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latest news Sacramento Massacre Shows Growing Dangers of Handguns Converted to Automatic Weapons

As state and federal authorities continue to piece together the number of people killed and injured in Sunday’s shooting in downtown Sacramento, their attention has turned to a small, seemingly innocuous culprit: a gun prop. fire that quickly and cheaply transforms many handguns into weapons capable of spraying dozens of shots with a single pull of the trigger.

Police say at least one of the guns was recovered from the massacre that left six people dead and twice as many injured and was modified with a so-called “auto-sear” or “switch” to increase its firing power. fire. Conversion devices are illegal, and authorities say they are showing up at crime scenes across the United States with alarming frequency.

Handguns and semi-automatic rifles require shooters to pull the trigger every time they want to fire a bullet. However, when fitted with a switch, these types of weapons become fully automatic and can fire hundreds of rounds per minute, according to Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency physician at UC-Davis who studies the use of fire arms. Switches, which are small cube-shaped accessories that attach to the firing mechanism of a gun, can be easily purchased from illicit websites or made with a 3D printer.

“Basically what a switch does is allow you to put a machine gun in your pocket or on your belt,” said Wintemute, director of the California Firearms Violence Research Center at the university. In a scenario where mobs are present, like in Sacramento, a gun with a switch paired with a magazine that holds a large number of bullets can easily lead to more bloodshed, he said.

Switch devices are classified as machine guns by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and possessing one is a federal offense. And yet, says Wintemute, instructions for installing one on a gun can be found online and require little to no technical expertise.

The ATF, the federal agency responsible for regulating firearms in the United States, seized about 1,500 weapons modified with switches in 2021, compared to about 300 in 2020, the agency’s spokeswoman said, Ginger Colbrun. The sharp jump, Colbrun noted, was part of a longer upward trend in the number of weapons found with switches.

On Wednesday, Sacramento police said a preliminary investigation suggested at least five shooters were involved in Sunday’s shooting spree that hit 18 people, six of them fatally. Amid the carnage along K Street in the shadow of the California Capitol, Sacramento police detectives found a stolen gun that had been “converted to a weapon capable of firing automatically.” The discovery confirmed suspicions authorities had developed after hearing audio recordings of the shooting on social media that revealed the distinct sound of high-velocity bullets being fired. Authorities estimate that at least 100 shots were fired.

Police said in a statement that while they have yet to establish a motive, “it is increasingly clear that gang violence is at the center of this tragedy.”

Handguns fitted with switches have surfaced at other crime scenes in California. Gunmen used them in the fatal shooting of federal guards in Oakland in 2020, as did gang members in the killing of four people in Fresno the year before.

And in November 2019, members of the Mongolian Boys Society gang snuck into a garden party in Fresno and opened fire. Sixteen people were shot and four died in the incident, which was seen as retaliation for an earlier shooting by a rival gang. Fresno police later recovered a handgun used in the shooting that was fitted with a switch, along with two ammunition magazines each containing 30 rounds.

The power and deadly potential of automatic weapons has distinguished them in Americans’ fascination with firearms ever since gang thugs wielded Tommy submachine guns in the early decades of the 1900s. Two such guns killed seven people in of the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago’s North End. Within a few years, the federal government severely restricted access to machine guns or automatic weapons, requiring special permits from the ATF for a person to possess a fully automatic weapon. California law only allows possession of these so-called “dangerous weapons” with a permit.

In November 2021, a federal appeals court upheld the state’s ban on firearm magazines containing 10 or more bullets, saying restrictions on their size do not interfere with the right to self-defense. .

There are no such restrictions on owning most semi-automatic weapons and Ed Obayashi, a veteran Northern California deputy sheriff and law enforcement expert, said the switches needed to convert them to machine guns can be purchased for “as little as $10 or $15”.

“And while some will tell you that a person needs a workshop [to make a switch], the reality these days is that someone could learn how to do that outside of YouTube,” Obayashi said. “If a guy doesn’t know how to put a puzzle together, he knows someone who can do it for a price.”

Obayashi said the most common switching device in circulation is known as the Glock Switch, a device that turns the popular Austrian company’s handguns into automatic weapons.

Adding so much firepower to a weapon that isn’t designed for it makes it difficult for people to shoot accurately, increasing the likelihood of bystanders or other unintended targets being shot as bullets travel in many directions, experts said.

“It’s kind of like a ‘spray and pray,'” Det. Pat Hoffman of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Firearms Unit, part of a federal gun trafficking task force that in recent years has seized hundreds of devices in international mail centers. “There are so many cartridges coming out at such high speed in such a short time.”

Converter switches, which are often the size of a coin and consist of three parts, are mostly made overseas. Several recent cases have shed light on how they come into the possession of criminals.

In 2019, the ATF, working with other agencies, learned that 4,000 converter switches had been smuggled into the United States using misleading labeling that portrayed them as tools. After intercepting a suspicious package at the port of entry of Los Angeles International Airport, investigators eventually found 3,000 devices. One of the people who received some of the converters was a Pacoima man, whom LAPD investigators found with five switches and parts from unlicensed guns inside his home after he accidentally shot himself in 2019 .

Switches are primarily shipped to the region from China, LAPD’s Hoffman said. Customs enforcement officials know the international regions where the devices are made and their weights, and have become “very, very good” at identifying shipments of switches even when the packaging suggests the contents are something completely different,” Hoffman said.

Still, some devices pass the tests and can also be built at home using 3D printers. Hoffman said the LAPD sees them in the field from time to time, but not in large numbers. He didn’t have exact numbers.

Authorities say the devices — which go by many other names, including “trigger guns” and “laugh switches” — have grown in popularity amid a rise in “ghost guns,” untraceable firearms that are made or built at home with kits available for sale online. Sometimes they are attached to rifles with drums of ammunition or magazines containing dozens of bullets.

The devices are also gaining popularity among the growing number of white supremacists and far-right extremists who increasingly see the need to arm themselves for what they perceive to be an impending civil war, according to federal prosecutors and court records.

Members of the boogaloo movement, a loose collection of extremists who espouse the violent overthrow of the US government, have used automatic triggers in shootings and sold them to undercover agents.

Matthew Chen, an alleged member of a local boogaloo affiliate, the Cali Bois, who was indicted in February on illegal weapons charges, allegedly bragged to an undercover FBI agent that he bought six sears automobiles and that he was ready to sell them. Then, on Jan. 20, Chen met the undercover FBI agent in a Pomona Park parking lot and sold him an automatic trigger for $250, according to an affidavit. Chen invited the agent to his apartment in Pomona, where he showed video of him firing fully automatic weapons in the desert.

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