Other Houston shootings involve ‘Glock switches,’ which turn pistols into machine guns

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner recalled his fear as he watched video of the encounter: the gray sedan crashing into a fence, the driver emerging, then the blur of automatic fire as the shooter unleashed a barrage of lead on three of his officers.

“It’s terrifying,” he said. “I am terrified for our officers and also worried for our citizens.”

The January 28 shooting – which left three people injured – was the latest in a growing number of shootings police say criminals commit so-called “Glock switches”, nickel-sized devices that allow triggers to become mostly legal, semi-automatic machine gun handguns.

Federal authorities are seeing a dramatic increase in the use of glock switches or automatic switches, which convert a semi-automatic firearm into a machine gun. Video: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle

On Thursday, authorities announced federal charges against the alleged shooter, Roland Caballero, along with 18 other unrelated cases involving firearms illegally modified with “Glock switches.”

Federal officials called the indictments a “sobering reminder” of the dangers law enforcement officers face on the job – and another factor that propelled the region’s homicide spike during the last years.

“The charges announced today remind us of the dangers that law enforcement agencies face every day across the country,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco. “The accused allegedly shot and injured three HPD agents with a pistol transformed into a machine gun. The Department of Justice is focused on removing violent criminals from the streets and does so by working side-by-side with our state and local law enforcement partners.

Special Agent James O’Flaherty, firearms instructor coordinator for ATF field agents, shows off a 3D-printed Glock switch Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022 in Houston.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

The shooting last month of the three officers was the latest in Houston. Last year, a gunman shot and killed 54-year-old officer William “Bill” Jeffrey with a similarly modified weapon.

Owning a machine gun is a much more regulated process than buying a semi-automatic weapon, gun law experts have said.

“If a person can walk into a gun store and buy a gun, they can own a machine gun,” said Ronnie Yeates, a Magnolia gun law attorney. “But there are more hoops to jump through.”

Shoppers must pay a special tax and pass a rigorous background check, Yeates said. The law limits firearm purchases and transfers to guns manufactured before 1986, when federal laws prohibited widespread possession of automatic firearms. And federal laws also allow gun shop owners or federal firearms license holders who get special permission to buy or manufacture machine guns or automatic triggers/switches.

But the proliferation of Glock switches is now driven by an influx of devices into the U.S. market from China, either smuggled into the country directly or via Mexico, said Houston Special Agent in Charge Fred Milanowski. Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Agents have also seen an increase in 3D-printed switches, but these tend to be less durable than more traditionally made ones.

ATF Special Agent in Charge Fred Milanowski points out that Glock switches are on display in his office Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Houston.

ATF Special Agent in Charge Fred Milanowski points out that Glock switches are on display in his office Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Houston.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

In both cases, first responders fear that high-capacity automatic fire weapons could cause collateral damage and injure innocent bystanders.

“When you put 30 balls in 2.2 seconds, that’s not accurate,” Milanowski said. “You’re spraying lead everywhere.”

Houston-based ATF agents recovered 24 firearms in 2020. A year later, that number had risen to nearly 150 seizures.

Houston is not an outlier.

Late last year, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that the city’s ShotSpotter Network – a gunshot detection system – recorded 78 automatic shot activations of 935 total shots, compared to just five such activations of 42 shots during the same period in 2020.

In August, federal officials announced charges in Oakland, Calif., against three men after an investigation in which they purchased numerous Glock switches and privately made firearms. A month later, customs officers in Philadelphia intercepted a package destined for a man’s home that contained 20 counterfeit automatic switches originally made in China.

All over the United States, have seen a fivefold increase in the number of weapons modified with automatic switches – from around 300 weapons seized in 2020 to more than 1,500 last year, Milanowski said.

ATF Special Agent in Charge Fred Milanowski shows off a Glock switch in the ATF Houston office Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022 in Houston.

ATF Special Agent in Charge Fred Milanowski shows off a Glock switch in the ATF Houston office Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022 in Houston.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

The small devices – which sell for between $200 and $400 on the street – allow gunmen to empty a 30-round extended magazine in about 2.2 seconds; a 50-round drum magazine takes about 4 seconds.

“That’s incredible firepower from a handgun,” said David Chipman, a former ATF agent and adviser to gun advocacy group Giffords. “These types of switches make a whole class of weapons particularly deadly. These are really aimed at criminal and extremist buyers and owners.

Experts said the recoil caused by rapid fire made the guns much harder to control than a standard semi-automatic pistol.

“When you put a Glock switch on it, you pull the trigger once, it will fire every shot into the magazine,” said Michael Cargill, a US Army veteran and owner of Central Texas Gun Works. “With hindsight and all that pressure, the gun is going to want to go up or down. It is difficult for one person to maintain control of the firearm.

Milanowski, the ATF official, said the arrests are part of a shift by local and federal authorities to arrest those with prior convictions who rearm and get re-arrested — or armed, convicted felons who are arrested in Harris County after being released on bail.

Caballero – the accused cop shooter – faces four counts, including carjacking, use of a machine gun in the commission of a crime, possession of a machine gun and felony possession of a firearm . The charges, which could lead to a life sentence, add to Caballero’s significant problems; he already faces three charges of attempted capital murder and one charge of aggravated robbery. His attorney, Spence Graham, said he was in the “early stages” of Caballero’s defense.

“We are conducting our own investigation into these charges, and await the results of the state’s investigation,” he said, “as we prepare to give Mr. Caballero the high-quality defense that the American Constitution guarantees and requires”.

In addition to the charges against Caballero, authorities announced indictments against 19 people for unlawful possession of an unregistered machine gun, possession of a machine gun, or being a felon in possession of a firearm.

“We want to make sure that those with a history of violent crimes and violating federal law, who have illegally modified Glock switches or fully automatic switches are taken off the streets,” said Jennifer Lowery, acting U.S. district attorney. south texas. “If they’re going to use these conversion switches, we’re going to sue them.”

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