Researcher Blames Baltimore's Rising Number of Auto-Sears on States With 'Weaker' Gun Laws

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Like many other juridictions across the country, police in Balitmore, Maryland say they're recovering more guns that have been illegally modified to shoot full-auto through the use of switches or auto-sears. Last year, police in Charm City seized 59 firearms with switches attached, and authorities say criminals using illegally modified guns were responsible for at least two homicides in 2023, along with a high-profile shooting on the campus of Morgan State University which left five people injured. 


These switches are already illegal to possess under federal law, and as far as I'm aware there's not a single company in the United States that's lawfully offering these products for sale. Instead, many of the switches are being illegally imported from China, while others are being made right here at home on 3D printers. But one researcher at the Bloomberg-funded Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Violence Solutions is still pinning the blame for the rise in switches in Baltimore on states with "weaker" gun laws.

Even if lawmakers pass a state ban on the devices, they aren’t necessarily going to be able to stop people from accessing the files to 3D-print them. That doesn’t mean lawmakers shouldn’t pursue that bill or others like it, said Cassandra Crifasi, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions and an assistant professor at the university.

Despite narratives to the contrary, policy, at least at the federal level, does work, Crifasi said. Congress has heavily regulated the sale of machine guns for nearly a century, after mobsters armed with them got into gun battles with cops during prohibition in the 1920s. The manufacture or importing of new machine guns for civilian use has been banned since 1986.

There are also strict regulations around the sale of suppressors, devices that muffle the sound of a gunshot. As a result, very few show up at crime scenes, Crifasi said.

Yet, 3D printing and other technological advancements threaten to change that.

“We’re not going to ban 3D printers” Crifasi, a gun owner who participates in pistol shooting competitions, said. “We need to do a better job of anticipating of where things will move next in terms of technology. We need to do a better job of raising the floor for everyone. States with strong gun laws are at the mercy of states with weaker gun laws around them."


Suppose federal policy is as effective as Crifasi claims. Why, then, is the ATF reporting a nearly sevenfold increase in the number of auto-sears and switches seized nationwide between 2012 and 2021? Seems to me that the policy alone isn't doing much to curb criminals' appetites for these devices. 

It's also patently ridiculous for Crifasi to try to turn this into a debate between states that take a dim view of the right to keep and bear arms and those that respect the Second Amendment. Again, most of these switches are being illegally imported into the United States from overseas, but those that aren't shipped over from China are typically made on 3D printers, and can be sold on the local black market without having to create an interstate trafficking operation. 

Crifasi's right about one thing. We're not going to ban 3D printers, though anti-gun states like California are giving it a shot. Some gun control activists are even pushing to have some or all semi-automatic firearms reclassified as machine guns by the ATF, and though I doubt Biden will take that step before Election Day, it's a distinct possibility if he wins another term in November. 

The best way to address the use of switches in violent crimes is to arrest and prosecute the offenders; referring their cases to the local U.S. Attorney for prosecution in federal court whenever possible, refusing to offer plea deals that result in a slap on the wrist, and ensuring that there are real consequences for their criminal actions. We don't need any new laws to address this problem. We just need to effectively use the laws that are already in place. 


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