In Chicago, handguns turned into high-capacity machine guns fuel deadly violence
Kimberly Saunders was grabbing a gyro at a restaurant just blocks from the upscale Magnificent Mile commercial district near downtown Chicago in May when she heard rapid-fire gunshots around 10:30 p.m.
"I feel like I heard 20 shots," she recalled. "I used to watch these war movies as a kid, so it sounded like one of those machine guns."
The shots came from outside a nearby McDonald's restaurant, prompting Saunders to go down the street to find out what happened. What she discovered horrified her: Sprawled on the sidewalk in a pool of blood was her 17-year-old son, Parnelius. He had been shot multiple times in his arm, shoulder and back as he walked home from the beach.
"Oh, my God, I just walked up there on my son bleeding out," Saunders said. "So I took my shirt off, and I begin to put my shirt over his wounds."
Parnelius Saunders survived. Police and prosecutors said Jaylun Sanders, 22, shot him and eight others. Two of the victims died. The shooting was related to a fight 20 minutes earlier, police said.
The firearm used was a Glock 19 handgun that had been converted to an illegal high-capacity machine gun with a device known as an auto sear, a square device about the size of a thumbnail. It's known on the street as a "switch" that turns the gun from a semi-automatic to an automatic weapon.
The Glock came with an extended magazine, making the weapon even deadlier. The magazine held 34 rounds, according to court records. Sanders told authorities he bought the gun in Indiana and the switch for less than $25.
Despite a longstanding federal ban on auto sears, and a ban on extended magazines in Chicago and surrounding Cook County, the number of guns with the illegal attachments being seized by the city's police department has surged in the last several years, an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ and NPR has found.
The investigation found that:
The issue of guns and their accessories is being hotly debated by lawmakers across the country. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on bump stocks, which make a semi-automatic rifle such as an AR-15 fire faster. And in Congress, legislators have been going after so-called ghost guns, which are made privately and can't be traced.
Similarly, the proliferation of switches is a nationwide issue. The number of switches recovered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives rose from 100 in 2017 to about 1,500 last year, according to Whitney Cruse, a special agent and spokesperson for the ATF's Washington Field Division.
"They are going up because they're more accessible," said Cruse. "People are making them now from 3D printers."
Virtually every handgun available to the public at licensed gun stores is semi-automatic, meaning the shooter needs to squeeze the trigger every time a shot is fired. When a semi-automatic handgun is turned into an automatic with a switch, the bullets will continue to fire as long as the trigger is squeezed and held. With an extended magazine, shooters can unload 20 rounds from a modified Glock in about a second, according to James Barlow, a firearms enforcement officer with the ATF.
Mass shootings have grown more commonplace in Chicago, and some blame it on the uptick of the makeshift machine guns.
"I think Chicago has, of course, a lot of gang violence, sadly, so the gangs are well-informed about options when it comes to firepower," said Philip Cook, a Duke University economist who has studied gun violence prevention for more than 40 years.
The auto sears work on myriad handguns, but Cook said the illegal machine guns are especially attractive to gang members because they're more effective in accomplishing their mission — to shoot and kill.
"There's an advantage if you're at war to be able to deliver a lot of rounds quickly," he said.
Gang members also clamor for the makeshift devices because they're easily concealable in a waistband or coat, unlike a rifle.
The Glocks with auto sears have also become a status symbol on the streets. Chicago rapper PGF Nuk titled his latest album Switch Music.
Made in China — with instructions available online
Many of the switches seized with handguns in Chicago were made in China, according to federal officials. They're marketed online for other purposes, such as attachments for replica "airsoft" guns that fire plastic projectiles. Those switches are metal. The ones made with 3D printers, often in homes, are less durable plastic. The instructions for attaching the switches to a handgun are easily available online.
In some cases, police have found that gang members modified handguns themselves. Other times, they buy handguns preassembled with switches.
If an extended magazine doesn't come with the gun, those, too, are readily available. Anyone can buy one at gun shops and sporting goods stores outside of Cook County without needing a special permit. They're not outlawed in neighboring Indiana or Wisconsin, or many Illinois municipalities.
Like in Cook County, high-capacity magazines are banned in the nation's capital and 12 states including Maryland, Colorado, California, Massachusetts and New York. In some of those states, it's illegal to have a magazine that can hold more than 10 rounds; in others, more than 15.
But with no federal restrictions in place, most states have no limits on magazine capacity.
Switches, on the other hand, are illegal under federal law.
Homicide Detective Tony Patterson, a 42-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., who now works as a firearms instructor at the police academy, said a Maryland gun store dealer turned him down — even though he's a cop — when he showed up to buy a magazine with more than 10 rounds for his personal weapon. He went across the state line to Virginia, which does not prohibit them, and purchased two 15-round mags, he said.
"That's how easy it is in some places," Patterson said.
In Chicago, police officers began seeing switch-equipped handguns hit the streets in 2018. Around that time, they were also seeing an uptick in mass shootings, many occurring with the use of high-capacity magazines.
In November of that year, one of the city's worst shootings began in the parking lot of a hospital on the South Side.
Tamara O'Neal, a physician at Mercy Hospital, got into a dispute with her ex-fiancé, Juan Lopez, after she called off their engagement, according to Chicago police records. Lopez ordered her to return the ring before pulling a gun from under his shirt and shooting her numerous times.
As Lopez entered the hospital's emergency room, he exchanged gunfire with police, shooting a 25-year-old pharmacy technician who emerged from an elevator and a 28-year-old police officer who had been on the force for less than two years. Both died. Police then shot Lopez in the chest before he fatally shot himself in the head.
He fired at least 30 rounds from his gun, according to police records. Lopez had licenses to own and carry a firearm and was found with three high-capacity magazines that could hold 17 cartridges each, records showed.
Since then, police have recovered an increasing number of guns with auto sears as well as extended magazines. At the same time, machine-gun prosecutions and mass shootings have risen.
In September, two people were killed and seven wounded in Chicago's Washington Park in one of those mass shootings. Police have said dozens of shell casings were recovered and they believed an automatic weapon was used.
Law enforcement officials in Chicago said they've stepped up efforts to combat the sudden popularity of makeshift machine guns. In federal court, cases involving switches are resulting in stiff prison sentences for some convicted dealers.
Last August, Leonard Johnson, who was left paraplegic as a result of a 2008 shooting, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted on charges of supplying four Glock switches to someone who sold them to an undercover officer and an informant.
In December 2020, federal authorities searched Johnson's home in a Chicago suburb and found 117 switches and three handguns converted into machine guns. They also seized another handgun, a silencer, three extended magazines and ammunition. While he was out on bail, he continued to traffic firearms and Glock switches, prosecutors said.
Johnson, 34, pleaded guilty to illegal firearms dealing and illegal possession of a machine gun.
In a June 28 court filing seeking a 12-year sentence for Johnson, federal prosecutors cited "the difficulty of controlling the multiple rounds being expelled in short bursts by a handgun."
"Sadly, [Johnson] is both a victim of gun violence and, by selling machine guns, a perpetrator of gun violence," the prosecutors said.
Javaughn Hixson, 23, of Rockford was sentenced to more than five years in prison on Aug. 25 for possessing Glock switches — four that he sold to an informant. The federal judge in that case gave a blistering assessment of the impact of the devices.
"The sole and exclusive purpose of Glock switches, which are easily manufactured, is to convert an already dangerous firearm into an extremely dangerous machine gun," U.S. District Judge Iain Johnston said in his written sentencing order. "The dangerousness manifests itself not only in the sheer number of bullets that can be emptied from the magazine in the blink of an eye but also in the resulting lack of control of the firearm when discharging it."
Technology brings back the machine gun
A special federal license is needed to own a machine gun in the U.S. That requirement was put in place under the National Firearms Act, signed in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The aim then was to get Tommy guns out of the hands of criminals who were carrying out mass shootings, such as the infamous St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago in 1929. Seven rivals of gangster Al Capone were gunned down in the now affluent, white-collar Lincoln Park neighborhood on the near North Side.
Under that act, individual switches — even those that aren't attached to a gun — are considered machine guns. The penalty for breaking that law is up to 10 years in prison.
As federal authorities try to address the growing, nationwide switch problem, the emergence of widely available technology that allows traffickers to produce the switches using 3D printers has made it even harder.
"We're kind of in a transition period," said Barlow, who oversees an ATF unit that trains new firearms enforcement officers. "It used to be we would see a lot of the imported-style switches [from China], but the 3D printing stuff actually is becoming more prevalent. We're probably close to a 50-50 mix between the two right now."
Aside from intercepting 3D-printed switches through the mail or pulling them off the street, Barlow said officials have few ways to respond to the homemade devices.
New types of switches are hitting the underground market, too. The "invisi-switch" looks nearly identical to the slide that covers the barrel of a legal, semi-automatic Glock, Barlow said. Traditional switches, on the other hand, are easier to spot: The thimble-size devices stick out of the back of a handgun.
In 2019, when switches started gaining popularity in Chicago, ATF began working with Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service on two global task forces targeting switches. One of their investigations, dubbed Operation Silent Night, also goes after extended magazines and gun silencers or suppressors.
Barlow said that Chicago has one of the worst switch problems in the country.
The switches made in China are sometimes sold online as kitchen utensils, carburetor parts or components for pellet guns, Barlow said. Once they get to the United States, they're sold within criminal networks in a similar fashion to the illegal drug trade.
Sean Fitzgerald, acting special-agent-in-charge of the Homeland Security Investigations' Chicago office, said his agency has identified "multiple regions" in China where switches are manufactured. In many cases, the manufacturers quickly dissolve after coming under scrutiny, only to be replaced by others, he said.
Fitzgerald said his agency has been working with Chinese counter-smuggling officials in an effort to target those operations and advance some of the roughly 650 investigations that Homeland Security has launched into switches, extended magazines and silencers.
"China will share that information and work those investigations with us to either shut down the manufacturers or to provide the evidence back so we can prosecute," Fitzgerald said.
He said HSI's role is to retrace shipments related to switches, extended magazines and silencers found during investigations of shootings in Chicago. The federal agencies work closely with Chicago police.
Kristen de Tineo, a special agent who oversees the ATF's Chicago office, said there's a correlation between the rise in citywide mass shootings and the proliferation of switches and extended magazines.
"It's a logical assumption that the more ammunition that can be fired more quickly, the more victims who are at risk," de Tineo said.
As switch-equipped guns and extended magazines have grown more popular, there's also been "a great increase" in the number of shell casings found at shooting scenes in Chicago, according to Brendan Deenihan, the Chicago Police Department's chief of detectives.
"If a guy's pulling a trigger and ripping off 25 rounds, and there's a group of people nearby, more people are going to get hit, [there are] more casings to recover and just more damage being done in general," Deenihan said.
Chicago police Officer Danny Golden was shot earlier this year after he tried to break up a fight at a neighborhood bar on the city's far Southwest Side. Golden was paralyzed in the shooting.
Nineteen shell casings from a .40-caliber weapon were found at the scene, court records show. The suspected gunman was later found with an automatic .40-caliber Ruger pistol with a 30-round extended magazine, police said.
"I think it's challenging for the detective division to investigate these crimes," Deenihan said. "And I think it's just extremely dangerous for the officers that are out there, and obviously the citizens that are out there, that are not part of these ongoing shooting problems."
In July, Democrats introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to establish "a coordinated national strategy to prevent or intercept the importation and trafficking of automatic gun conversion devices."
"Gun violence is an epidemic and lawmakers must do all we can to combat this horrific threat — including by stopping the flow of illegal gun modification devices into our country," said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., a lead sponsor of the bill.
Kristen Rand, a spokeswoman for the D.C.-based Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control, said it's too late for lawmakers to halt switches from entering the country.
"The focus should be on why so many firearms are so easily converted to full auto," she said. "Manufacturers must bear some of the responsibility to design their guns to be more resistant to conversion."
Rand says ATF should consider using its authority to reclassify certain types of firearms that are easily converted into fully automatic weapons, similar to what they did in the 1980s with the KG-9 and the MAC-10. Lots of firearms besides Glocks also are "readily convertible" into machine guns by using tools to reconfigure them or adding parts, she said.
At least 643 of the 706 modified weapons recovered by the Chicago police between 2018 and last month were Glock handguns, records show. A spokesperson for Glock didn't respond to a request for an interview or written questions.
Saunders, who said her son, Parnelius, is recovering from the shooting and has returned to his special needs school, said she was surprised to learn that he was shot by a handgun illegally converted to a machine gun.
"It's very unfortunate that civilians are able to get hold of that type of artillery," she said. "It's really sad. And it's really scary."
This story is a collaboration from NPR's Station Investigations Team, which supports local investigative journalism, member station WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times. Frank Main and Tom Schuba cover crime for the Chicago Sun-Times. Matt Kiefer is the data editor for WBEZ in Chicago.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.