For nearly 90 years the federal government waged an aggressive campaign to shrink the pool of automatic weapons available to the public.
In 1934, after several high-profile crimes involving machine guns, Congress passed the National Firearms Act, which required anyone who owned a fully automatic weapon to register it with the government and pay a $200 tax, equivalent to about $4,000 today. This significantly drove up the cost and difficulty of owning one.
Industrious gunsmiths searched for workarounds. In the ’70s, conversion devices started surfacing in niche gun communities, but the general public rarely sought them out. It became more difficult to obtain an auto sear in 1981, when the ATF ruled that possessing one was, in legal terms, the same as owning a machine gun, whether or not the device was installed on a firearm. Having an auto sear without the proper federal license, which requires an extensive background check and costly fees, can carry a 10-year federal prison sentence.
Five years later, Congress passed the Firearms Owners Protection Act, blocking the import or manufacture of any new automatic weapons in the U.S.
The 1986 law created an extremely limited pool of legal machine guns, and the weapons now command sky-high prices. Even basic models can cost $10,000 online. More sought-after weapons, such World War II–era machine guns, can run six figures.
But obtaining an illegal machine gun is no longer expensive or logistically challenging. Over the last five years, advances in low-cost manufacturing tools, such as 3D printers, plus global commerce on the internet have combined to create a vast black market of illegal machine gun makers, dealers, and traffickers. With an auto sear, anyone willing to break the law can effectively create a machine gun for as little as $20.
Sales of auto sears have also been popularized by YouTubers and Instagrammers, whose demonstrations of the devices have racked up millions of views.
“People don't sell drugs, for the most part, outside of the dark web—they're not on Instagram selling crack cocaine or powder cocaine, but they are out there selling machine guns now,” said Boshek, the ATF agent in Dallas.
Boshek said the wide availability of auto sears has created an arms race on the streets, and that his division in Texas is inundated with cases—including homicides and robberies—involving the devices.