‘That’s scary’: New gun trend has Marion County law enforcement asking for help from Indiana lawmakers
Two years ago, law enforcement grew concerned when they encountered a new trend in Indianapolis. They were discovering guns capable of automatic fire, similar to an illegal machine gun.
The guns were contributing to Indianapolis’ worsening levels of violence. Some of the weapons were being used in shootings where cars and homes were sprayed with bullets; some were also used in homicides. Crime scenes were being littered with at least 50 shell casings.
So when Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officers found people carrying the guns during traffic stops and home searches, Marion County prosecutors were determined to find a way to stop the weapons from returning to the streets.
Back then, Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears’ office turned to a little-used state law to begin charging people with felonies. They filed charges for possession of a machine gun.
There’s just one problem, though. The firearms in question? They aren’t technically machine guns.
Instead, they’re often semi-automatic rifles and handguns that have been modified using devices available on the internet. Some can be created in a few minutes using a 3D printer.
But in Indiana, where personal gun ownership roars as loudly as a full field at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, state lawmakers rarely show an appetite for clamping down on firearms using the state’s criminal code. Last legislative session, for example, lawmakers changed the law to no longer require all Hoosiers to obtain permits to carry their handguns in public — which, while it benefited legal gun-owners, also stripped law enforcement of a method to help stem the flow of illegally used guns.
Without that law, and without many allies in the Republican-controlled Statehouse, the Democratic prosecutor Mears said he needed to be creative to address the emerging threat of modified weapons. That’s what spurred them to unearth the statute that banned the use of machine guns in Indiana.
“Admittedly this is an aggressive interpretation of the statute,” Mears told State Affairs Indiana in an interview this month. “Especially with the repeal of the handgun without a license statute, there's oftentimes if we didn't file the machine gun (charge), there'd be nothing that we could file now.”
That strategy could be endangered, however. While Marion County prosecutors have successfully used the statute to land nine convictions so far, none of those cases were decided by juries. Every defendant simply pleaded guilty to the charges. And a charge in one other case is now under consideration by the Indiana Court of Appeals, which could halt the prosecutor’s use of the statute.
Auto sears and Glock switches
Firearms can be modified to mimic automatic fire by using a few different devices, none of which are endorsed by gun manufacturers. One of the most common for some handguns — often called a Glock switch — is not created by the company behind Glock handguns, for example.
Still, the weapons are easily converted. And they are powerful: By one officer’s account, a single pull of the trigger could empty a 30-round magazine in less than three seconds.
“Now imagine that the gun is shooting out these 40-caliber rounds in less than three seconds with all that recoil,” said Chris Bailey, who serves as assistant police chief in Indianapolis, “and how much control that person actually has over that handgun.”
The so-called Glock switches have been in use on the American coasts for a few years, Bailey said, but have only arrived in Indiana in the last couple of years. They are especially popular among teenagers and young adults, maybe because it requires a bit of tech savvy to create and install the devices.
Another modification for semi-automatic rifles has been around for years but is finding new prevalence on the streets, according to law enforcement. It’s referred to broadly as an auto sear, which can transform AR-15s to replicate automatic fire.
“That lethal round will cut through metal and right through ballistic protection on police officers with no problem,” Bailey said. “That’s scary stuff, especially if you see these videos.”
Indiana law on machine gun conversion devices
Federal law prohibits both Glock switches and auto sears under the National Firearms Act. If someone in Indiana were caught carrying a converted weapon, they could face charges in federal court. Federal authorities, though, tend to remain selective on which cases they’ll pursue, leaving the vast majority to local prosecutors and courts.
Indiana’s law, meanwhile, isn’t as clear. One part of the law bars the sale of conversion devices; the part defining possession of a machine gun as a crime, though, does not include specific language about the devices.
The lack of clarity has prompted one defense attorney to fight Mears in court. In filings on behalf of a client, the attorney emphasized the discrepancy in Indiana law.
“The plain language of the machine gun statute does not include a handgun that has been modified with a firearm accessory. If the Legislature intended for the definition of a machine gun to include handguns equipped with ‘switches,’ they would have explicitly included such language as they have done in other statutes,” wrote Omar Ghani, the Indianapolis-based attorney.
Ghani did not return a State Affairs Indiana voicemail.
In court, Mears' office is essentially arguing that any weapon that can fire multiple shots with a single pull of a trigger is a machine gun.
A local judge in Marion Superior Court sided with the prosecutor’s office. Ghani, though, appealed that decision. Now the outcome is in the hands of the Indiana Court of Appeals.
If the appeals court decides that handguns modified with Glock switches are not machine guns, then several cases could be affected. More than 50 cases are pending, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Bipartisan interest in Central Indiana
In the meantime, Indianapolis law enforcement is asking for help from the Legislature to specifically define the conversion devices as illegal.
It’s not yet known how receptive both chambers will be, as most gun restrictions tend to die without a hearing in Indiana. It’s also unclear whether Republican legislators may be dissuaded by past political battles with Mears, who has defied legislative threats by refusing to prosecute people caught with small amounts of marijuana and pledging to never prosecute women or doctors over abortions. (Lawmakers have previously introduced bills that would empower the Indiana attorney general to step in, but the bills have not passed.)
But Bailey, the assistant police chief, believes there is bipartisan interest among Central Indiana lawmakers to address his concerns about conversion devices.
“Hey, this is Indiana. And people don't like messing with gun laws,” Bailey said, "but I'm not saying restrict guns, I'm saying restrict this piece that makes it a machine gun, which you've already said is illegal."
One key ally is Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee. Bailey said he shared potential language drafted by the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office that mirrors federal code.
Freeman told State Affairs Indiana that he’s examining the issue.
“I’ve seen some of the videos of these things: A law enforcement officer is dealing with a Glock handgun, which is one thing, and then you know somebody’s dealing with a machine gun all of a sudden, well that’s obviously a big, big problem,” Freeman said. “If there’s a way the state can help, and a way that we can help protect citizens and officers from machine guns, then obviously we should be doing that.”
Bailey worries what might happen if lawmakers don’t intervene this legislative session. He said they could theoretically wait until after the appeals court issues a ruling, but that would be risky.
If the court rules against the prosecutor’s office, then Bailey said modified firearms would be considered legal in Indiana at least until the next legislative session, and most laws don’t take effect until the following July.
“We just need to add something so that the courts are clear,” Bailey said, “and we don't lose the ability to charge people as we move forward and hold them accountable.”
Have questions or comments about the upcoming legislative session? Contact Ryan Martin on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or at [email protected].)
Header image: Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears turned to a little-used state law in an attempt to rid Indianapolis streets of modified guns that replicate automatic fire. (Credit: Ryan Martin)
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