What can the ATF do about converted machine guns?
On April 11, more than 40 members of Congress signed a letter urging the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to take action against the proliferation of the automatic trigger, a small device that makes a semi-automatic pistol capable of emptying an entire magazine with a single pull of the trigger.
Car burns, as The Trace and VICE News reported in March, have become increasingly popular among criminals and have been linked to dozens of shootings by extremists, mass shooters and drug traffickers. Last April, a gunman armed with a converted Glock handgun opened fire in downtown Sacramento, killing six and injuring 12.
“The ATF is the primary federal gun regulator and should play quarterback here,” said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who signed the letter. “They should enforce the law on the ground. But they should also place some of the responsibility for the misuse of these weapons – if that misuse is foreseeable and apparent – on the manufacturers.
In their letter, the members of Congress called on the ATF to be more explicit in calling the conversion devices illegal and to clamp down on them. They also call on the agency to stop companies “pushing the legal limits of these devices.” But finding an effective solution can be difficult. Industry insiders and law enforcement officials interviewed for this story questioned whether the agency has the power to do more than it already does.
Machine guns have been under strict federal regulation for nearly 90 years. The National Firearms Act of 1934 required anyone who owned a fully automatic weapon to register it with the government and pay a tax of $200, which is equivalent to about $4,000 today. These requirements greatly increased the cost of owning a machine gun, and as a result possession became rare.
The automatic trigger was invented in the 1970s as a way for gunsmiths and hobbyists to make their own automatic weapons away from the watchful eyes of the government. With a little elbow grease, an automatic trigger can convert popular semi-automatic rifles and handguns into machine guns. But in 1981, the ATF ruled that an automatic trigger is, legally, a machine gun. Without the proper license and taxes paid, possession of one of the devices is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Over the past decade, foreign manufacturers have started producing automotive triggers in large quantities and shipping them to the United States. According to Homeland Security Investigations, most of the devices come from China. The devices are marketed online on popular social media platforms, e-commerce sites and forums, and can cost as little as $20.
Automatic Glock handgun triggers, called “switches,” became so popular that they were dropped in rap songs and mailed to company headquarters for repair by unwitting customers, said d former employees at The Trace. The ATF said it recovered 1,500 converted weapons in 2021, down from just 300 the previous year.
“If a shooter had a fully automatic weapon versus a semi-automatic weapon, that should scare every parent,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.
Because auto sears are already technically regulated by federal law, some say the ATF needs to focus on enforcement.
“It’s not a regulatory issue; it’s an enforcement issue,” said Brian Luettke, a retired ATF special agent. Luettke pointed to the agency’s historically thin roster of field agents as one possible reason for the proliferation of such devices. And he pointed out that the coins themselves can be difficult to identify.
Another approach would be for the ATF to regulate the other half of a converted machine gun: the weapon itself. This is a path the agency has taken in the past.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, law enforcement began to recover large numbers of converted RPB Industries SM10 pistols. The popular semi-automatic pistol was an almost perfect replica of the Mac-10 submachine gun, and by shaving off a small internal component with a steel file, it could be modified to fire fully automatically. At nearly a quarter of the price, it has become a hot commodity for drug dealers.
Law enforcement recovered at least a thousand machine guns in crimes across the country in 1980. That same year, the ATF linked 60 of the guns to drug-related killings in Florida alone.
To curb the proliferation of these military-grade weapons, the ATF has taken an unprecedented step. He reclassified a handful of semi-automatic pistols and rifles that were easily converted into machine guns. The decision legally grandfathered weapons already in circulation, but imposed an ultimatum on their manufacturers: redesign future iterations so they were less likely to be automatically converted or sold under the strict regulations of the national firearms law.
Many Democrats say it is well within the agency’s power to apply this same strategy to curb the proliferation of modern automotive triggers, like Glock switches, although Luettke and other firearms experts contacted for this story told The Trace it would mean having to regulate dozens of other handguns that were just as easily converted.
“A Glock is the most popular handgun in the United States. I think the ATF should explore, as it has done in the past, the use of its regulatory measures to compel companies to change their designs or face stricter classifications,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, who also signed the April letter.
“If they know their Glocks can be fitted with automatic triggers so easily, and they don’t prevent it with simple design changes, it becomes a product liability,” Auchincloss said.
Firearms experts and law enforcement officials interviewed for this article acknowledged that the ATF always takes regulatory action against gun manufacturers for altering the design of semi-automatic firearms or parts. firearms to prevent automatic conversions, if they are inconsistent.
In the early 2000s, the ATF licensed a product called the Akins Accelerator, a predecessor to the shock stock that increases a firearm’s rate of fire. But after officers discovered the attachment could allow Ruger rifles to fire around 800 rounds per minute, they reclassified the part as a machine gun.
In 2021, the agency ruled that the T36 semi-automatic rifle designed and sold by Tampa-based boutique gunmaker TommyBuilt Tactical was a machine gun, after officers were able to install fully automatic parts in the receiver of the gun. According to company owner Tom Bostick, the weapon – which sold for over $3,000 – did not include any fully automatic components as sold.
The ATF’s process of modifying the gun effectively broke it, according to Bostick, and he said the agency provided no evidence that the gun fired successfully. When an expert consultant replicated the ATF conversion on his behalf, the weapon did not fire consistently. Still, the ATF threatened to take the rifles back from Bostick customers unless it offered a trade-in program—in this case, an over $200 upgrade for each customer. Bostick then had to build all future guns to be less capable of accepting fully automatic parts.
Months later, the great German gunsmith Heckler & Koch sought to import a batch of rifles that could be converted to fully automatic fire in the same way as the T36. The ATF initially classified the weapon as a machine gun and halted the import, according to Bostick and another person with knowledge of the disruption, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about it publicly. But after some back and forth with Heckler & Koch’s legal team, the ATF reversed its decision and agreed to classify the weapon as a semi-automatic weapon.
“What’s the difference with my weapon,” Bostick asked. “It’s just easier for the ATF to go for some handy fruit, and they know that would have bled me dry to fight it.”
Heckler and Koch did not respond to requests for comment.
“The ATF remains concerned about the criminal use of firearms, including the criminal use of machine gun conversion devices,” an ATF spokesperson said when asked how the office planned to handle the influx of machine gun cases. However, the spokesperson declined to disclose whether the ATF had spoken to gunsmiths whose products are popular for conversion, saying, “We are unable to comment on our communications with individuals or companies regarding their firearms, including firearms submitted to the ATF for evaluation. ”
Norm Bergeron, another former ATF agent, said it’s true the agency is reluctant to regulate big business. “You have to have clout to oppose the American government,” he said. “It’s really a question of money. Money buys you lobbyists, it buys you lawyers.
Democrats believe the reluctance is partly due to the ATF’s continued absence of a chief for the past 16 years and its historically lean budget.
“Any regulatory agency without permanent direction is likely to fall short of its mission,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, a Democrat who also signed Congress’s letter to the ATF in April. Watson Coleman said she believes a regulatory path like the one tried in the 1980s could reduce automatic conversions of particular firearms.
In April, the Biden administration announced Steve Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney from Ohio, as its nominee to lead the ATF. This is the second attempt by the administration to find a manager at the agency after it withdrew its appointment of former ATF agent and gun violence prevention advocate David Chipman last fall. .
Additional reporting by Chip Brownlee