Why is The Trace so unenthusiastic about the Senate's latest gun control bill?

Julie Jacobson

As you probably already know, despite what Democrats claim it’s impossible to walk into a gun store and stroll out with a machine gun just a few minutes later. In fact, fully automatic firearms are tightly restricted in the United States, and since 1986 it’s been illegal under federal law to purchase any machine gun manufactured since the ban was imposed. Possession of an illegally modified fully automatic firearm is a federal crime, and one punishable by up to ten years in prison.

In recent years, however, authorities have seen a growing number of those illegal modifications. Fueled in large part by illicit trafficking from China, “auto sears” are popping up in guns recovered at crime scenes, and now several Senate Democrats are taking aim at the illegal gun part with new legislation, though it doesn’t seem like there’s much of substance to their new bill. Even pro-gun control outfits like The Trace seem less than impressed with the details, though they’re still taking credit for the bill’s introduction.

In March, an investigation by VICE News and The Trace uncovered a staggering rise in the number of illegal auto sears and other so-called machine gun conversion devices recovered by law enforcement and linked to criminal cases, including mass shootings, gang violence, and domestic extremism.

Now, Democrats in the Senate are trying to do something about it.

VICE News has learned that nine Democrats, led by Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Michigan’s Gary Peters, plan to introduce legislation on Monday aimed at focusing federal efforts and increasing transparency around what has until recently been a relatively overlooked threat.

The Trace and VICE News’ reporting, cited by the senators in their unveiling of the bill, found that more than a thousand illegal auto sears have been recovered in connection with at least 260 federal prosecutions since 2017, with the number of cases filed annually climbing nearly 800 percent in five years. The government was not tracking this data previously, and part of the Senate proposal would require the attorney general to include “information about illegal gun modification devices in the Justice Department’s annual firearms trafficking report.”

… The real problem is that auto sears are so small — the size of a thimble — they can be hidden in packages and smuggled into the country with alarming ease, according to Rick Vasquez, former chief of the ATF’s Firearms Technology Division. Chinese manufacturers have been identified as primary suppliers, and the devices sometimes appear for sale online disguised as parts for Airsoft or paintball guns. They are also difficult for the untrained eye to identify.

“The fact of the matter is the ATF is already well aware of these,” Vasquez said. “They’re coming in from China by the ton, concealed in with other items. If you have an order of car parts, how can you tell if an auto sear is in the mix? They’re tiny.”

… Vasquez, the former ATF official, said that while it’s good that auto sears are on the radar of federal lawmakers, the impact of the proposed law could be minimal. Auto sears are already restricted, he noted, and the feds have been busy enforcing the laws on the books.

“It sounds like you’re basically going to make a law to tell federal agencies to do what they’re already doing,” Vasquez said. “Who are you going to prosecute if they violate the law?”

Ah, but at least Amy Klobuchar can tell her Uncle Dick stuck in his tree stand that she’s doing “something.”

The ugly truth is that we aren’t going to be able to stop auto sears from being smuggled into the country, and frankly they’re not difficult to make using 3D printers here at home. A supply-side solution simply isn’t feasible here.

Instead, Congress (and state legislatures) should be trying to reduce the demand for auto sears and other illegal modifications among those most likely to criminally misuse firearms, and the best way to do that is to increase prosecutions, reduce the number of plea bargains, and engage in a very high profile public awareness campaign that getting caught with a Glock switch is an easy way to get a ten-year vacation in a federal penitentiary not of your choosing.

Ideally this would be done in conjunction with a repeal of the National Firearms Act (or less ideally, the Hughes Amendment) but the political will to do that simply doesn’t exist on Capitol Hill and I doubt that the Supreme Court would go that far either. Of course, Democrats aren’t interested in reducing the demand for illicitly modified firearms either. They’re all about reducing the supply of firearms available to law-abiding citizens, with the hope that there’ll eventually be a trickle-down effect on the black market.

I don’t see Democrats mustering up the political will to hold China accountable either, even though the country is also a leading exporter of illegal drugs and precursor chemicals used to manufacture the synthetic opioids that have become far more common that auto sears across the U.S. in recent years. Honestly, I think both parties have failed to treat China as the threat that it is, but that’s probably another topic for another time (and maybe even another website altogether).

I don’t think Democrats are going to let Klobuchar’s bill be their last word on the matter either. Instead, a clue to what the left might do next can be found in another story produced by The Trace last month; going after the guns that are being modified.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, law enforcement agencies started recovering huge numbers of converted RPB Industries SM10 pistols. The popular semiautomatic pistol was a near-perfect replica of the Mac-10 submachine gun, and by shaving down a small internal component with a steel file, it could be modified to fire on fully automatic. At nearly a quarter of the price, it became a hot commodity among drug traffickers.

Law enforcement recovered at least a thousand of the machine guns in crimes across the nation by 1980. That same year, the ATF linked 60 of the guns to drug related murders in Florida alone.

To curb the proliferation of these military-grade weapons, the ATF took an unprecedented step. It reclassified a handful of easily converted semiautomatic pistols and rifles as machine guns.  The ruling legally grandfathered the weapons already in circulation, but forced an ultimatum on their makers: Redesign future iterations to be less susceptible to automatic conversion or face selling them under the strict regulations of the National Firearms Act.

Many Democrats say that it’s well within the power of the agency to apply this same strategy to curb the proliferation of modern-day auto sears, like Glock switches, though Luettke and other firearm experts contacted for this story told The Trace that doing so would mean having to regulate dozens of other similarly easy-to-convert handguns.

“A Glock is the most popular handgun in the United States. I think the ATF should explore, as they have in the past, using their regulatory measures to force companies to change their designs or face stricter classifications,” said Representative Eric Swalwell a Democrat from California, who also signed the April letter.

Conveniently, this approach would allow the Biden administration to target major gun makers without having to get Congress involved. He can simply direct his anti-gun ATF Director to implement the rule change, and while there’ll be intense opposition and legal challenges, Biden could at least force the rule to be enacted beforehand. It also explains why The Trace seems less than impressed with Klobuchar’s bill; this isn’t what gun control groups want, and they’re already setting the stage for the executive branch to take further action.

I don’t think we’ll see that step taken before the midterms, but if Republicans capture one or both chambers of Congress in November then the executive branch is going to be the only game in town for gun control groups, and the rule proposed by The Trace will likely become one of the top priorities for them in 2023.