CHICAGO — Law enforcement across the country, including in the Chicago area, are working to combat a dangerous trend of criminals using small devices that turn a semi-automatic handgun into a fully automatic weapon.

Although machine-gun conversion devices (MCDs) go by a handful of names, one of the most common types, is known as a ‘Glock switch,’ but despite its name, it isn’t made by the manufacturer.

Authorities said, these devices, which are illegal under federal law, pose a significant public safety concern, and the problem doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, anytime soon.

“There is an exponential increase in our machine gun conversion device recoveries,” said Jeffrey Matthews, acting special Agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Chicago Field Division.

“The percentage of these that we’re getting off the street is going up like this. It’s going up like 100 percent and I don’t see any end in sight,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said. “At the end what it’s done has just made our streets more dangerous for everybody.”

Data shows spike in devices recovered locally, nationally

In early February, the ATF released a 700-page report, its first in 20 years, on gun crimes in the United States. In it, the agency said the number of illegal machine gun conversion devices recovered by law enforcement agencies jumped 570% during a period of 2017 to 2021, compared to the previous five years.

“Really in the last couple of years there’s been an explosion in the use of these machine gun conversion devices used during crimes,” Matthews said, who has worked for the ATF for 23 years, almost entirely focusing on street-level violent crime and firearm-related crimes.

“It creates an exponential threat to public safety,” Matthews added.

The data highlights a bigger issue, also hitting close to home in the Chicago area. According to data obtained by WGN-TV, the number of conversion devices being taken off the streets of Chicago and across Cook County spiked in 2022 compared to the previous year.

Data provided by the Chicago Police Department reveals that in all of 2021, officers recovered 395 firearms with a switch attachment or a firearm that had been modified. From the start of January 2022 through Dec. 9, officers recovered 463 firearms with a switch attachment or firearms that had been modified.

More specific data provided by CPD showed a search of “Glock firearm recovery totals” with the terms bump, sear, or switch added to the search field, revealed officers took 410 Glock pistols off the street that were modified with a switch.

At the county level, the sheriff’s office said it recovered 19 switches attached to a handgun in 2021. In 2022 that number increased, with deputies recovering 32 total.

Although Cook County Sheriff’s Office data doesn’t account for the number of switches recovered that were unattached to a firearm in 2021, in all of 2022, deputies recovered 35.

“When I first started it was mostly all handguns, very few extended magazines, no such thing as switches that made guns automatics. There was violence, don’t get me wrong, but the wounds, the types of weapons that were out there were very standard, very different,” Dart said. “Now the norm for us is that everyone we pull over has extended magazines and we find switches that turn them fully automatic. We find those all the time.”

“The number of assault weapons that we grab is going through the roof,” Dart said.

Local cases where devices were recovered

Both Dart and Matthews share the same concern about the added risk for serious bodily harm or death when a switch is added to a handgun. Part of that is because of a person’s inability to control the gun, they said.

“There is no way to control that gun when you are firing that gun,” Dart said. “Clearly the ability for innocent people to be shot and killed with these things is off the chart. There’s virtually no way this untrained person with a handgun, with an extended magazine, with a switch on it, is gonna hit the person they’re targeting. Most likely, they’re going to hit everyone around them, and that’s what we see.”

“When you’re shooting a gun, you normally try to have target acquisition and you have to manage the recoil when that gun is fired before you accurately get another round on target. What happens now, is you have unskilled shooters who can barely manage the recoil from a semi-automatic pistol, so now when you have a second, third, and fourth round coming out of that in milliseconds, who knows where those rounds are going,” Matthews said. “When you are expending all of these rounds in a densely populated urban area, it’s just a recipe for tragedy in my opinion.”

Last May, a shooting outside a Near North Side McDonald’s in Chicago left two dead and seven injured, and court documents revealed one of the suspects charged in the shooting, Jaylun Sanders, 22, is accused of using a gun equipped with a switch.

A bond court proffer showed there were multiple videos from multiple angles that captured the moments leading up to the shooting.

“Sanders pointed that handgun, which was equipped with an auto switch, and began firing it in short bursts at several victims,” the proffer read.

According to court documents, the Glock 19 recovered was able to hold a total of 34 bullets. Ballistics testing revealed that all 21 shell casings were fired from the recovered gun.

Sanders admitted to detectives, according to the proffer, he got the gun from Indiana and said he knows how to get the switch for $20 or $25 from the street.

“He said that he’s familiar with Glock switches and has shot them before,” documents revealed.

In a separate case, WGN Investigates previously obtained video from a gang shootout that happened on Chicago’s South Side in 2021.

The suspect, 25-year-old Willie Glenn, used a 40-caliber handgun equipped with a ‘Glock switch,’ and was later convicted and sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison.

Federal authorities were also able to recently secure a conviction against a firearms trafficker, Leonard Johnson, 34, or “Scrap,” who was sentenced to ten years in federal lockup for unlawfully dealing handguns and switch devices in the Chicago area.

In June 2022, Johnson pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully dealing firearms and one count of illegal possession of a machine gun.

Authorities said Johnson supplied at least four ‘Glock switches’ to a person who later sold them to a confidential informant and an undercover law enforcement officer.

A federal criminal complaint filed in the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division, showed law enforcement executed a search warrant at Johnson’s house in Robbins, and found about 117 switches, three handguns that had been converted into machine guns, another handgun, a silencer, three extended magazines, and ammunition.

According to the complaint, when asked about the switches, Johnson told an agent, “I’m not stupid. I’ve got some attachments up there. It’s what this’s called – attachments.”

Johnson also told agents he had run a “business” selling Glock conversion devices since about June 2020 and explained, that for repeat customers, he would typically sell them for about $500 each.

According to the Department of Justice, Johnson violated his conditions of pre-trial release while continuing to traffic firearms in 2021, later fleeing to Georgia, where he was arrested in March 2022. Several months later, in Aug., a federal judge sentenced him to ten years in prison.

“That is 117 machine guns that were not used in crimes in the Chicago area. I think sometimes we don’t really understand the successes we have because we are stopping future crimes and I think that’s one of the things that every switch I see – that’s possibly a homicide that was avoided,” said Matthews.

Special Agent Euphemia Lee was the lead agent on case involving Johnson. She said the case was brought to their attention by the Lansing Police Department, which informed them about a person who had conversion devices for sale, and the agencies worked jointly on the investigation.

“Federally, we work in a lot of different places. Police departments focus on specific regions, so they’re able to bring information that we otherwise wouldn’t be aware of, so we can work cases together that way,” Lee said.

Lee said the agency has intelligence research specialists who helped develop leads through social media and assist with investigative techniques.

“When we first started this investigation, not too many people knew about conversion devices, so I had to call multiple different labs, we utilized our ATF lab, and they were able to determine that it was a device that can convert to fully automatic firing,” Lee said.

Because the problem of switches hitting the streets continues to grow, Lee said she is glad to see results and credits that to interagency cooperation at the local, state, and federal level.

Law enforcement efforts to combat the problem

One of the biggest questions is, how are authorities tackling the problem? Locally, some say it has been a major challenge as these switches have proliferated the streets.

“Ourselves, everyone else have made a point of trying to go at these switches, but it’s so hard because they’re coming in in boxes from China, by the thousands, and very hard to stop, and now with the use of 3-D printers and alike, people can make them on their own and they’re very, very easy to install,” Dart said. “You know the expression ‘drinking water from a firehose?’ Sort of what we’re doing here.”

Dart said the majority of what they’re doing is case-by-case.

“We’re picking people up off the street with them on there and we’re charging them,” said Dart.

One example of this happened during a December 2021 traffic stop, when deputies with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office stopped a vehicle and recovered a Glock with a switch and a drum magazine from the passenger, Kelvon Wilkins.

Wilkins is currently charged with six felony crimes, including possessing a firearm with a defaced serial number and selling, manufacturing, purchasing, possessing or carrying a machine gun. He is currently out on bond with his next court date set for March 10, according to Cook County Clerk of Court records.

“The notion that somehow, we’re going to be able to do work on the front-end here is beyond naïve. That’s just not going to be the case,” Dart said.

He believes the penalties need to be stricter for people possessing these devices.

“This is one where at the end of the day we’re going to have to make it so if you have these things, it’s radioactive. That if you get caught with this, the penalties are really, really serious,” Dart said. “I think this is something as a state and as a county that’s where the answers are going to come from.”

Matthews also recognized the challenge that law enforcement faces when it comes to tracking down where these devices are coming from.

“Nowadays they really are much more prevalent. Initially, a lot of these were coming in from overseas and they were the metal devices, and you know, they weren’t as user-friendly. Today, we have the proliferation of 3-D printing. It’s very hard for us to uncover where these are coming from,” Matthews said.

Matthews said as an agency, they’re doing their best to get in front of this problem.

“It’s an investigative priority for us. It’s a strategic priority for our agency and one of the things we do is we offer as much training and information as we can through our Firearms, Ammunition and Technology Division, to our state and local partners,” Matthews said.

He also hopes education about the lethality of these devices, when added to a handgun, will deter people from finding a way to get their hands on them.

“I do think that sometimes some of these suspects or defendants that utilize these switches, I don’t think they even understand the level of destruction that they can cause with these devices,” Matthews said.

Both Dart and Matthews also recognize these devices pose a danger to public safety officials responding to crimes.

“Really, my heart goes out to the first responders. Those are the ones that are really in the most danger of these devices in my opinion,” Matthews said.

Dart said, “It has changed the dynamics of what we deal with on the street tremendously.”

In a recent case from December 2022 in nearby DuPage County, a detective was shot in the leg and returned fire, killing one of the suspects in a smoke shop armed robbery that led to a shooting.

Court documents show the alleged shooter used a gun modified with a switch, allowing it to be fired as a fully automatic weapon.

The injured detective was said to be recovering from his injuries at last update.