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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.