Chicago: Handgun Modified Into An Illegal High-Capacity Machine Gun
Handguns converted into high-capacity machine guns deadly fuel violence in Chicago.
Kimberly Saunders was eating a gyro at a restaurant near downtown Chicago’s upscale Magnificent Mile commercial district around 10:30 p.m. in May she heard rapid-fire gunshots.
“I swear I heard 20 shots,” she said. “As a kid, I used to watch these war movies. Unless it’s one of those machine guns.”
The shots were fired from a nearby McDonald’s. So Saunders went down the street to investigate. What she discovered astounded her: Her 17-year-old son, Cornelius, was found in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. As he walked home from the beach, he was shot multiple times in the arm, shoulder, and back.
“Oh, my God,” Saunders exclaimed, “I just walked up there on my son bleeding out.” “So I took off my shirt and started putting it over his wounds.”
Cornelius Saunders escaped. According to police and prosecutors, Jaylen Sanders, 22, shot him and eight others. Two of the victims were killed. According to police, the shooting was related to a fight that occurred 20 minutes earlier.
Handgun Modified Into An Illegal High-Capacity Machine Gun
The weapon was a Glock 19 handgun modified into an illegal high-capacity machine gun using an auto sear, a small square device the size of a thumbnail. On the street, it’s referred to as a “switch.” It converts the gun was converted from a semi-automatic to an automatic weapon.
The Glock came with an extended magazine, which increased the weapon’s lethality. According to court documents, the magazine held 34 rounds. Sanders told authorities that he purchased the gun and switch in Indiana for less than $25.
Since auto seals and extended magazines are prohibited by federal law, the number of guns with extended magazines in Chicago and Cook County has increased. Illegal attachments seized by the city’s police department have increased in recent years, according to a Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ, and NPR investigation.
The investigation discovered:
According to records, the number of extended magazines (those with more than ten rounds) recovered by Chicago police more than doubled between 2018 and last year, rising from 459 to 924.
Since 2018, In at least 13 mass shootings in Chicago, police have recovered extended magazines. Within the last two years, eleven of the thirteen occurred.
The number of handguns with auto sears seized by Chicago police increased from 0 in 2018 to 355 in 2018. It prompts federal authorities to declare that Chicago has one of the worst switch problems.
Auto sears and extended magazines are being prosecuted in Cook County, also known as machine-gun prosecutions. It has increased from six in 2018 to 201 last year.
Guns and their accessories are a hotly debated topic among lawmakers across the country. Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court upheld a ban on bump stocks, which speed up the firing of semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. In Congress, lawmakers have been targeting so-called ghost guns manufactured privately and cannot be tracked.
Similarly, switch proliferation is a national issue.
Whitney Cruse, a special agent, and the author, claims ATF Washington Field Division spokesperson. The number of switches recovered by the ATF increased from 100 in 2017 to around 1,500 last year.
“They’re going up because they’re more accessible,” Cruse explained. “People are now making them with 3D printers.”
Almost every handgun sold in licensed gun stores is semi-automatic, which means the shooter must squeeze the trigger each time a shot is fired when a semi-automatic firearm is switched to an automatic. The bullets keep firing as long as the trigger is pressed and held down.
According to James Barlow, an ATF firearms enforcement officer, shooters with an extended magazine can fire 20 rounds from a modified Glock in less than a second
Mass shootings have become more common in Chicago, which some attribute to the increased use of homemade machine guns.
“Of course, Chicago has a lot of gang violence,” said Philip Cook, a Duke University economist who has spent more than 40 years researching gun violence prevention.
The auto sears work on various handguns, but Cook claims that illegal machine guns appeal to gang members because they are more effective at their mission — to shoot and kill.
“It’s advantageous to be able to deliver a large number of rounds quickly in a war,” he explained.
Gang members also want makeshift weapons because, unlike rifles, they can be easily concealed in a waistband or coat.
Glocks with auto sears are also a famous street status symbol. PGF Nuk, a Chicago rapper, titled his latest album Switch Music.
Made in China, with online installation instructions
According to federal officials, Many of the switches seized in Chicago with handguns were made in China. They’re also sold online as “airsoft” gun attachments that fire plastic projectiles. Those are the switches. It is made of metal. The ones made with 3D printers, commonly found in homes, are made of Plastic, less durable. The steps for attaching the switches to a handgun can be found online.
In some cases, police discovered that gang members had modified their handguns. Other times, they purchase pre-assembled firearms with switches.
Those are also readily available if the gun does not come with an extended magazine. Anyone can purchase one outside Cook County at gun shops and sporting goods stores without a special permit. They are not prohibited in neighboring Indiana or Wisconsin, as well as in many Illinois municipalities.
Like in Cook County, high-capacity magazines are prohibited in Washington, D.C., and 12 states, including Maryland, Colorado, California, Massachusetts, and New York. In some of those states, having a magazine with more than ten rounds is illegal; in others, it is not., it’s unlawful to have more than 15.
However, because there are no federal restrictions, most states have no restrictions on magazine capacity.
Switches, on the other hand, are prohibited by federal law.
Homicide According to a Maryland gun store dealer. Detective Tony Patterson, a 42-year veteran of Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department. He now works at the police academy as a firearms instructor. Even though he was a cop in a magazine with more than ten rounds in his weapon, he refused to sell him. He crossed the border into Virginia. Where they are legal and bought two 15-round magazines, he said.
Patterson stated, “That’s how easy it is in some places.”
In 2018, Chicago police officers began to see switch-equipped handguns on the streets. Around the same time, there was an increase in mass shootings. Many of them required the use of large-capacity magazines.
One of the city’s worst shootings occurred in November of that year. It took place in the parking lot of a South Side hospital.
According to Chicago police records, Tamara O’Neal, a physician at Mercy Hospital, got into a fight after she called off their engagement with her ex-fiancé, Juan Lopez demanded. She returns the ring before pulling a gun from his shirt and shooting her multiple times.
Lopez exchanged gunfire with police as he entered the hospital’s emergency room. A 25-year-old pharmacy technician and a 28-year-old police officer emerged from an elevator and stood both shots with less than two years in the force. They both died. Lopez was then shot in the chest by police before fatally shooting himself in the head.
According to police records, he fired at least 30 rounds. From his gun. Lopez had licenses to own and carry a firearm and was discovered, According to records, three high-capacity magazines were capable of holding 17 cartridges each.
Police recovered an increasing number of guns with auto sears. From extended magazines since then. Simultaneously, machine-gun prosecutions and mass shootings have increased.
In one of these mass shootings, two people were killed. In the same shooting, seven others were injured in Chicago’s Washington Park in September. Police have recovered dozens of shell casings and believe an automatic weapon was used.
Chicago police said they’d increased their efforts to combat the popularity of homemade machine guns. Cases involving switches result in harsh prison sentences for some convicted dealers in federal court.
Guns Sold to Undercover Officer
Leonard Johnson, paralyzed in a 2008 shooting, was sentenced to ten years in prison last August. He was convicted of supplying four Glock switches to someone who sold them to an undercover officer and an informant.
Federal agents searched Johnson’s home in a Chicago suburb in December 2020 and discovered 117 switches and three handguns converted into machine guns. A second handgun, a silencer, three additional magazines, and ammunition were also seized. Prosecutors claim that while he is out on bail, he continues to traffic firearms and Glock switches.
Johnson, 34, admitted to illegally dealing in firearms and unlawfully possessing a machine gun.
Federal prosecutors cited “the difficulty of controlling the multiple rounds being expelled in short bursts by a handgun” in their June 28 court filing asking for a 12-year sentence for Johnson.
“Unfortunately, [Johnson] is both a victim of gun violence and a perpetrator of gun violence by selling machine guns,” prosecutors said.
On August 25, Javaughn Hixson, 23, of Rockford, was sentenced to prison for more than five years. For possessing Glock switches, four of which he sold to an informant. The federal judge, in that case, delivered a scathing assessment of the devices’ impact.
U.S. District Judge Iain Johnston stated in his written sentencing order, “Glock switches’ sole and exclusive purpose, which are easily produced. Its purpose is to turn a dangerous firearm into an extremely dangerous machine gun.”
“The danger is manifested not only by the firearm’s inability to be fired with any degree of control due in part to the speed with which the magazine can be emptied of bullets.
The machine gun is being brought back by technology.
A special federal license is required in the United States to own a machine gun.
The National Firearms Act, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, established this requirement. The goal back then was to take Tommy guns away from criminals involved in mass shootings, such as Chicago’s infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929. Al Capone’s rivals were assassinated in the now-affluent, white-collar Lincoln Park neighborhood on Chicago’s near North Side.
Individual switches, even those not attached to a gun, are considered machine guns under that act. That law is punishable by up to ten years in prison.
The widely available technology that allows traffickers to manufacture switches using 3D printers has made it even more difficult. More problematic for federal authorities to address the growing nationwide switch problem.
“We’re in a transition period,” said Barlow, who is in charge of an ATF unit responsible for training new firearms enforcement officers. “It used to be that way.” we saw a lot of imported-style switches [from China], but 3D printing is becoming more common. We’re probably close to a 50-50 split between the two.”
Aside from intercepting 3D-printed switches in the mail or pulling them off the street, officials, according to Barlow, have few options for dealing with the homemade devices.
According to Barlow, new types of switches are also entering the underground market. The “invisi-switch” resembles the slide that protects the barrel of a legal, semi-automatic Glock. On the other hand, traditional switches are more visible: the thimble-sized devices protrude from the back of a handgun.
When switches became popular in Chicago in 2019, ATF began collaborating on two global task forces with Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Customs, and Border Protection, and the US Postal Inspection Service focused on switches. One of their investigations, Operation Silent Night, also targets extended magazines and gun silencers or suppressors.
According to Barlow, Chicago has one of the worst switch problems.
According to Barlow, Chinese switches are sometimes sold online as kitchen utensils, carburetor parts, or pellet gun components. Once in the United States, they are sold within criminal networks like the illegal drug trade.
The acting special agent-in-charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ Chicago office, Sean Fitzgerald. His organization has identified “multiple regions” in China where switches are produced.
He claims that manufacturers dissolve quickly after being investigated in many cases, only to be replaced by others.
Fitzgerald stated that his agency has been collaborating with Chinese anti-smuggling officials to target those operations. Advance some of the approximately 650 investigations into switches, extended magazines, and silencers that Homeland Security has launched.
“China will share that information and collaborate with us. To either shut down the manufacturers or conduct investigations provide us with the evidence so we can prosecute,” Fitzgerald said.
He stated that HSI’s role is tracking down switches, extended magazines, and silencer shipments. He discovered this during Chicago shooting investigations. The federal agencies collaborate closely with the Chicago Police Department.
Kristen de Tineo, the ATF’s special agent in charge of the Chicago office, believes there is a link between the increase in urban mass shootings and the proliferation of switches and extended magazines.
“It stands to reason, the more ammunition that can be fired, the better faster, the more victims are at risk,” de Tineo explained.
According to Brendan Deenihan, chief of detectives for the Chicago Police Department, there was a “significant increase” in the number of shell casings discovered at shooting scenes in Chicago. As switch-equipped guns and extended magazines have become more popular.
“If you fire 25 rounds. There is a group of people nearby, and there are more people. Will be hit, [there will be] more casings to recover, and just more damage in general,” Deenihan explained.
Officer Danny Golden of the Chicago Police Department was shot earlier this year. At the same time, he was attempting to break up a fight in a neighborhood bar on the city’s far Southwest Side. During the shoot, Golden became paralyzed.
According to court records, nineteen shell casings from a.40-caliber weapon were discovered at the scene. According to police, the suspect was later found with an automatic.40-caliber Ruger pistol. With a 30-round extended magazine.
“I believe it is difficult for the detective division to investigate these crimes,” Deenihan stated.
“I think it’s hazardous for the officers and citizens out there who aren’t involved in these ongoing shooting problems.”
National Strategy to Prevent or Intercept
Democrats introduced legislation in the United States Senate in July. To create “a coordinated national strategy to prevent or intercept. The importation and trafficking of automatic gun device conversion.”
“Gun violence is an epidemic, and legislators must do everything possible to combat this heinous threat. Stopping the illegal importation of gun modification devices into our country is one of them.” Senator Gary Peters, D-Mich., is the bill’s primary sponsor.
Kristen Rand, a spokeswoman for the Violence Policy Center. A nonprofit that advocates for gun control based in Washington, D.C. She said it’s too late for lawmakers to prevent switches from entering the country.
“The focus on why so many firearms convert so easily to full auto,” she says. “Manufacturers must bear some responsibility for designing guns that are less susceptible to conversion.”
According to Rand, the ATF should consider using its power to reclassify particular firearms. It is easily converted into fully automatic weapons, as they did. with the KG-9 and MAC-10 in the 1980s. She claims that many firearms, other than Glocks, are “easily convertible” into machine guns by reconfiguring them or adding parts.
According to records, 643 of the 706 modified weapons were recovered by Chicago police. Glock handguns were sold between 2018 and last month. A Glock spokesperson does not respond to an interview request or written questions.
Saunders, whose son, Cornelius, is recovering from the shooting. He is returned to his special needs school and is surprised to learn that he was shot with a handgun illegally converted to a machine gun.
“Unfortunately, civilians can obtain that type of artillery,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. And it’s terrifying.”
NPR’s Station Investigations Team, member station WBEZ, and the Chicago Sun-Times all support local investigative journalism. They have collaborated on this story. For the Chicago Sun-Times, Frank Main and Tom Schuba cover the crime. WBEZ in Chicago’s data editor is Matt Kiefer.
Chip Mitchell, a WBEZ criminal justice reporter, Charmaine Runes, a WBEZ data/visuals reporter, and Robert Benincasa, an NPR senior producer for investigations, all contributed to this story.