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CNN One Thing

You’ve been overwhelmed with headlines all week – what's worth a closer look? One Thing takes you into the story and helps you make sense of the news everyone's been talking about. Each Sunday, host David Rind interviews one of CNN’s world-class reporters to tell us what they've found – and why it matters. From the team behind CNN 5 Things.

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“Machine guns are back, and they’re everywhere.”
CNN One Thing
Sep 4, 2022

This episode contains graphic descriptions of gun violence.

According to a new analysis provided exclusively to CNN, the number of shootings involving automatic weapons in the US has sharply risen over the past few years. We examine how a small piece of plastic can transform a semi-automatic weapon into a machine gun in a matter of moments and how law enforcement is responding.

Guest: Curt Devine, CNN Investigates Producer

Episode Transcript
President Joe Biden
00:00:01
Well, look folks, it's great to be here in Wilkes-Barre. I mean that sincerely.
David Rind (Host)
00:00:06
President Joe Biden was in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, last Tuesday. He was there talking law enforcement and public safety ahead of the midterms. And he mentioned that bipartisan gun safety bill he signed into law earlier this summer. Remember, it was a huge breakthrough after 30 years of congressional gridlock on the issue. But even Biden said while it does a lot, it's still not enough.
President Joe Biden
00:00:28
We're not stopping here. I'm determined to ban assault weapons in this country. Determined.
David Rind (Host)
00:00:40
And this wasn't new. Biden and gun safety advocates have been calling for an assault weapons ban for a long time. In 2004, a ban that he helped get through Congress as a senator ten years earlier expired. But the calls have gotten louder, most recently after the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, where assault rifles were once again the weapon of choice.
President Joe Biden
00:01:01
For God's sake. What's the rationale for these weapons outside of a war zone?
David Rind (Host)
00:01:08
Those guns were semi-automatic. But recently the CNN Investigates team has been looking into the reemergence of fully automatic weapons on American streets. Today, producer Curt Devine tells me the reason behind this surge in machine guns may lie in small pieces of plastic and metal. From CNN. This is One Thing. I'm David Rind. Curt, where does this story start?
Curt Devine
00:01:43
Well, our team examined this tragedy that occurred last year in Houston, Texas. Police were serving an arrest warrant on a previously convicted felon. What happened next was all captured on body cameras the officers were wearing.
Officer
00:01:59
Houston police come to the door.
Curt Devine
00:02:02
They knock on the door of this apartment and call for the individual they were there to take into custody.
Officer
00:02:08
Deon it's Houston police, Let's do this...
Curt Devine
00:02:11
Moments later, you can hear a torrent of rapid gunfire.
Officer
00:02:15
Bill...
Curt Devine
00:02:22
Senior Officer, Bill Jeffrey, who is approaching retirement, was shot multiple times and died. Turns out the shooter who was going to be arrested that day was using an illegal modification device on his gun that made it fire fully automatic. So an autopsy report shows Officer Jeffrey was shot more than a dozen times.
Drew Griffin
00:02:47
What was your reaction when you found out what this criminal had in his hands .
Lacie Jeffrey
00:02:53
Disgust disbelief, anger.
Curt Devine
00:02:57
Our team then with correspondent Drew Griffin went to talk to the officers daughter. Her name is Lacie Jeffrey.
Lacie Jeffrey
00:03:04
We do not live in a war zone. There is no need for us to have these automatic weapons on the streets of Houston, anywhere in the United States.
Curt Devine
00:03:13
She expressed to us complete disbelief and outrage that these automatic conversion devices are even out there. So we dug into the issue to find out more.
David Rind (Host)
00:03:22
Yeah, So what did you guys find?
Curt Devine
00:03:24
Well, let's just back up for a moment and describe what we're talking about here. A machine gun means multiple bullets can be fired with one press of the trigger. Fully automatic, machine guns are heavily regulated. It's essentially illegal for U.S. civilians to possess machine guns manufactured after 1986. Ownership of a machine gun made before then requires a federal permit and registration. But what we're talking about here are not machine guns, as people traditionally think of them.
David Rind (Host)
00:03:54
Like out from Al Capone times.
Curt Devine
00:03:56
Exactly. So these are not that these are what are called automatic conversion devices or referred to as switches. They often look like little toys, harmless pieces of plastic or metal, but they can transform a semiautomatic weapon into a machine gun.
PJ
00:04:14
Okay. We're going...
Curt Devine
00:04:16
To see how all of this works. We went to a shooting range in West Virginia run by the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Agent
00:04:26
So right now, I'm just going to shoot it, right.
Curt Devine
00:04:28
So we went to this ATF range and an undercover agent gave us a demonstration of first firing a semiautomatic weapon. And you can hear it fires quickly, but he has to pull the trigger each time. So it's a pop, pop, pop.
Agent
00:04:45
We're going to remove the factory slide cover plate off the back.
Curt Devine
00:04:50
Then he installed this conversion kit.
Agent
00:04:52
And it's now installed.
Curt Devine
00:04:54
And in moments, he was showing us how it fires fully automatic.
Drew Griffin
00:05:01
Holy moly.
Curt Devine
00:05:03
And our jaws dropped. We were amazed at how simple and yet powerful this is.
David Rind (Host)
00:05:07
Right. Because he assembled this piece right in front of you, and then it became this machine gun.
Curt Devine
00:05:14
Right. I mean, if you're watching the bullets come out, it looks like something out of a war.
Earl Griffith
00:05:19
And so I'll go back to this, a printer that cost $170 and they can print probably 50 plus of these machine gun conversion devices in a matter of 40 minutes.
Curt Devine
00:05:31
Earl Griffith with the ATF showed us how relatively simple it is to make these devices with 3-D printers. They can be installed on weapons in moments, to quote him. It's very easy.
Earl Griffith
00:05:41
And I'm not computer savvy, but one of the guys says it's easy. Watch this YouTube. Watched YouTube. And in a matter of 15 minutes, I was able to do it myself the first time.
Drew Griffin
00:05:51
Really? Really.
Curt Devine
00:05:52
Griffith has said he personally learned in about 15 minutes how to use a 3-D printer to make these devices on YouTube.
David Rind (Host)
00:05:59
Just instructions on YouTube, just up for all to see.
Curt Devine
00:06:02
Right. So that caught me off guard, too. And so I actually sat down at my laptop and logged on to YouTube and ran some basic search terms and found a series of videos that showed me personally how to make these devices or install them if I wanted to. So collectively, these videos racked up more than 1 million views, so I was far from the only one watching this. We flagged these videos for YouTube and the company removed them. But the broader issue remains these devices have been growing in popularity. CNN actually reported back in 2019 on the way, federal authorities were working to hunt down thousands of these devices that were suspected of being imported into the U.S. from China. But now we're seeing in court records that there's effectively a black market for these in the U.S. And another challenge for law enforcement, as I was mentioning, is that these switches can be 3D printed inside anyone's home.
Thomas Chittum
00:06:55
It's unbelievable, Drew. Not since prohibition have we seen this many machine guns being used to commit crimes. Machine guns are back and they're everywhere.
Curt Devine
00:07:08
So the most troubling aspect of this and why this matters is that over the past few years, we're seeing that the number of shootings involving automatic weapons has skyrocketed.
David Rind (Host)
00:07:28
Curt, before the break, you mentioned something. I think our listeners would just be pretty shocked by. That fully automatic machine guns are being used in shootings across the country. Like, just how common is this?
Curt Devine
00:07:40
Right. So there have been some high profile incidents. Listeners might remember the mass shooting in Sacramento in April. Six people were killed there. But we actually got our hands on some exclusive data from a company called ShotSpotter. It's a gunfire detection company that works with police departments. They found incidents of machine gunfire up 1400 percent from 2019 through last year. So that's 14 times. And last year alone, they detected roughly 5600 incidents of automatic weapons fire. So that's a massive jump in the span of a few years. The federal government is also finding more and more of these conversion devices. ATF seized something like more than 1500 last year. That number was fewer than 100 in 2017. But it's tough to even identify automatic weapons fire because the shell casings look exactly like the ones fired from semiautomatic weapons.
David Rind (Host)
00:08:36
Oh, yeah, I didn't think about that. So how do you differentiate? You mentioned this company, ShotSpotter, that has this this data. How do they track automatic gunfire?
Curt Devine
00:08:45
Right. So ShotSpotter has these audio sensors posted up in about 130 U.S. cities. If you live in a major U.S. city, chances are you might even be able to look around and see these things. They detect gunfire in order to alert police.
Drew Griffin
00:09:01
Well Tom, just lay out what is what are we looking at? What is what is happening here in front of us.
Curt Devine
00:09:07
Our team went to their office in Washington, D.C. to see how they do this.
Thomas Chittum
00:09:11
So here you can see all of the incidents that ShotSpotter has detected and classified as fully automatic in the last 24 hours. And she can play some of these these.
Curt Devine
00:09:23
They have an algorithm that seeks to distinguish between typical city sounds like construction work and actual gunfire. Then they have analysts check with the algorithm flags. And if they determine that those sounds are indeed gunfire, they flag that for police.
David Rind (Host)
00:09:39
So it's up to the person listening in the end to determine if it's really gunfire.
Curt Devine
00:09:45
That's correct. And they showed us examples of what they were hearing as automatic gunfire. And it was stunning to hear what's happening on streets across this nation.
Drew Griffin
00:09:55
30 rounds.
Kaelyn
00:09:55
30 rounds here in Baltimore, Maryland.
00:09:57
In Baltimore. This was. Sometime on Tuesday or Wednesday?
Kaelyn
00:10:02
Yes, sir. This was 4 p.m. yesterday.
Curt Devine
00:10:05
While the company's business model is built on detecting gunfire and helping police respond. ShotSpotter has faced criticism. This is centered on its sensors being placed in predominantly minority communities, which critics say increases the use of stop and frisk type tactics. Others have questioned ShotSpotter overall value because they say there's no compelling evidence that it system decreases gun violence over time. And still others, such as defense attorneys, have questioned the reliability of ShotSpotter's results the the company has pushed back against all of this and says it has a 97% accuracy rate, a figure backed by an audit paid for by the company. It also cites studies it says are proof of its positive impact and says the company consults local officials in determining where to put its sensors. But for the purposes of our conversation here, most of that back and forth doesn't really have implications for the way that their data clearly shows incidents of automatic gunfire have skyrocketed.
David Rind (Host)
00:11:03
Right. So at that said, what can anybody do about this at the local or federal level?
Curt Devine
00:11:10
Yeah, in simple terms, there's no easy answers. More than 40 House members did send a letter to ATF in April pushing for stronger enforcement. But ATF says they're already seeking to educate local law enforcement in how to identify these conversion kits to get them off the streets. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Gary Peters introduced legislation in July which would track the illegal modifications because right now there's no reliable data on how many are out there. And there's been talk of changing how guns are manufactured, so switches can't be put on them. But people say if someone so determined, they could just find a workaround.
David Rind (Host)
00:11:49
So if they own a 3D printer, they can make up a design that would get around it.
Curt Devine
00:11:54
Exactly.
Kaelyn
00:11:56
Currently, these switches are on the federal level. They're a felony. But with Texas legislature, they are hidden in the misdemeanor law and they are not addressed as a felony as they should be.
Curt Devine
00:12:09
Back to to Lacie Jeffrey, the fallen Houston police officer's daughter. She told us that she's been pressing for a tougher law in Texas that would have harsher penalties for people that are busted possessing these conversion devices.
Drew Griffin
00:12:26
What's the reception been?
Kaelyn
00:12:29
Um nothing. I have emailed. I have written letters. I have called and left voicemails.
Curt Devine
00:12:34
She told us she wrote to a number of legislators and didn't hear back from any of them.
David Rind (Host)
00:12:39
Fascinating reporting. Thank you, Curt.
Curt Devine
00:12:42
Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
David Rind (Host)
00:12:56
One thing is a production of CNN audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me David Rind. Greg Peppers is the supervising producer. Our production manager is Matt Dempsey and the executive producer of CNN Audio is Megan Marcus. And before we go, a big shout out to our senior producer, Muhammad Darwish. He's actually moving on to a new adventure here at CNN and we will certainly miss him around here. Thanks for listening. And we'll be back next Sunday. We'll talk to you then.