Switches come in various forms, but most are small Lego-like plastic blocks, about 1 inch square, that can be easily manufactured on a 3D printer and go for around $200.
Law enforcement officials say the devices are turning up with greater frequency at crime scenes, often wielded by teens who have come to see them as a status symbol that provides a competitive advantage. The proliferation of switches also has coincided with broader accessibility of so-called ghost guns, untraceable firearms that can be made with components purchased online or made with 3D printers.
“The gang wars and street fighting that used to be with knives, and then pistols, is now to a great extent being waged with automatic weapons,” said Andrew M. Luger, the US attorney for Minnesota.
Switches have become a major priority for federal law enforcement officials. But investigators say they face formidable obstacles, including the sheer number in circulation and the ease with which they can be produced and installed at home, using readily available instruction videos on the internet. Many are sold and owned by people younger than 18, who generally face more lenient treatment in the courts. …
The Justice Department has stepped up prosecutions of sellers and suppliers over the past few years. Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, it is a crime to manufacture a machine gun, a violation that carries a maximum of 10 years in prison. Prosecutors in Chicago this month charged a 20-year-old man with selling 25 switches and a 3D printer to an undercover agent. In November, federal prosecutors in Texas charged a supplier who, they assert, had sold thousands of switches — shipping some inside children’s toys.
Switches are fast becoming embedded in youth culture, and have been the subject of rap songs and memes on social media. One of four teenagers accused in the killing of an off-duty Chicago police officer this year posted on the internet a song called “Switches,” rapping “shoot the switches, they so fast” as he showed an arsenal of weapons.