2022 Excellence in Collaboration and Partnerships finalist

The Return of the Machine Gun

About the Project

For decades the U.S. government thought it had won the war on machine guns. Since the 1930s — when Congress passed the National Firearms Act — a slew of regulations, taxes, and manufacturing bans have dwindled the pool of available automatic weapons into near oblivion. Every year the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives releases aggregate trace reports, detailing the miniscule number of machine guns recovered at crime scenes across the country. The few weapons that do exist are expensive, sought after by collectors, and out of reach for criminals. It’s a narrative that nearly everyone agrees on, from the National Rifle Association to Joe Biden.

But in the criminal underworld, that narrative has been changing. The modern age has produced a modern machine gun. Auto sears, commonly referred to as “switches” or “chips” on the street, are small metal or plastic pieces about the size of a thimble that, when installed in a semiautomatic weapon, transforms the gun into a weapon capable of emptying an entire magazine with a single pull of the trigger. These are cheap, ubiquitous, and extremely easy to install at home. They’re made by dozens of manufacturers, for both rifles and handguns, and can even be 3D-printed.

And, as Alain Stephens reported this year in partnership with VICE News’s Keegan Hamilton, they’re growing in popularity: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency responsible for policing guns in the U.S., said it seized 1,500 weapons modified with auto sears in 2021, a staggering increase over 2020, when only 300 were recovered. “Auto sears are everywhere on the street right now,” one ATF veteran told our reporters. “They’re one of the scariest things we’ve dealt with since I became an agent.”

The U.S has become an increasingly lucrative market for auto sears. Many smugglers operate out of China, court records show, where conversion devices can be manufactured at low cost and shipped to American customers falsely labeled as innocuous items. In 2019, officials at Los Angeles International Airport intercepted more than 200 packages from China containing auto sears. The packages were labeled “multitool switch” or “screwdriver.”

Experts say auto sears are particularly sought after by anti-government extremists, who see amassing military grade weapons as a way to resist the government. Last year, members of the Boogaloo Boys, an accelerationist movement that hopes to spark a second civil war, used weapons equipped with auto sears to attack a federal courthouse. “You really do have to take it seriously,” one expert on extremism told the reporters. “Some may argue it’s only a matter of time before we see one of these shooting sprees actually be conducted with full-auto weapons.”

As Stephens would report, an auto sear did show up in a mass shooting in the weeks after the story was released — when six people were killed and twelve injured in downtown Sacramento.