‘It takes violence to a whole other level’: Tiny devices turn regular guns into machine guns on South Florida streets

Last year in March, a car unleashed a spray of bullets as it passed outside of a Miramar restaurant, killing two best friends as they were waiting for their food. The driver didn’t even have to turn into the shopping plaza.

Detectives say they still don’t know what weapons were used, though they know there were multiple. One witness told police he thought one of the guns may have had a “Glock switch,” a tiny metal cube that attaches to the back of a pistol and turns it into an automatic weapon.

Mauricio Arbelaez, a firearms expert at the Miramar Police Department, said it’s too difficult to determine what weapon was used that day. It could have been a switch, or another automatic weapon, like a 9 millimeter machine gun, or a Glock 18, an Austrian gun that is already fully automatic — from which the concept of the switch is derived.

With few witnesses coming forward and little information, including whether the two victims were the targets of the “indiscriminate” shooting, detectives have not been able to catch the shooter or shooters who drove away into the night.

Though authorities could not provide exact data on how ubiquitous switches have become in the region, they do know that the devices, on the rise nationally, are popping up on South Florida streets.

“I have seen an influx in Glock switches and auto sears going to the mainland, particularly here in Miami,” said Special Agent Christopher Robinson of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Miami Field Division. “… Unfortunately the criminal element has found a way to put this tiny piece of metal into a well-made weapon.”

An “auto sear” is also a device that turns a semi-automatic weapon automatic; while “auto sear” is typically applied to other firearms, like rifles, and “switch” is typically applied to Glocks, the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Though he hasn’t seen “rampant violence” like he has in Puerto Rico with switches and auto sears, Robinson said “there’s certainly potential.”

A Glock switch. (Miramar Police)
A Glock switch. (Miramar Police)

The devices could soon proliferate in South Florida like they are beginning to elsewhere in the country. And they represent only the cusp of a new era in which technology like 3D-printing makes guns deadlier and easier to access.

Authorities have already seen a rise in people manufacturing switches using 3D printers and selling them on social media platforms like TikTok and Facebook, as well as on the dark web. The trendy devices cost as little as $20, popular among young people and others who can’t get legal licenses to carry machine guns.

“Essentially what you’re doing is bypassing the ATF regulation or ATF process in order to obtain a machine gun,” Arbelaez said.

The legal route is extensive, with a long waiting period.

“Nine of 10 times they’re very picky on who they’re giving it to,” Arbelaez added. “So the run-of-the-mill everyday criminal out there isn’t going to apply for that.”

Instead, with 3D printers, switches that turn guns automatic can be manufactured in less than an hour. The tiny cube slides onto the back of the gun, typically a Glock, where its “M-plate” should be, and suppresses the gun’s trigger bar, which is what forces someone to pull the trigger on a semi-automatic pistol.

“One pull of the trigger releases a 100-round magazine in a matter of seconds,” Robinson said.

Greater access to these devices means more shootings with higher numbers of victims, especially innocent bystanders.

While the number of rounds increases, “the ability to control that weapon has decreased dramatically,” Arbelaez said. “What happens is, you pull the trigger one time, 30 rounds fire in 2 seconds. The likelihood of striking the intended target more than once or twice is nil. Rounds are flying everywhere … they’re just letting them fly and people are getting shot.”

On a national level, police agencies are seeing these weapons wielded in increasing numbers of shootings.

Audio sensors from the public safety company Sound Thinking picked up 75,544 rounds of suspected automatic gunfire in 2022 in parts of 127 cities, The New York Times reported, a 49% increase from the year before.

In Sacramento, the gunmen involved in a mass shooting that left six people dead and 12 injured are thought to have been using switches; in Houston, a man with a switch opened fire at two police officers, killing one and injuring the other.

Police officers are always worried about being “outgunned,” Arbelaez said. Switches add to that potential.

“An officer is on a patrol, there’s an incident, and they go to address a person,” said Florida Sen. Rosalind Osgood, who is working with the Broward State Attorney’s Office to try to regulate the devices. “Now a person has this automatic weapon and they just start firing. It causes more fatalities. It takes violence to a whole other level.”

Several South Florida residents have been arrested in recent years for printing and selling switches locally and nationally. In the past four years, the U.S Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida has publicly announced six cases in which people were arrested or convicted of possessing, manufacturing and trafficking the devices.

In August, a gun trafficker from Miami was convicted of operating a business selling guns, including switches, and receiving drugs as payment since 2017. He sold at least 170 guns.

Meanwhile, in April, two men from Davie and Margate were arrested on charges of dealing ghost guns and switches, the Attorney’s Office said in a release. One of the men, Wisler Majeure Jacques, 40, sold about 27 switches to investigators.

Though cases involving switches and auto sears are typically investigated and prosecuted on a federal level, local police departments also have begun to notice the devices. In Fort Lauderdale, police have seen them in multiple cases recently, said Det. Ali Adamson, a spokesperson for the police department, though they have not yet seen the same “influx” as other jurisdictions.

“While FLPD has not seen the same influx as other regions in the country, we have come across these devices in a few investigations recently,” Adamson said, citing three recent cases.

In February, officers found a rifle with a “red clip” inside during a traffic stop that had altered it into a fully automatic weapon, according to the incident report. The driver and two passengers all denied owning it. Officers seized the rifle, but were unable to arrest anyone.

Later that same month, officers conducted a traffic stop on a stolen vehicle. While searching the car, they found a “ghost” Glock handgun with a switch attached, as well as large amounts of illegal drugs, according to the incident report. The gun owner was arrested.

In Palm Beach County, deputies have “several cases under active investigation,” according Teri Barbera, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.

“I am told that we are seeing these switches on the streets of Palm Beach County and we are actively taking pro-active steps to address them,” she said.

Detectives are working with both the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office and the U.S Attorney’s Office, she said.

Though switches are currently only made to attach to Glocks, it’s only “a matter of time” before people start using the same technology to manufacture devices that attach to other types of firearms, Arbelaez said.

“These people that are making them are limited by their imagination,” he added. “With 3D printing they can make pretty much anything.”

Switches are also trendy. People post pictures of them on social media to show off; South Florida rappers brag about using them in songs.

Robinson thinks they are drawn to the “notoriety” of the weapon’s power.

“It’s just the attraction of being able to have something that’s capable of firing fully auto,” he said.

The uptick in switches caught the attention of Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor, who worked with Osgood to try to get legislation passed last session including language about the devices in Florida’s existing firearms laws. The bill never made it to committee.

Osgood, who represents District 32 in Broward, said that the wording of SB 368, titled “Machine Guns,” may have given it the appearance of a bill that would not be popular in the pro-gun leaning Legislature.

“I think that gave them wrong idea of what it was,” Osgood said. “Especially in a time when the majority of legislators are fixated on permitless carry.”

Currently, if a person possesses or fires a machine gun during the course of another crime, the use of the gun would lead to a harsher sentence. Osgood’s bill would have expanded the definition of “machine guns” to include switches and auto sears, the first step towards regulating them on a state level, and a possible deterrent to people thinking about buying or using them.

She hopes to reintroduce the legislation next year.

For now, Osgood worries that people, especially minors, may have even more access to guns equipped with these devices in Florida compared to other places because the gun laws are more lax.

“I’m a lover of children; I believe all children are a blessing from God,” Osgood said. “I just don’t want children to have access to these types of guns or get killed in a bystander situation. We have this whole glorification of violence. We see it on TV. We hear it in the music.”

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