Texas Cracks Down on Illegal Gun Switches, Including 3D Printed Ones

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Texas has unveiled Operation Texas Kill Switch, a new initiative to target illegal machine gun-conversion devices, commonly known as “switches.” These tiny devices, often no bigger than an inch, can transform ordinary firearms into fully automatic weapons. At simultaneous press conferences across Texas, U.S. Attorneys and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents highlighted the dangers posed by these devices to the public, which allow firearms to fire faster than military-grade M4 rifles.

“As U.S. Attorneys and federal law enforcement agents, our offices have been investigating and prosecuting switches for many years, but as the problem continues to escalate, we are determined to do more,” said U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza for the Western District of Texas. “Operation Kill Switch has two main goals. We encourage state and local law enforcement to be on the lookout for machinegun conversion devices, and we urge the public to report switches to law enforcement.”

Illegal gun switches. Image courtesy of ATF.

The Threat of Switches

Often made from metal or plastic, switches fit into the butt of a gun to enable automatic firing. They make guns more lethal by allowing them to fire many bullets with just one pull of the trigger. This increased firepower makes them especially dangerous in crimes and mass shootings and poses threats to police officers in confrontations. Last year in Alabama, two teens opened fire at a birthday party, killing four men and injuring 32 others using seven handguns, including two that had been illegally modified with switches. In Jackson, Mississippi, shooters used guns modified with Glock switches during a shootout when an innocent driver was killed in the crossfire and in another similar situation, which resulted in the death of a law enforcement officer.

Switches are small, easy to hide, and can be made with 3D printers, making them hard to detect and control, as these devices can be created and distributed without traditional manufacturing control, making it easier for criminals to obtain and use them.

Possessing a switch is illegal under the National Firearms Act, which classifies them as machine guns. Between 2017 and 2023, Texas ATF agents seized 991 switches, with half of these seizures occurring in the last year alone. The devices are frequently sold over social media, targeting both adults and minors.

As part of Operation Texas Kill Switch, U.S. Attorneys are partnering with Crime Stoppers programs across Texas to combat the spread of these illegal devices. Until August 31, 2024, local Crime Stoppers will offer cash rewards for information leading to the apprehension or prosecution of those possessing switches or using 3D printers to manufacture them. Tips can be submitted around the clock through local Crime Stoppers programs or directly to the ATF.

A Call to Action?

Due to their accessibility and the difficulty of regulating them, 3D printed guns and gun parts are a growing concern to law enforcement. While federal law, such as the Undetectable Firearms Act, mandates that all firearms must be detectable by security screening devices, Texas does not have specific laws targeting 3D printed guns. However, general firearm laws apply, and the same restrictions for traditional firearms extend to 3D printed ones.

Federal regulations require that 3D printed firearms must include a metal component for detectability and must have a serial number if they are intended for sale or distribution. In Texas, while individuals are allowed to manufacture firearms for personal use, these must comply with federal laws. Texas law also prohibits certain individuals, such as felons and those convicted of domestic violence offenses, from possessing any firearms, including 3D printed ones.

U.S. Attorneys Esparza, Leigha Simonton, Alamdar Hamdani, and Damien Diggs urged local law enforcement to collaborate with federal authorities on switch cases, which carry maximum sentences of up to 10 years in federal prison. They emphasized the importance of community involvement in reporting illegal activities related to these dangerous devices.

3D printed guns and parts are becoming more common in criminal activities. Although not nearly as prevalent as traditional ghost guns, law enforcement agencies are encountering 3D printed firearms and gun parts more often during raids and seizures. In the first half of 2023 alone, there were 108 arrests involving 3D printed guns. This marks a significant increase and a growing trend where criminals and gangs are increasingly turning to 3D printing technology to produce firearms and making law enforcement more aware than ever of their threat.

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