As Baton Rouge grapples with a third-straight year of staggering gun violence, officials fear a new trend could make the carnage worse: Small, illegal devices that turn pistols into machine guns are circulating on the city streets.
The devices – made of plastic, and easily attachable to a pistol’s action – are called auto sears, or “Glock switches” after the popular gunmaker on whose guns they are often attached. They have seen increasing use nationwide among criminals, according to federal officials, with authorities tying them to shootings linked to gang activity, drug trafficking and extremism.
Semi-automatic pistols fire a single round with each trigger pull. But with an auto searches, they become machine guns that can empty a magazine in seconds, with a single pull of the trigger.
And over the past two years, guns modified with the devices are turning up in Baton Rouge in growing numbers.
Investigators recovered 19 firearms fitted with auto sears in all of 2021, according to East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore. Not yet halfway through 2022, they’ve confiscated 39 since January.
The devices are particularly dangerous, Moore said, because they allow shooters to unload dozens of rounds in a fraction of the time it takes to fire a semi-automatic gun. Auto sears are often unreliably made, and guns outfitted with them yield powerful blowback while firing that handguns aren’t designed for, also creating danger for the shooter, he said.
“These devices really have no legitimate purpose,” Moore said. “They can give a shooter a false sense of invincibility and put the shooter in a situation wherein aiming is almost impossible to any extent. Coupled with an extended magazine, the shooter just sprays and prays that they hit their intended target. ”
“Anything down range is in danger,” he added.
Amid the nationwide surge in gun violence that emerged alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, officials confiscated nearly quadruple the number of firearms modified with auto sears last year compared to the year before.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives calculated that agencies nationwide seized 300 such guns in 2020. The next year they confiscated more than 1,500, according to a letter to the ATF director authored by more than 40 members of Congress.
Auto sears are similar to bump stocks, which serve the same purpose for semi-automatic long guns. Bump stocks were outlawed in the wake of the 2017 shooting at a Las Vegas concert that left 61 people dead.
In general, fully automatic weapons are subject to strict federal rules. And because auto sears convert pistols into fully-automatic weapons, the ATF says, they are mostly illegal, with some loopholes for gunmakers and others with certain permits.
But the federal agency has struggled to crack down on them, something lawmakers called on the ATF to address in the April letter. The cheap devices tend to flow into the United States from other countries, they wrote. Some are even produced with 3D printers.
Use of the devices is becoming more common, they said, citing recent shootings in Houston and Sacramento where authorities found gunmen used auto sear-modified weapons.
One of the devices appeared in a haul of guns, drugs and cash seized by East Baton Rouge deputies in an April bust of an alleged criminal group called the Banks Town Mafia. Three Glock pistols outfitted with switches – and a hand grenade – showed up in another bust this week, according to Moore.
Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said signs of auto sears being used have emerged through investigations of some recent Baton Rouge shootings. In one case, bystanders reported hearing the “pop-pop-pop” of automatic weapons fire. But deputies investigating the shooting recovered only pistol casings from the scene, Gautreaux said, suggesting the shots came from a modified handgun.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul last week called on Congress to pass common sense gun laws, in part to crack down on distribution of auto sears and other high-powered firearms.
It’s one of the “biggest disappointments” currently facing the country that such laws have faltered, he said. Pointing to the impact on Baton Rouge families torn apart by gun violence, he called on Congress to take action.
“We do not need fully automatic weapons on the streets of Baton Rouge,” he said. “There’s simply no use for it.”