'People will lose their lives' 13 Investigates explosion in illegal 'Glock switches'

Sarah Rafique Image
Sunday, January 30, 2022
Penny-sized 'Glock switch' can turn a handgun into an automatic
13 Investigates how Glock switches can turn a legal handgun into an illegal weapon that can fire 30 bullets in 2.3 seconds.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A suspect fleeing from police Thursday crashed into a curb, opened his driver-side door and started shooting multiple rounds toward officers before their patrol cars could even come to a stop in the 2100 block of McGowen Street.

Within eight seconds, the suspect, later identified as 31-year-old Roland Caballero, fired so many shots that the front of one officer's SUV started to give off smoke.

It's hard to count in real time just how many rounds Caballero allegedly shot. He was allegedly using an automatic weapon, likely a handgun that was illegally modified with a Glock switch or similar device.

"Officers described it as a fully automatic weapon," Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said after the shooting. "That's something else we need to address in our community and we will."

The switch, which is about the size of a penny, can turn a gun from an ordinary handgun that fires a single round every time the trigger is pulled to an automatic weapon that can spew out dozens of bullets with one pull of the trigger.

SEE ALSO: ABC13 exclusive video shows chase suspect crash near downtown and injure 3 officers in shootout

Illegal Glock switches that are added onto firearms are about the size of a penny.

13 Investigates started looking into the devices after an HPD officer was killed in September by a suspect who also allegedly had a gun equipped with a Glock switch.

We found the devices are not only dangerous and deadly when used by criminals, but police are finding the illegal devices more and more in Houston and across the U.S.

During a visit to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' office in Houston, an agent shot the modified weapon and timed how quickly a Glock with a switch can fire bullets. It took just 2.23 seconds to fire 30 bullets.

They said the speed of the weapon makes it harder to aim and control, leaving bystanders even more at risk whenever a criminal uses one.

"Imagine just being in a mall and somebody spraying that whole clip inside a mall, how many people could get hit? It's scary," Houston Police Officers' Union Doug Griffith said. "If you're in front of that, there's absolutely no way to react fast enough to not get showered with bullets from that. It is truly less than two and a half seconds for a 30 round magazine."

Fred Milanowski, the special agent in charge of ATF's Houston Field Division, said there were 11 investigations involving Glock switches or modification devices in 2020. The cases tripled in 2021.

Milanowski said in 2020, ATF seized about 33 of the Glock switches. That increased drastically last year when they seized 145.

The switch is an illegal aftermarket add-on to the popular Glock pistol.

"The average person would have no idea what this was if they saw this on the back of someone's gun," said Steve King, of Saddle River Range in Conroe. "Some law enforcement potentially wouldn't even know what this was if they saw it on the back of someone's gun."

Although they're commonly referred to as Glock switches, they are not made or sold by the company GLOCK, Inc.

"There's not a real perfect name for them because they're not a legitimate device," Milanowski said.

'Wasting ammunition'

Owning a Glock switch, even if it's not attached to a gun, is illegal under federal law since it is considered a machine gun. But, under Texas law they're only considered illegal if they're installed onto a gun.

Legitimate switches are rare and always have a serial number on them. They can only be owned by properly licensed firearms dealers or rarely by individuals who have a machine gun permit under federal law.

Saddle River Range is a licensed gun dealer that has a legal version of the switch available for rent on site - a rarity even among firearms dealers. King, who works at the range, showed 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg how to use the device.

"You have to work to keep the gun down on target and shoot where you want it and for an inexperienced individual, they're not going to do that effectively," King said.

First, Oberg fired a Glock without a switch, pulling the trigger three times to fire three bullets toward a target at the gun range.

Then, once the switch was added to the weapon, Oberg fired over a dozen of bullets in two seconds with one pull of the trigger.

"Wow," Oberg said. "I don't think I hit one where I was aiming it. It's completely out of control."

King said anytime something is illegal, criminals will want to get involved. He said he is worried that the switches are being illegally manufactured.

"Anyone who's actually educated about firearms knows that this serves no real purpose," King said. "It's something to go and have fun and brag that, 'Hey, I've done this before,' but it serves no real purpose. You're wasting ammunition."

Milanowski said Glock switches are being found more by officers and crime scene technicians. He is concerned about the increasing homicides and the number of non-fatal shootings, but said ATF is committed to working with local law enforcement agencies to prosecute cases where someone is found with an illegal switch.

"Houston's not different, although it's magnified a little bit, but Chicago's having a big challenge. Washington, D.C. is having a big challenge, other places around the country are also having this challenge for the same reason," Milanowski said. "It's a mindset of the criminals, particularly gang members that want this latest, greatest device to show how much they can intimidate their neighborhood."

Two of the three officers injured in Thursday's shooting have already been released from the hospital. Caballero, the suspect, was shot in the neck during the incident. He has multiple prior charges in Harris County, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

ORIGINAL REPORT: Suspect accused of shooting 3 officers now in custody after hourslong standoff, HPD says

Finner emphasized that it is just a small number of Houstonians who are "committing havoc," but that city and county leaders need to come together and do whatever they can to address and lower violent crime.

"No more excuses," Finner said. "Everybody take an active role and get intentional in doing whatever you can do to fight gun violence in our city. Period. It's not really a difficult thing. Bad, dangerous people, there's a place for them and that's in jail."

'No legitimate purpose for these'

With more of these illegal devices on Houston streets, Griffith said officers never know what they might face when encountering criminals, who need to be held more accountable for their actions.

"You've got to look at every traffic stop now as you may be facing off with an automatic weapon," Griffith said. "We've recovered a lot of those here in Houston already and it's surprising how many we've found that already have these switches on."

Milanowski said since there are more Texas law enforcement agencies - like state troopers, county sheriff's and constable offices and local police departments - and fewer federal officers, it would be helpful for state and federal law to both consider just possessing the device to be illegal.

"There's no legitimate purpose for these. It's not like they're being diverted from legal sales to illegal sales," Milanowski said. "These are illegal to manufacture them, illegal to possess them, illegal to sell them."

He said through their investigations, they've targeted manufacturers, sellers and people who possess them for use.

Milanowski said many of the illegal devices are manufactured in foreign countries and shipped illegally to the U.S. under the guise of "toys" or "accessories."

"We have sent cease and desist letters to several social media sites, but it seems like every time you shut one down, they don't have to go very far to find another one," Milanowski said. "These are for sale, we know, on the internet and we follow up on every single one we become aware of, hence the reason our investigations have tripled since 2020 to 2021."

As switches are being found more and more at crime scenes, there has been a push to educate law enforcement officers about what the metal pieces look like and how dangerous they can be when installed on a gun.

Thursday's shooting, which ended up injuring three officers, is not the first time a modified handgun has been used in a police shooting.

In September, Houston Police Department Senior Officer William "Bill" Jeffrey died and another officer was seriously injured by a suspect who had an illegally modified weapon with a Glock switch.

RELATED: Video of shootout released that killed senior officer, shooter used illegally modified gun, HPD says

"These violent individuals, I'm damn tired of it and we need to stand up as a community and do whatever we've got to do. If that is to have more jail capacity, let's get it done. No more excuses," Finner said Thursday.

Over the last few months, Milanowski said ATF has been conducting training with local law enforcement officers to educate them about switches. At just about every training, he said, there are officers who say something along the lines of "oh, we came across those and didn't know what they were."

He said, when the device is not attached to a gun, it's easy for officers to overlook, especially if they don't know to look for them.

"We continue to educate local law enforcement because the reality is they're the eyes and ears. They end up with traffic stops and looking in vehicles or search warrants or narcotics warrants and if they know what they're coming across, if they know what they are, those can be seized and taken off the streets," Milanowski said.

Last year, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said "deputies responded to a residential neighborhood where they found a vehicle that was riddled with bullet holes."

Talking about that incident during a press conference in October, Gonzales said that someone who was picking up pizza was shot to death when he returned to his driveway in a scene. He said neighbors described it sounding like a machine gun and they discovered 30 rounds that were fired from a gun equipped with a switch.

He said deputies also found a switch after stopping a felon for reckless driving in March.

'We will get through these times'

Milanowski said glock switches have been around for years. He's not sure why they're seeing an uptick in cases, but said they've been confiscated from people who shouldn't have guns at all, like convicted felons.

"A lot of criminals' mindset is they want the latest, greatest, coolest, dangerous thing. It emboldens them to think that they're stronger," Milanowski said. "If they're doing a drive-by at a house or a car, they can put 30 rounds into that car in 2.5 seconds (but) they can't pull a trigger quick enough as they're driving-by to do that, so that (using the glock switch is) intimidating."

The officers in Thursday's incident were shot in the foot, leg and arm and are expected to recover. Caballero carjacked a woman and fled the scene of the shooting to a home in the 1800 block of Lockwood, where he barricaded himself for hours until finally surrendering with his hands up at 7:45 p.m.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said there are too many guns on the streets.

Turner and HPD Chief Finner said they will lay out a comprehensive plan with additional steps next week that will address the high violent crime rate and make the city safer.

"I'm going to ask people in this city to work with police, to work with crime stoppers and others and to participate in helping to make this city a safer city and if we work together we will do that, we will get through these times," Turner said. "I know a lot of people are fearful right now, justifiably so, but we will get through these times."

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