OSD 162: Fetch me a switch
Inevitable beats illegal.
This week, VICE News and The Trace released a video report (and accompanying written piece) about full-auto conversion switches for Glocks:
The summary is that people are illegally buying Glock switches. Some of them buy the parts with ill intent, and then use them to commit crimes. Numbers are hard to come by. There’s no data on changes over time in this trend, and the article simply notes a Homeland Security official’s statement that “in the last three years, Homeland Security had seized 4,348 auto sears and opened up over 600 investigations related to the devices”.
And if you look at this report through a just-the-facts-ma’am lens, then your response is … “Well, of course?” Glock switches are an easy way to make a Glock full auto. People like shooting full auto, and will sometimes indulge that impulse even on pain of 10 years in prison for an NFA felony. Criminals also like it, because it seems more effective. (Turns out it’s not, and there’s actually almost no useful application for a full-auto Glock. But you can imagine how somebody’s whose ambitions for criminal violence outstrip their experience might have a utility function that spits out “buy a Glock switch” as the optimal choice.)
This is where most reports would transition into a few paragraphs on how Something Must Be Done. Perhaps surprisingly, this one doesn’t quite do that. It comes close, and it does take pains to detail the worst crimes involving full-auto switches, in order to paint the unmistakable picture that these devices are haram. But in terms of explicit advocacy, this is as close as the piece gets:
In 2019, the agency launched Operation TriggerFish, an initiative to track auto sear deliveries in the U.S. back to their points of origin. Homeland Security worked with international authorities to shut down production of switches in the Guangdong province of China. It was a blueprint modeled after the government’s war on blackmarket fentanyl smuggling.
Lestrange said that in the last three years, Homeland Security had seized 4,348 auto sears and opened up over 600 investigations related to the devices. While the agency regarded those seizures as successes, he said auto sears continue to show up in criminal investigations at an alarming rate. Stopping the flow of the devices, he added, depends on gathering new intelligence about how auto sears are entering the country. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” said Lestrange.
The spike in smuggling has pushed U.S. senators to ask for answers. In October 2021, Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker wrote a letter asking the Department of Justice how it plans to address overseas smuggling, as well as for statistics on seizures.
The reason is that it’s not clear that there’s anything to do. Even from the article’s perspective that there’s something uniquely malevolent about full-auto capability, and that it ought to be illegal, what’s happening here is that people have discovered a trivially reproducible piece of metal and they are … trivially reproducing it. Legal or not, the reality of manufacturing technology is that however available these devices are today, that’s the least available they’re ever going to be. They’re only getting easier to make.
We described the dynamic at play in “OSD 106: Law is a verb”:
On the ground, the law is determined by what’s feasible to have as law. For popular laws (like, say, those against murder), people pretty much follow them voluntarily. For unpopular laws (like, say, those around taxation), feasibility is achieved by making it so that people have little choice but to comply. Employers have to report employees’ income to the IRS, and there’s little way around that. Fitting this theory though, feasibility — and therefore compliance — immediately drops off a cliff when you look at taxation of cash income.
Guns are in an odd spot right now, where the the laws about them are shifting from feasible to infeasible right in front of us. Think about historical examples, like voting rights for women or marriage for gay people. A feasibility breakdown has two steps:
Increasingly widespread disregard for the law
Increasingly ineffective responses from the law’s defenders
That cycle repeats for a few years. Then one day you wake up and the law is so gone that it’s hard to remember it was ever there.
Imagine a 2x2 matrix of legal vs. illegal and common vs. rare (all examples below apply only to the US):
Common Rare Legal Ice cream Durian Illegal Marijuana, Shark fin Kinder Surprise
The question interesting bit is that bottom-left quadrant. And the important question is, when things are popular and illegal, who eventually gets their way? History is clear that sooner or later, legality catches up to popularity.
This week’s links
Americans bought more than 40 million guns in 2020 and 2021, the two highest sales years on record, according to our gun sales tracker. About 5 percent of adults in America purchased a gun for the first time between March 2020 and March 2022, according to a new survey from NORC at the University of Chicago, bringing the total number of adults living in armed households to 46 percent. More diverse, younger, but with similar views: The survey found that 86 percent of first-time buyers were under 45, compared to 41 percent for pre-pandemic owners, and that 69 percent were people of color, compared to 26 percent of pre-pandemic owners.
Technology moves quickly.
Old school cool.
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