ATF Director's View: 'Fewer officers are facing greater gunfire'

From the column: "The current proliferation of conversion devices to circumvent the law not only endangers the public but also jeopardizes the lives of our nation’s law-enforcement officers who are already risking their lives."

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Last week, tens of thousands of police officers, deputies, troopers, and agents gathered in our nation’s capital to commemorate Police Week and to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. This year, 556 names were etched into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Wall, a solemn reminder of the real dangers our nation’s law enforcement officers face every day.

Violent crime in our communities affects all of us, and the danger lands heavily on the shoulders of law enforcement officers who bravely run toward gunfire. Over the last decade, many police departments, sheriffs’ offices, and federal law enforcement agencies have faced a sharp decline in recruitment and retention — all while the destructive capacity of weapons in the hands of violent criminals has grown. Fewer officers are facing greater gunfire.

The Officer Down Memorial Page reports that, last year, 64 officers were killed by gunfire. So far this year, 19 officers have died. These brave men and women risk their lives every day. And they are increasingly outgunned by the weaponry they face.

From the editorial: "The crisis of too-few-officers and too-few-applicants for law-enforcement openings continues."

Look at just a few examples. In Houston in September 2021, one officer was killed and another injured while executing a search warrant. The suspect opened fire with a pistol that had been illegally converted to a machine gun.

In January, a police chief in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, was fatally shot in the head during the pursuit of a suspect wanted on a probation violation. Law enforcement officers recovered five firearms from the deceased suspect, including one illegally modified to fire as a machine gun. In January 2022, three Houston police officers were injured in a shootout with a man whose pistol had also been illegally converted to fire as a fully automatic.


Owning new machine guns has been illegal for decades in the United States. Conversion devices — which go by many names, including “glock switches” or “auto sears,” and items sometimes known as “forced reset triggers” — can turn a legal firearm into an illegal fully automatic weapon capable of firing as many as 800 or more bullets per minute.

Yet, every law enforcement leader with whom I speak warns that machine gun conversion devices are everywhere. The numbers back that up: A recent report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shows that the number of conversion devices that law enforcement reported recovering increased by 570% between 2017 and 2021.

When conversion devices are attached to a pistol or a rifle, they also become difficult to control when firing, potentially resulting in more random losses of lives for civilians. And when these devices are combined with high-capacity magazines — which most states do not restrict — a conversion device can help someone create a massive killing machine in moments.

For the ATF, addressing this issue is a priority. Together with other components of the Department of Justice, we are enforcing current laws to take illegal machine guns off the streets, where they are a threat to law enforcement personnel and civilians.

Recently, a federal judge temporarily enjoined a seller of machine gun conversion devices from selling products that the ATF had told the manufacturer were illegal. Following apprehensions of illegal machine guns, prosecutors are bringing cases and seeking stiff penalties for illegally making and possessing machine guns, including in a Mississippi case in which a federal judge just imposed a 14-year prison sentence on a man who was 3D-printing conversion devices.

The current proliferation of conversion devices to circumvent the law not only endangers the public but also jeopardizes the lives of our nation’s law-enforcement officers who are already risking their lives for us.

While we pay our respects to the fallen, let’s also honor their colleagues who continue to risk their lives even after losing their friends and partners. And let’s recognize all those in law enforcement who bear witness to the horrors of gun violence. Remember the officers, deputies, troopers, and agents who respond to a movie theater, mall, or church where multiple people have been gunned down and the cops who run into an elementary school while taking gunfire, to find children brutally killed. The police risk their lives every day on the streets of this nation — mostly out of the spotlight. They deserve our constant thanks.

Better yet, let’s not just honor and recognize them — let’s also do better at protecting them. By honoring them, we encourage more young people to join this honorable profession. By protecting them from machine-gun fire, we make sure that they will have long and safer careers doing good for the benefit of our communities and our nation.


Steven Dettelbach is director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He wrote this originally for the Chicago Tribune.

Steven Dettelbach.jpg
ATF Director Steven Dettelbach

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