Handguns equipped with illegal ‘switches’ being turned into high-capacity machine guns fueling Chicago violence

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Kimberly Saunders, whose then-17-year-old son Parnelius Saunders survived a May 19 machine-gun shooting outside the McDonald’s near Chicago Avenue and State Street. “It’s very unfortunate that civilians are able to get hold of that type of artillery,” she says. “It’s really sad. And it’s really scary.”

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

A gun trafficker from the Southwest Side says he’s been cashing in on the latest thing every Chicago gang member has just got to have:

A machine gun.

The man, who has an office job, says he sells illegal machine guns on the side — more than 1,500 in just the past year.

Most of the machine guns he peddles are Glock pistols equipped with an after-market auto sear, known on the street as a “switch.” It lets the shooter go from single shots to automatic. The guns also come with extended magazines that can hold 20, 30, even 50 bullets.

“It’s like the new, hot thing right now. It’s what’s trending right now — switches,” says the man, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. “And, if you have a switch, you got to have extended mags or a drum. It’s like hotdogs and mustard.”

The number of switch-equipped handguns and extended magazines seized by the Chicago police has surged over the past several years, an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ and NPR has found. And so has the number of prosecutions by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office involving guns that have been turned into machine guns.

The proliferation of illegal switch-equipped guns has made Chicago a hot spot for what federal authorities say has become a national problem.

That’s happened as mass shootings — in which at least four people are killed or wounded — have become more commonplace in Chicago. Federal authorities say they believe the proliferation of these makeshift machine guns is one of the main reasons.

In a case earlier this year, a man holding a pistol-turned-machine gun opened fire a little past 10:30 p.m. May 19 on a crowd outside the McDonald’s on Chicago Avenue at State Street, killing two people and wounding seven more.

Jaylun Sanders, 22, of South Shore, has been charged in that shooting with first-degree murder and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. The police said the shooting was related to a fight about 20 minutes earlier.

Chicago police officers at the scene of a May 19 mass shooting outside the McDonald’s at 10 E. Chicago Ave.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times

At a court hearing, a Cook County prosecutor said Sanders fired a 9mm Glock 19 handgun equipped with an automatic switch and an extended magazine that held 34 rounds.

This story was produced in partnership with NPR and WBEZ Chicago. Listen to the NPR report here.

He shot in bursts and used his other hand to support his shooting arm to keep his gun from jerking up, firing 21 times, according to the prosecutor, who said Sanders told detectives he’d previously fired a handgun equipped with a switch.

Sanders said he started shooting outside the McDonald’s because he thought the victims were reaching for guns, according to the prosecutor. He also told investigators he bought the gun in Indiana and that he could get a switch for less than $25, the prosecutor said.

A police dog found the gun tossed away in a CTA Red Line subway tunnel.

‘My son, bleeding out’

Among those wounded was Kimberly Saunders’ then-17-year-old son Parnelius Saunders. She happened to be nearby at a restaurant at the time, eating a gyro sandwich, when she heard rapid-fire gunshots.

“I feel like I heard 20 shots,” Saunders says. “I used to watch these war movies as a kid, so it sounded like one of those machine guns.”

Jaylun Sanders, who has been charged in the mass shooting May 19 at the McDonald’s on Chicago Avenue near State Street that left two people dead and seven wounded.

Chicago Police Department

Saunders, who lives nearby, says she went outside to see what happened and, when she got to the McDonald’s, was horrified to find her son on the sidewalk on Chicago Avenue beneath the restaurant’s sign.

“Oh, my God, I just walked up there on my son, bleeding out,” Saunders says. “So I took my shirt off, and I begin to put my shirt over his wounds.”

Parnelius suffered gunshot wounds to one arm, a shoulder and his back but has recovered and returned to school, according to his mother.

She says her son was a bystander who was just walking home from Lake Michigan when he was shot.

Parnelius Saunders, who was wounded in the shooting outside the McDonald’s on Chicago Avenue near State Street, seen before the shooting.

Provided

Saunders was stunned to learn her son was shot by a machine gun.

“It’s very unfortunate that civilians are able to get hold of that type of artillery,” she says. “It’s really sad. And it’s really scary.”

She has nothing but contempt for gun dealers who sell the devices that can turn even a pistol into a machine gun.

“They don’t care,” Saunders says. “It’s all about the dollar.”

A Chicago police officer examines a Glock handgun found May 4 in the 8200 block of South Halsted Street where a 20-year-old man was shot and wounded. According to police records, the gun was equipped with an automatic switch and extended magazine. No one has been charged in that shooting.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Switches, magazines easily available

Many of the switches the police have seized with handguns in Chicago were made in China. They’re marketed online for other purposes, for instance as attachments for replica “airsoft” guns that fire plastic projectiles. Those switches are metal.

There also are less-durable plastic switches that people can make at home with a 3D printer.

Instructions for attaching a switch to a handgun are easily available online.

The police have found that gang members sometimes modify 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, though not in Cook County, which bans them. And a buyer doesn’t need a permit to get one. They’re outlawed in some states but not in Illinois, Indiana or Wisconsin.

A special federal license is needed to own a machine gun in the United States. That requirement was put in place under the National Firearms Act, signed in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt. The aim was to get Tommy guns out of the hands of criminals who were carrying out mass shootings such as the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, in which seven of arch-gangster Al Capone’s rivals were gunned down on Clark Street in Lincoln Park.

Under that law, individual switches themselves — even those not attached to a gun — are considered machine guns. The penalty for breaking that law is a prison term of as long as 10 years.

The bodies of six of the seven men slain Feb. 14, 1929, on the North Side in what became known as the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. They were associated with a North Side gang led by George “Bugs” Moran. A federal law enacted five years later aimed to get Tommy guns out of the hands of criminals.

AP

Dealer: Add a switch, boost gun’s value

But the underground gun seller who spoke to the Sun-Times says he’s not afraid of getting caught. He says that’s because he deals with only a small number of trusted clients who won’t inform on him to the police or federal authorities.

He also says he’s not losing any sleep about what his buyers might do with the guns, switches and extended magazines he sells them. Just like drug dealers don’t worry about their clients overdosing, he says, he can’t think about people getting shot.

“If I was to think about that, I ain’t gonna make no money,” he says. “I’m worried about myself.”

The dealer says he sells pre-assembled Glock machine guns as his “little part-time job.” It’s a good sideline, he says: “Guns are making more money than cocaine right now.”

He says a new Glock handgun that he normally would sell for $1,000 will fetch at least $500 more with a switch attached.

Sometimes, he says, he gets a discount from his illicit sources by buying in volume, getting dozens of pre-assembled Glock machine guns packaged in a single crate.

Most handguns available to the public at licensed gun stores are semiautomatic, meaning the shooter needs to squeeze the trigger every time a shot is fired. When a semiautomatic handgun is turned into an automatic, that means the bullets will keep firing as long as the trigger continues to be squeezed and held.

With a modified Glock, a person could fire 20 bullets from the extended clip in about a second, according to an official with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Easy to hide, a symbol to own

Such makeshift Glock machine guns are especially attractive to gang members because they’re easily concealable in a waistband or coat, unlike a rifle.

“You don’t have to be carrying a big, old AK-47 to just spray somebody,” the illegal gun dealer says. “You don’t see those big-ass machine guns anymore.”

Glocks with auto switches have become a status symbol on the streets. Chicago rapper PGF Nuk titled a recent album “Switch Music.”

A billboard for rapper PGF Nuk’s latest album, titled “Switch Music,” at 2910 S. Wentworth Ave. in Bridgeport as seen this past summer.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Authorities in Chicago say police officers began seeing switch-equipped handguns in 2018. Since then, they’ve recovered an increasing number of these illegal weapons as well as high-capacity magazines. At the same time, the numbers of machine-gun prosecutions and mass shootings have risen.

Records show:

  • The number of switch-equipped handguns seized by the Chicago Police Department rose from zero in 2017 to 12 in 2018, 42 in 2019, 82 in 2020 and 356 last year. This year, 215 were recovered as of Sept. 22.
  • The number of Cook County machine-gun prosecutions rose from six in 2018 to 36 in 2019, 70 in 2020 and 201 in 2021. So far this year, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office has filed more than 250 of those cases.
  • The number of extended magazines recovered by the police has gone up, too: 459 in 2018, 534 in 2019, 720 in 2020, 924 in 2021. This year, police have seized 866 magazines through Sept. 15.
  • And the number of mass shootings rose from 23 in 2018 to 28 in 2019, 45 in 2020, 52 in 2021 and 37 in 2022 from Jan. 1 to Oct. 15 in each of those years.

Going after dealers

Law enforcement officials say they’ve stepped up their 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.

On Aug. 26, Leonard Johnson, who was left paraplegic as a result of a 2008 shooting, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of charges that accused him of supplying four switches to someone who then sold them to an undercover officer and an informant.

An image of Leonard Johnson that was included in a federal court filing. On Aug. 26, Johnson, who was left paraplegic as a result of a 2008 shooting, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of charges that accused him of supplying four switches to a person who then sold them to an undercover officer and an informant.

U.S. District Court

In December 2020, federal authorities searched Johnson’s home in Robbins and said they found 117 switches and three handguns converted into machine guns along with another handgun, a silencer, three extended magazines and ammunition.

Then, while Johnson was free on bail while awaiting trial, he continued to traffic firearms and switches, according to prosecutors.

Johnson, 34, pleaded guilty to illegal firearms dealing and illegal possession of a machine gun.

“Sadly, [Johnson] is both a victim of gun violence and, by selling machine guns, a perpetrator of gun violence,” prosecutors said.

On Aug. 25, Javaughn Hixson, 23, of Rockford, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for possessing nine switches, four that authorities said he sold to an informant. The federal judge hearing that case gave a blistering assessment of the impact of the devices.

“The sole and exclusive purpose of [the] 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.

“With the proliferation of these devices and the ease by which they can be created using a 3D printer, the court anticipates many more sentences in the future,” he wrote.

A Glock 19 handgun, one of the most common guns that have been converted into machine guns in Chicago in recent years.

Getty Images

ATF: More switches coming from 3D printers

The emergence of 3D-printed switches has made combating switches harder, authorities say.

“We’re kind of in a transition period,” says James Barlow, a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives supervisor who oversees a new officer training division. “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.”

Barlow says Chicago has one of the worst switch problems in the country.

Aside from intercepting 3D-printed switches through the mail or pulling them off the streets, Barlow says authorities have few ways to respond to the proliferation of those homemade devices.

And new types of switches are hitting the underground market. Barlow points to the “invisi-switch,” which “looks pretty much identical” to a slide plate cover on the top of a legal, semiautomatic Glock.

Traditional switches are easier to spot: The thimble-sized devices stick out of the back of a handgun.

In 2019, a year after switches began popping up 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, goes after extended magazines and gun silencers.

The switches made in China are sometimes sold online as kitchen utensils, carburetor parts or components for pellet guns, according to Barlow. He says that, once they get to the United States, they’re sold within criminal networks in a similar fashion to the way the illegal drug trade works.

Sean Fitzgerald, acting special-agent-in-charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ Chicago office, says his agency has identified “multiple regions within China” where switches have been manufactured. In many cases, though, Fitzgerald says the manufacturers quickly dissolve after coming under scrutiny, only to be replaced by others.

He says his agency has been working with Chinese counter-smuggling officials to shut down 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 says.

He says HSI tries to retrace shipments related to switches, extended magazines and silencers found during investigations of shootings in Chicago. The federal agencies work closely with the Chicago Police Department.

More devices, more mass shootings

Kristen de Tineo, special agent-in-charge of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Chicago.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Kristen de Tineo, special-agent-in-charge of the ATF Chicago office, says authorities believe there’s a correlation between the rise in mass shootings in Chicago in recent years and the growing 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 says.

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, according to Brendan Deenihan, the Chicago Police Department’s chief of detectives. And that means it’s likelier that more people get shot, he says.

“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,” Deenihan says, and there will be “just more damage being done in general.

“I think it’s challenging for the detective division to investigate these crimes,” Deenihan says. “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.”

Target the guns, not just devices, advocate urges

In July, Democrats in the U.S. Senate introduced a bill 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,” according to U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, a lead sponsor.

With switches, though, the effort might be too late, says Kristen Rand, government affairs director for the nonprofit Violence Policy Center, which advocates for gun control. She says concentrating on the devices is “probably a lost cause.”

“The focus should be on why so many firearms are so easily converted to full auto,” Rand says, noting that Glocks and other guns can easily be modified. “Manufacturers must bear some of the responsibility to design their guns to be more resistant to conversion.”

Since 2018, 643 of the 706 modified automatic weapons recovered by the Chicago police were Glock handguns, according to records through late September.

A spokeswoman for Glock didn’t respond to questions or interview requests.

Rand says ATF should consider using its authority to reclassify certain types of firearms that are easily converted into fully automatic weapons. Other firearms besides Glocks also are “readily convertible” into machine guns by machining or adding a few parts, she says.

“ATF should be looking at using their existing authority to classify some of these firearms as ‘machine guns’ as they did in the 1980s with the KG-9, MAC-10 and STEN,” Rand says. “This is a classic example of how the gun industry escapes responsibility for problems of their own making.”

Contributing: Matt Kiefer, Charmaine Runes / WBEZ, Cheryl W. Thompson / NPR

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October 28, 2022 at 04:20AM

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