Federal agents, prosecutors going after machine-gun conversion devices in Tennessee

May 22, 2023, 3:59 PM

Kevin Ritz, the U.S. attorney in West Tennessee, speaks during a news conference, Monday, May 22, 2...

Kevin Ritz, the U.S. attorney in West Tennessee, speaks during a news conference, Monday, May 22, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn., about a crackdown on devices that turn semiautomatic firearms into machine guns. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)

(AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Twenty-six people in Tennessee have been recently convicted or face charges for possessing “switches,” devices that convert semi-automatic firearms into a machine guns, which can be made with 3-D printers and bought on the internet, federal law enforcement officials said during a news conference Monday.

Federal investigators and local law enforcement officers in Memphis and Jackson have been trying to slow down the proliferation of switches as they work to stem a growing wave of gun violence, said Kevin Ritz, the U.S. attorney for the federal district in West Tennessee.

A Memphis native who was nominated by President Joe Biden and sworn in last September, Ritz said communities “are reeling from gun violence” — a problem worsened by the increased 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 have already received 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 one case, a man was sentenced in March to more than two years in prison of selling four switches to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents and preparing to sell them 20 more. In another, 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 can come from other countries such as Russia or China, and they 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 violent crimes that typically involve guns such as murders and aggravated assaults increased in the first three months of this year by 7 percent, compared with the same time period in 2022, according to statistics released by the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission.

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

Some Memphis shootings have received national attention, such as the police officer inside a library in February.

Discussions about gun violence have ramped up this year in Tennessee, where calls for reform stemming from high-profile shootings have contrasted with laws such as one that allows people to carry a handgun without a permit.

The GOP-led Tennessee General Assembly plans to start a special session 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.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee announced the special session earlier this month. However, it’s not clear what parameters the governor 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.

While federal prosecutors and law enforcement don’t make laws and only enforce them, they do “track carefully developments in state law and federal law concerning firearms,” Ritz said.

“Sometimes those developments make it harder to 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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Federal agents, prosecutors going after machine-gun conversion devices in Tennessee