Machine-gun conversion devices known as switches targeted by feds in Tennessee, have been a problem in Chicago

Authorities in Memphis and Jackson, Tenn., have been trying to slow the proliferation of switches. A Sun-Times / WBEZ / NPR investigation last year showed the devices increasingly are fueling violence.

SHARE Machine-gun conversion devices known as switches targeted by feds in Tennessee, have been a problem in Chicago
Kevin Ritz, the U.S. attorney in West Tennessee, who says switches “threaten public safety and make the gun violence problem even worse.”

Kevin Ritz, the U.S. attorney in West Tennessee, says switches “threaten public safety and make the gun violence problem even worse.”

Adrian Sainz / AP

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Twenty-six people in Tennessee recently have been convicted or face charges for possessing cheap, easy-to-obtain devices known on the street as switches that convert semi-automatic firearms into a machine guns, federal law enforcement officials said Monday.

The devices, which are easily fitted into a semi-automatic weapon, can be made with 3-D printers or even bought on the Internet, a Chicago Sun-Times / WBEZ / NPR investigation last year found.

U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz said federal investigators and local law enforcement officers in Memphis and Jackson, Tenn., have been trying to slow the proliferation of switches as they work to stem a growing wave of gun violence.

A Memphis native who was nominated by President Joe Biden and sworn in last September, Ritz said communities “are reeling from gun violence” and that the problem has grown worse because of the growing number of switches found in the region.

“Switches are illegal and highly dangerous devices that convert semiautomatic firearms into machine guns,” Ritz said. “These devices threaten public safety and make the gun violence problem even worse.”

Seven of the 15 people who have been convicted of machine gun possession or other firearms-related crime in Tennessee have been handed prison sentences of up to 8 1/2 years. Nine others have been charged with offenses related to switches, which make guns much harder to control when fired, prosecutors said.

In the recent cases in Tennessee, one man was sentenced in March to more than two years in prison of selling four switches to federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents and preparing to sell them 20 more.

In another case, a convicted felon was sentenced in December to more than eight years in prison for selling a short-barreled rifle and getting caught with a Glock pistol equipped with an extended magazine and a machine-gun conversion device.

The devices are inexpensive and can be bought on the Internet, said Marcus Watson, special agent in charge for the Nashville field division of the ATF.

Ritz said the devices often come from other countries such as Russia or China and can be made on 3-D printers.

“Machine guns have no place in the general public,” Watson said.

Many of the arrests came in Memphis, where the numbers of violent crimes that typically involve guns in the first three months of this year are up 7% , compared with the same period in 2022, according to the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission.

Authorities reported 81 killings in Memphis from January to March, up from 60 in the first quarter of 2022.

Some Memphis shootings have gotten national attention, such as the killing of rapper Young Dolph at a bakery in November 2001, a daylong shooting rampage in September that was livestreamed by a suspect charged with killing three people and wounding three others, and the killing of a police officer inside a library in February.

The Republican-led Tennessee General Assembly plans a special session starting Aug. 21 to discuss gun-related legislation after lawmakers did not take on gun control during the regular session that ended April 21. Efforts at gun reform gained in volume after three children and three adults were fatally shot at The Covenant School in Nashville in March.

It isn’t clear what parameters Republican Gov. Bill Lee will set for what can be considered during the session or what changes lawmakers would be willing to discuss. During the regular session, Lee pushed for legislation that would keep firearms away from people who could harm themselves or others.

Though prosecutors and law enforcement officials don’t make laws, they “track carefully developments in state law and federal law concerning firearms,” Ritz said.

“Sometimes, those developments make it harder for us to keep the public safe,” Ritz said. “But what I will say is, as long as federal prosecutors have tools to tackle the gun violence problem, we will use those tools often and aggressively.”

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