MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Police Department says a high-capacity magazine called a ‘drum magazine’ was recovered at the scene of an officer-involved shooting Tuesday night. Chief Jeffrey Norman says those are typically designed for automatic firearms, which are generally illegal in Wisconsin.
Milwaukee police say they have recovered 42 automatic firearms so far this year, a staggering 91 percent increase compared to this time last year.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, known as the ATF, says criminals across the Midwest and here in Milwaukee are catching onto a frightening trend where a tiny piece of plastic is able to turn a handgun into a fully automatic firearm.
"It's concerning because it really outguns our officers,” said Danilo Cardenas.
Cardenas with the Milwaukee Police Association says automatic firearms are terrifying for officers to encounter because they continually fire rounds until the trigger is released.
"A fully automatic weapon can shoot, depending on the size of the magazine, 30 rounds in like one or two seconds,” he said. "It just highlights that we're at a critical point right now where the criminals are emboldened. Not only are they carrying illegal firearms, most of these guys are not allowed to carry firearms, now they're upping the ante by going into fully automatic weapons."
Fully automatic firearms are illegal to sell, possess or use in Wisconsin unless they are a collector’s item made before the mid-1980s. Even then, the owner needs a special federal license to possess them.
Automatic firearms can’t be found in gun stores, but Special Agent Will Panoke with the ATF says criminals have found a way to turn all sorts of semiautomatic firearms into machine guns using a small plastic or metal device the size of a Lego.
"That one single piece is by definition under federal law a machine gun in itself, just that one single piece,” he said.
Special Agent Panoke oversees ATF investigations in the Milwaukee area. He says the devices called auto sears have been seized on Milwaukee streets.
The federal agency says the devices started showing up in the Midwest a few years ago and have become far more prevalent since.
"Initially, a lot of them were coming from overseas, but nowadays many individuals can 3D print them here domestically,” Special Agent Panoke said.
An ATF demonstration video shows how the plastic switch turns a weapon that is meant to shoot one bullet each time the trigger is pulled into one capable of rapid fire.
"When the individual that's firing off that weapon, it's really hard for them to control that firearm once it's been converted and those rounds are funneling through the weapon,” Special Agent Panoke said. “It's just obviously a dangerous issue that we're having to deal with.”
Nationwide, the ATF seized 1,500 firearms manipulated with auto sears in 2021, which was five times more than the year before. Special Agent Panoke says they’re partnering with MPD to confiscate as many as they can.
"It's disturbing first of all and it's frightening not only to the officers but to the citizens that have to walk down the street with their children, getting attacked or getting caught in the crossfire even,” Cardenas said.
People who are caught making auto sears can be sent to federal prison for up to ten years. Here in Wisconsin, criminals convicted of modifying a gun into a fully automatic firearm can be sentenced to an even longer period behind bars.