”

Probably not a good idea to have anything “auto” in the name of something that is supposed to NOT be an auto sear.

That said, there have been similar situations recently that Ervin and his attorney could look to for inspiration in his defense.

Timothy John Watson v. United States of America: Portable Wall Hangers

In November 2020, the FBI arrested Timothy Watson of West Virginia for selling “portable wall hangers” on his site portablewallhanger.com.

Watson for, among other things, illegally manufacturing machine guns and selling them.

But Watson’s creations were 3D printed hangers. These featured a hook portion that could detach. This portion just so happened to be in the shape of a drop-in auto sear capable of converting a semi-auto AR-15 to full-auto. 

Portable Wall Hanger
“Portable Wall Hanger” that…screws into the wall. (Photo: Guns America)

Imagine that!

The argument in the portable wall hanger situation, of course, would be that the product is a wall hanger. And it’s unfortunate that people found another use for it as an auto sear.

For the wall hangers’ case, there were plenty of discussions on forums and social media about ways to use the wall hangers. Such as how to use them on “Armalite walls.” 

Not to mention, Watson actually did manufacture these items ready to slip into AR-15s for conversion to full-auto.

So, this is probably a pretty weak defense for Ervin to adopt for his own case.


Defense Distributed v. U.S. Department of State: 3D Printed Files

On the other hand, the Defense Distributed case may provide a little more hope for Ervin. In this battle, Defense Distributed provided files for 3D-printable firearms, including the Liberator pistol.

While Defense Distributed was a licensed firearms manufacturer, they didn’t sell 3D printed products. They just offered up their 3D print files freely – available for anyone to do with as they pleased.

Liberator Pistol Defense Distributed
Liberator Pistol made from 3D printed parts (Photo: De Zeen)

The argument for Defense Distributed is that they simply exercised their First Amendment right of free speech in sharing the 3D printing files.

This would likely be a pretty reasonable argument for Ervin and his attorney to make. Ervin sold his AutoKeyCards with the designs of the lightning link components engraved into the metal, but did not actually make the components himself.

It would be similar to providing a drawing of the lightning link on a piece of paper, that someone could choose to use as a stencil or just as a cool drawing.

Gun Drawing
At the heart of this defense, does drawing or outline leave someone accountable for what another does with that info?

But using this as an example might also depend on how much extra work is required to go from the AutoKeyCard to an actual lightning link.

That would be the difference in deciding if Ervin was actually making the lightning links or just engraving a design on a piece of metal.

Of course, it’s important to note that most people who go up against the government either enter a plea deal or manage to win a settlement with the government.

People rarely win a case outright against the government.

What About Gun Owners?

With these types of law enforcement actions by alphabet agencies taking place, could there be crackdowns on Second Amendment rights?

Probably not.

There likely won’t be any large-scale gun confiscations or repealing of the Second Amendment any time soon.

It’s also worth mentioning, Defense Distributed has had some success in their case so far.

But others making “portable wall hangers” or laser engraved wall decorations may want to think twice about doing so.

Ron Swanson Rethink

Depending on how these existing cases ultimately turn out, the ATF and other agencies may decide to get even more aggressive with interpretation and enforcement of the law. This could theoretically lead to the shutdown of similar businesses.

In short, companies have to be willing to duke it out in court with the federal government if they want to make similar items. So, as a result, there could be fewer people willing to take a risk in the firearms industry.

As for AutoKeyCard, we’ll have to wait and see. As always, though, we’ll keep you updated on the situation as it unfolds.


AutoKeyCard has currently ceased operations as its owner tangles with the ATF over the design. And the ultimate decision will unfold as the case makes its way through the court system.


It will be interesting to see what defense Ervin mounts and how the government responds.

Ultimately, the firearms industry needs the help of law-abiding citizens and freedom-loving Americans to make sure our rights aren’t trampled on and our voices heard. So be sure to contact your local representatives and let your voice be heard.

What do you think of this case? Does Ervin have a chance? Let us know in the comments below. To catch up on other legal things you should know, check out our guide to the Hughes Amendment and the NFA.

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47 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Danny Phillips

    We need to get rid of the ATF and the FBI. Let's start shrinking our government.

    October 10, 2022 11:19 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Albert Chambers

    Huge development.
    Supposedly the original auto key card guy Kristopher Ervin who pled guilty and had been sentenced for bs machine gun charges is having his case dismissed after he appealed to the district court.
    You have better odds of appealing something up to the Supreme Court and winning the lottery while being struck by lightning than having your case dismissed after you have been found guilty and sentenced.
    Kristopher Ervin's defense argued how can you punish someone for not paying a tax when you are not allowed to pay the tax in the first place? It was at that moment the AFT realized they had f'ed up and filed to dismiss the case that they had already won.
    So NFA, GCA, Hughs ammendment will only last as long gone as they can keep cases like this out of the higher courts.
    These are dead laws walking.

    September 7, 2022 7:59 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    John Q Public

    So, if I happen to create a "bottle opener" and that "bottle opener" just happens to, when dropped into the receiver of a firearm, act as a sear and convert said firearm to auto fire, I can be arrested because even though they can't prove that I intended for this to happen, nor did I tell people to do it and that it could be done, and someone figures out how to do this? What if someone takes my "bottle opener" and figures out that if they cuts 1mm off of it and then it could do this?

    September 4, 2022 8:52 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    The crux is simply a free people versus a tyrannical government.

    Full-auto is not very effective for light arms but that restriction prevents crew serve weapons as well which further restricts the people's ability to organize into comparable combat units.

    Tyrants hate free people making decisions because those decisions threaten their power.

    There is no reasonable or rationale reason to violate our Rights.

    Now let's steamroll these tyrants in Courts throughout the Union and have fun wasting lots of money at the range.

    August 13, 2022 8:03 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    David L Laidig

    I personally never got the deal of FA. 3 round burst is nice but FA is kinda all over the place. I tried a FA M14 in Korea at the range. Holy cow! Gotta get used to that. Having said that the NFA needs to be overturned. Then the ATF can change their name to Alcohol & Tobacco. Maybe the SCOTUS can get it done.

    July 23, 2022 6:36 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Tom Vick

    The ultimate goal for the Government is to disarm the population. In the mean time harrassing citizens and threatening them with prison and fines over firearms or accessories keeps them busy as they continue to plot rules of "infringement." Our founding fathers knew the Government could become corrupt, overbearing even outright tyrannical. They made provision for that, and here we are.

    July 20, 2022 6:13 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Jeremy Mills

    If the government and the law enforcement agencies are allowed to have automatic weapons then so should the citizens of the United States.

    July 16, 2022 1:50 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Jay Dee

    If Kristopher Ervin can muster a credible defense, I expect that the BATFE will get their gluteus maximus handed to them.

    The problem for the BATFE is that the unmodified AutoKeyCard is only functional as a bottle opener.

    The BATFE can demonstrate that they can cut, grind and assemble a lightning link from the AutoKeyCard and use it to convert an AR-15 to fire full auto. Kristopher Ervin's defense team can justifiably accuse the BATFE of manufacturing evidence. Courts have allowed the BATFE to manufacture evidence in the past. It needs to stop.

    His defense can also note that there is nothing distinctive about the material of the AutoKeyCard and that one can make a Lightning Link from a wire coat hanger. Is the BATFE going to go door to door looking for wire coat hangers?

    July 9, 2022 3:30 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Daniel C Kenoyer

    The real question, in light of *Bruen* is"Does the government have a chance?"
    I think we may have a front row seat to the demolition of the NFA.

    July 9, 2022 9:53 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Ed Armstrong

    The ATF is a terrorist organization.

    July 9, 2022 5:42 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Bob Adams

    Has the ATF Actually tried these things or just saying it's an auto sear?

    July 7, 2022 7:18 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Would an 80% swift link keychain be illegal? You could not just drop it in and use it. Does anyone know?

    June 20, 2022 7:49 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    he has a goo0d case, this is just a fking picture!!

    February 8, 2022 11:47 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    I'm gonna make something just like this but the opposite. Call it a "wink wink NOT AN AUTO SEAR!" and sell it for $700 but it's a foam lightning link that looks legit but would completely crumble if you even touched it. Make it out is something that will dissolve if the ATF tried to cover it in epoxy or something to make it work. Then I make millions and hopefully don't go to jail or get my house shot up for selling "not a lightning links". It would be a true novelty. Maybe I can sponsor C&Arsenal

    February 4, 2022 11:37 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    All American

    They should arrest me for having hands that can potentially make a full auto sear.

    January 29, 2022 9:49 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Thanks for the accurate information. What is on YouTube is muddy at best. Here is the thing. Is the AFT corrupt? Absolutely. Are all gun laws unconstitutional absolutely. But something stinks here. The guy who made the auto key card cut outs is either a complete idiot or this was a setup with the business owner conspiracy with the ATF. HE freaking called it auto sear!

    January 27, 2022 6:20 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    “ But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” - The Declaration of Independence

    January 8, 2022 10:54 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Man, joykillers or not, the law is the law and this guy's probably hosed. Ed's got the wrong perspective here. An administrative agency's job is to implement and enforce the laws passed by Congress and signed by the executive and HOW an agency doe that has it's own set of procedures and rules authorized by congress. Proving this guys intent to sell either bottleopeners or autosears is what this case hinges on. If he's like everyone else he's got a computer full of info that will probably give the prosecution the evidence it needs.

    December 22, 2021 4:29 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Shall not be infringed- that's the law

      January 28, 2022 9:29 am
      • Commenter Avatar
        Michael H

        Are you an Originalist? If so, that means muskets and swords. Is "arms" unqualified explosives and attack helicopters? The Constitution is rarely absolute.

        January 29, 2022 11:02 am
        • Commenter Avatar

          Arms means ANY weapon, not specific to the physical object. Goes back to Roman law. I can be armed with a rifle, slingshot, lethal injection, or sword.

          January 29, 2022 4:01 pm
          • Commenter Avatar

            Pretty sure THAT'S not what the framers intended, but if that's really what you believe I'm pretty sure I ain't changing your mind. You might consider auditing a con law class though, so you aren't agrieved by everything the government does....you know, for your own peace of mind.

            January 30, 2022 1:06 am
          • Commenter Avatar

            Civilians were armed with canons and warships as well as puckle guns which are a early version of gatling gun. The argument that muskets were what the framers wanted is based on ignorance. The people had access to the same weapons as the government all the way up to the NFA.

            February 3, 2022 4:47 pm
          • Commenter Avatar

            im pretty sure they meant ARMS of any kind needed to suppress a tyrannical government, muskets were the weapons of war at the time, and so the AR-15 AK-47 etc are the weapons of our time. and shall not be infringed is exactly what it means!!!

            February 8, 2022 11:52 am
          • Commenter Avatar
            David L Laidig

            hmmmmm So the 1st was written when a feather quill was used to express one's opinion. But the feather quill has advanced with technology to digital correspondence via satellite and is still protected free speech. That kinda makes your "not what the framers intended" moot don't ya think?

            July 23, 2022 6:44 pm
        • Commenter Avatar

          -You're mistaken, obfuscating, or disingenuous.

          January 30, 2022 8:54 pm
        • Commenter Avatar

          Or you can look at it as having the same tools as the military. The same military controlled by the government, from which you may need to defend your rights from. Our country started by people having to fight its own government and military. I believe this interpretation is fair considering the times when it was written.

          February 2, 2022 10:49 am
      • Commenter Avatar

        A well regulated militia, that’s also part of the amendment. Unfortunately you cant cherry pick the parts you want.

        January 31, 2022 10:39 am
        • Commenter Avatar

          You can't interpret things in the way you want instead of the way they are written. "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The militia is the people, and regulated doesn't mean what you think it does. At the time regulated was used to mean well equipped as in "Army Regulars" It did not mean to be regulated by an authority.

          February 3, 2022 4:50 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Ed Armstrong

    Once upon a time in America only Congress was allowed to pass laws. The ATF is now allowed to decide what is and is not illegal. If they get a mind to do so they can even arbitrarily change something from legal to illegal. That's a lot like writing laws if you ask me.

    December 17, 2021 5:32 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Michael H

      Congress already passed laws outlawing automatic weapons. Seems like this is the ATF enforcing that law.

      January 29, 2022 11:04 am
      • Commenter Avatar
        Ed Armstrong

        Not in my opinion. The machine gun that the atf is going after does not exist. The atf is defining what a machine gun is and what it is not. That is not the job of the atf. They should stick to collecting tax revenue from alcohol, tobacco, and firearms sales. That is what the atf was created to do, nothing else.

        January 31, 2022 7:40 am
      • Commenter Avatar

        a picture is not an automatic weapon moron! next they will come for my finger because i call pull the trigger real fast!! ATF can not make laws, they are the brown shirts of the 1940s Thugs!

        February 8, 2022 11:57 am
      • Commenter Avatar
        David L Laidig

        Nope didn't outlaw them. Just made it extremely difficult to own them. However if you are a government employee, any type of LEO, or 10 dollar an hour armored truck driver you can own all the FA MP5s you want. Total baloney.

        July 23, 2022 6:53 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      David L Laidig

      Previous SCOTUS have also written "Law" IMHO, all of their "laws" should be struck down. They can start with Miranda, the exclusionary rule, same sex marriage, ad nausium. Justice Earl Warren ruined our country.

      July 23, 2022 6:49 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    I just dont feel the guy didn't anything wrong, even if he called it for what it was, it isn't finished or in the gun

    December 8, 2021 5:42 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    I.B. White

    He didn't do anything wrong, he had a drawing on a piece of metal for a conversation piece. It isn't a gun part UNTIL YOU PUT IT IN THE GUN! It isn't even a finished part! If you could call it that! My dog is screwed!

    December 8, 2021 5:40 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    "People rarely win a case outright against the government."

    Especially with case law and precedent against them. They're both going to take deals because the alternative is time and the government's goal is deterrence.

    The law maybe dumb, or wrong, or obsolete, but it's not ambiguous here. This guy is borked.

    August 7, 2021 7:18 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    He is screwed me thinks. Biden ATF example exhibit #1.

    April 15, 2021 9:52 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Oops, I just printed this article and now someone is trying to kick in my door!

    April 15, 2021 7:15 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Alien Ta

    The gun industry should fund fights like this against overreach by alphabet agencies.

    April 15, 2021 7:47 am
    • Commenter Avatar

      This!!! Right now we're seeing corporations banding together and trying to put political pressure on an entire US state because they disagree with law that the Georgia legislature passed 100% legally. The firearms industry should band together and help fund some of these cases, since any infringement of the 2A directly effects their bottom line AND their very existence, when the left's end game is taken into account.

      April 15, 2021 8:51 pm
    • Commenter Avatar


      April 17, 2021 10:18 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Daniel Sutherland

    If I was a lawyer I'd ABSOLUTELY use the "This is not a pipe and this is not an auto sear" defense.

    April 14, 2021 8:10 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Zachary Nelson

    That's an m16a2 clone

    April 14, 2021 7:32 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Detachable carry handle.

      April 15, 2021 5:41 pm
      • Commenter Avatar

        Would an 80% machined swift link be illegal?

        June 20, 2022 7:54 am
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