D.C. police see rise in devices that convert guns into fully automatic weapons

D.C. Police in June 2021 said they seized this 9mm caliber "ghost gun" during a raid on an apartment on K Street Northeast, near Trinidad. Police said it was equipped with a auto sear enabling it to fire on fully automatic.
D.C. Police in June 2021 said they seized this 9mm caliber "ghost gun" during a raid on an apartment on K Street Northeast, near Trinidad. Police said it was equipped with a auto sear enabling it to fire on fully automatic.Photo courtesy of D.C. Police/D.C. Superior Court

WASHINGTON - As the District of Columbia reels from deadly gun violence, authorities say assailants have found a new way to boost their firepower by using small, illegal devices that turn semiautomatic handguns and rifles into rapid-fire machine guns.

Called "auto sears," the metal or plastic pieces are fitted inside the firearms and can be purchased on the Internet or made on 3-D printers. They allow weapons to fire up to 1,200 bullets a minute.

Police say guns equipped with the aftermarket add-ons have been recovered across the District and elsewhere.

"I think everybody in our department is very concerned about it," said District of Columbia police Commander Ramey Kyle, who heads the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division. "The guns out on the street are already dangerous, and now you have weapons that can be fired at fully automatic."

Authorities said they don't yet have a handle on how many of the devices may be on District streets.

District police have only recently begun to track seizures of the devices and don't yet have a tally. Charlie Patterson, the special agent in charge of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives's Washington Field Office, said that agency had seized about 20 auto sears in the District during the first half of 2021, double that of the same time last year.

"These firearms with auto sears are becoming more and more popular," Patterson said.

Even if a gun isn't found at a shooting scene, Kyle said, police suspect automatic firearms are being used in some instances - including one earlier this year that was fatal - based on the number of bullet casings left behind and data from ShotSpotter devices, which are scattered about the District and detect, alert and record the sounds of gunshots.

"You can tell the gunshots are in rapid succession," Kyle said.

Semiautomatic guns fire each time a trigger is pulled; fully-automatic guns continue to fire with one pull of the trigger, until emptied of bullets. Many guns have ammunition drums or magazines attached, enabling the firearm to hold dozens of bullets.

Auto sears can be installed in the trigger mechanisms, effectively disabling the mechanism that in semiautomatic mode resets the trigger after each pull, requiring the shooter to press it back to fire again. With this mechanism disabled, a shooter can merely pull the trigger once and bullets will rapidly fire until the trigger is released.

ATF classifies auto sears as machine guns and merely possessing one is a federal offense. Authorities say installing one on a gun is relatively easy. The auto sears also are known as "giggle switches."

Kyle said the growing number of auto sears police are seeing appears to correspond to a rising number of so-called ghost guns, untraceable firearms that are manufactured or built at home with kits.

Ghost guns are proliferating in the District, where the numbers seized by police jumped from three in 2017 to 116 in 2019 to 306 last year. Another 130 were taken off the streets through March of 2021.

Patterson said the bureau is concentrating on finding where ghost guns and auto sears are made and distributed.

"It used to be we'd have an incident where a round or two was fired, and that's bad enough," Patterson said. "Now you're having crime scenes where there are 15 or more rounds fired. . . . That's doubling or tripling the potential for death."

Patterson also authorities take a dim view of the term "giggle switch," though it has made its way into police reports and court documents.

Chris Stone, a spokesman for the National Association for Gun Rights, said the "average person is not going to own a Glock with a full an auto sear." He said their increasing use on the streets is "criminals doing what they always do - breaking the law and finding a way around it."

His group believes that additional laws or rules, such as those proposed to more closely regulate kits used to make ghost guns, harm hobbyists while failing to dissuade or prevent criminals from obtaining the parts. Stone said laws prohibiting auto sears "are not doing anything to stop the criminals."

Law enforcement authorities got one break last year in Fairfax County, Va., where an undercover investigation led to the arrest of a then 19-year-old man who lived with his parents and had a 3-D-printer.

Federal prosecutors said the man sold two undercover Fairfax County police detectives thousands of dollars worth of firearms during at least three separate meetings, including more than a half-dozen 9mm ghost pistols, an AR-15 style rifle and auto sears for both rifles and Glock-style handguns.

Documents filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia say the man told the undercover officers "he had a 3-D printer he could use to manufacture a component capable of rendering semiautomatic firearms fully automatic."

The investigation that included ATF and the Department of Homeland Security led to the man pleading guilty to dealing in firearms without a license in December and being sentenced to the eight months in jail he had spent since his arrest, in addition to three years supervised release. Prosecutors dropped a charge of illegally transferring a machine gun in exchange for the guilty plea.

In June, District police raided an apartment near Trinidad in Northeast Washington and found a silver and green ghost gun with an auto sear under a mattress that a child was laying on. The gun was loaded with 16 bullets, and police said one person was arrested and is awaiting trial.

That same month, police said they stopped a vehicle at a gas station on Bladensburg Road in Northeast and seized fentanyl, cocaine, three handguns, two with auto sears attached, and a rifle. Police said they also seized 66 rounds of ammunition for handguns and 193 rifle rounds. Authorities said the investigation against three people is continuing.

And in early August, police officers watching Instagram live spotted a video featuring a man they knew showing off a handgun with a blue "giggle switch" attached.

The officers knew where the man hung out at the Fort Chaplin Apartments on Blaine Road in Northeast and, according to arrest documents filed in court, he was in custody within minutes of the live broadcast. Police said the ghost gun, found on the driver's seat of the man's silver sedan, was loaded with 36 bullets. The court case is pending.

Kyle said building or obtaining the untraceable ghost guns and parts like auto sears is likely to get easier in the near future. "They're getting more economical to make, easier to make," he said. "I think we're in the infancy."