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8 men are now facing federal machine gun charges in Cleveland. Here's what we know

A Glock 29 10mm pistol hangs on display with other Glock hand guns.
Julie Jacobson
A Glock 29 10mm pistol hangs on display with other Glock hand guns at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade show, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland announced nearly 60 arrests on charges including firearm trafficking and the possession and sale of machine guns.

Ideastream Public Media’s Matt Richmond has been going through the eight separate indictments related to firearm sales to see what they can tell us about the illegal gun market in Northeast Ohio.

He spoke with Ideastream’s Glenn Forbes about when the arrests occurred and what the charges were.

RICHMOND: The arrests started in June led by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Eight of the cases and 25 of the individuals who were arrested were for gun trafficking, illegal sales of guns or the sale of machine guns or the devices used to convert handguns to full automatic.

FORBES: Explain that last one — what is the difference between a handgun and a machine gun and what are these devices you’re talking about?

RICHMOND: Handguns are typically semiautomatic, which means one bullet is fired with every trigger pull.

And even though we think of machine guns as being larger weapons you see in the movies or the military, to be a machine gun means a weapon is just fully automatic — one trigger pull will fire bullets continuously until the trigger is released or the magazine runs out of bullets.

The devices that are used to make a handgun fully automatic are called “auto sears” or “switches” or “Glock switches” and it’s just a simple piece of metal or plastic that are attached at the end of the barrel above the grip. They're easy to install and they block the part of the gun known as the “trigger bar” from resetting when the trigger is pulled. That allows the gun to keep firing with a single pull of the trigger.

FORBES: These devices were showing up in all these illegal sales?

RICHMOND: In most of them. Five of the eight gun sales cases involved either the illegal possession or the sale of either a gun outfitted with one of the switches or the switches themselves.

The federal government views possessing or selling just that switch by itself as the same as illegally owning or selling a machine gun.

FORBES: Could you talk a bit about the appeal of these devices on the street?

RICHMOND: First of all, a fully automatic or machine gun is extremely difficult to get. Since 1934, fully automatic weapons, or machine guns, have been heavily regulated. You need a special permit from the federal government and then only a very limited number of these weapons are sold commercially.

They appear to be extremely profitable to the people selling them. According to one indictment, a defendant in June sold just the individual switches for between $500 and $700.

My research shows that on the dark web, sellers have just popped up and kind of masked the product they were selling — marketing them under other uses like as wall hooks or other products — that you could buy for as little as $20.

FORBES: What’s known about where they’re coming to Cleveland from?

RICHMOND: That’s one of the big questions that was left from these indictments. There’s nothing in them about who’s providing the guns to the street-level sellers who were indicted. It’s pretty clear that the people who were indicted had, at their disposal, large supplies.

There’s one case where undercover officers kept coming back to a couple of defendants day after day, between July 24 and Aug. 16. In that time they bought more than 50 guns. And at one point, one of the defendants said he could get 50 more guns at once for $45,000.

FORBES: The question is what kind of dent does this put in violent crime in Cleveland?

RICHMOND: According to federal authorities, 240 guns were seized overall between June and August.

Presumably, authorities are learning a lot about where these guns are coming from and these these machine gun conversion devices are coming from and that should help them slow the flow of guns into the city.

These were guys who were well-known to the city. Many of them had felony cases within the last 18 months that were either pending or they were on probation for. And so it does support the argument from police officers that much of the violent crime in the city is being driven by a relatively low number of known individuals. And it seems like they’ve really targeted them with these cases.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.