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St. Louis-area police are seizing more modified handguns — here’s why that’s bad news

A white male federal agent holds a Glock pistol in his right hand and a small black plastic square in his left hand. The device in his left hand allows the Glock pistol to fire like a fully automatic weapon.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
An agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shows off a Glock switch and a modified Glock on Thursday during a demonstration at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department firing range in south St. Louis. Law enforcement has seen an uptick in the modification units, which make the firearms fully automatic, being used in local crimes.

Law enforcement agencies in the St. Louis area say they have seen an alarming uptick in the number of handguns that have been modified to fire like automatic weapons.

Standard handguns file a single bullet when the trigger is pulled. Small plastic blocks placed on the back of the weapon allow the user to file multiple bullets at once, authorities said at a press conference Thursday to raise awareness of the problem. The conversion devices are known by a variety of names on the street, including Glock switches, giggle switches and auto sears.

“These devices are dangerous to the officers because of the rate of fire,” said Michael Sack, interim chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “But they’re also dangerous to the neighborhood, because they’re inaccurate.”

He added that the increasing number of modified weapons could also make more shootings fatal.

“If you’re shooting somebody with a 30-, 35-, 40-, 50-round drum, you may not be accurate, but instead of hitting them two or three times, you might hit them 12 times,” Sack said.

Police seized a single conversion device in 2019 and 2020, Sack said. That number increased to four in 2021 and 27 in 2022. Already this year, he said, officers have seized three. In addition, ShotSpotter in both St. Louis and St. Louis County has detected more incidents of rapid gunfire.

Because federal law considers the devices machine guns, anyone using them in the commission of a violent crime can receive 30 years in prison in addition to any other sentence, said Sayler Fleming, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri.

“Our office is taking this extremely seriously, and we will use all the statutes and all the punishment provisions that we have available to us,” she said.

The devices are often made on 3D printers, or imported from China, which can make tracing the origins difficult.

“We obviously look at and investigate each case thoroughly and see if we can take down the source,” said Brent Beavers, assistant special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in St. Louis. “But initially, a 3D printer was the size of a Coke machine. And now, they’re much smaller, and more people can gain access to them.”

In October, Fleming’s office filed charges against two Cape Girardeau men accused of selling 14 conversion devices for $2,200 without a license. Court documents say the men intended to sell at least 30 Glock Automatic Switches but were “shorted” by a supplier in Columbia. Both men are currently in jail awaiting trial.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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