'Ghost guns' are firearms without serial numbers. Oftentimes they are a combination of actual gun parts and others printed at home on 3D printers. At the Houston Field Division Office Tuesday afternoon, ATF Firearms Enforcement Officer Earl Griffith showed 13 Investigates how the printers can make firearm components, silencers, Glock switches and auto-sear devices capable of turning a legal rifle into a machine gun.
13 Investigates recently revealed the proliferation of so called Glock switches on Houston streets. One was allegedly on the firearm used to shoot three Houston police officers.
"This particular device can be printed on this printer, which costs less than $200, in about 40 minutes. The (design) files you can download for free, and this material to print, it looks like a weed whacker cord, costs about $23 for this whole spool. And you can probably print over a hundred of these devices with that spool," Griffith explained.
The easy availability and low cost are just two of the reasons the devices are exploding in popularity. The Houston Forensic Science Center released figures on Tuesday showing the number of those devices entered into the firearms lab nearly tripled in 2021.
In an interview surrounded by what the ATF calls 'Privately Made Firearms,' Griffith explained the criminal element is eager to get the devices, "So you can outgun the other side, like the wild west. It used to be Flintlocks and so forth, but then when the six-shooters came about, then everyone wanted a six-shooter. But now, everyone wants a machine gun conversion device to convert their Glock pistol into a machine gun."
The devices, which are almost always illegal to sell in the United States, can make guns far more dangerous.
"Certainly from the law enforcement perspective, if we pull over someone for a reason and walk up to the car, now they can have a machine gun that they're just spraying here and you can spray like 33 rounds and 1.4 seconds," Griffith explained. "For law enforcement, it's almost like they're out gunned because law enforcement doesn't carry machine guns."
Griffith is in town from Washington, DC to train local law enforcement officers on what to look out for. He's conducted similar sessions in 30 other US cities and at each one, he says, officers say they didn't realize what they were looking at until the training. Some tell him they find the devices already in inventory once they go back and look.
Education is key to slowing the spread of the devices as the components used to make them are neither regulated, nor against the law.
"We do not regulate the printer. We don't regulate files or materials, but once you make this, this a prohibited item. It is a machine gun... 3d printing is used for many things, just like the internet. It can be good and bad."
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