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Chicago is suing firearms manufacturer Glock

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit against Glock, the firearms manufacturer. The lawsuit accuses the company of making handguns that are too easy to convert into illegal automatic weapons. It's an unusual lawsuit, and here to tell us more about it is NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste. Hey, Martin.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so can you explain more about what this lawsuit is saying about Glock guns? Like, how are they being modified?

KASTE: Well, what people are doing are adding these little objects - these little devices called auto sears. Sometimes they're called Glock switches. These are small, little boxy things. Some people say they look like Lego bricks. Some people have 3D-printed them at home or bought them on the internet somewhere. But when you insert one of these into the back end of the handgun, it changes the way the gun fires. Instead of one shot per trigger pull, which is a semi-automatic, you get one trigger pull producing a spray of bullets. Essentially, you get a handheld...

CHANG: Wow.

KASTE: ...Machine gun. And the thing about the Glock is that their design's especially easy to modify this way. It's the most common, by far, brand of gun that this happens to.

CHANG: And why Chicago as the plaintiff here - like, why is a city suing the company?

KASTE: Well, police around the country have told me that these Glock switches are becoming more popular, especially with young men and teenagers. They say the shootings that they've been investigating are more often very indiscriminate. But this phenomenon appears to be especially intense in Chicago. The police there say that, in the last two years, they've recovered more than 1,100 of these modified Glocks from crime scenes. I talked to Garien Gatewood. He's the city's deputy mayor for community safety.

GARIEN GATEWOOD: When law enforcement is showing up to crime scenes where, a decade ago, you may have seen four or five bullet casings, now you're showing up to a crime scene, and you may see 40, 50, 60 shell casings. We are the No. 1 city in the country for mass shootings.

KASTE: And I should note that what he means by mass shooting is, as it's defined, as four or more people who are injured or killed, not including the shooter. That's the metric used by the Gun Violence Archive, and they counted 35 shootings like that in Chicago last year.

CHANG: Well, what has Glock said so far about this lawsuit?

KASTE: Well, the company didn't respond to our request for comment, but I did talk to Mark Oliva. He's with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is the firearms industry trade group. And he's been talking to Glock, and he says the company is the wrong target here.

MARK OLIVA: The supposed Glock switches are not a Glock product. It is an illegal product that people are illegally attaching to their firearms. And so they're criminally misusing a banned product and attaching it to a firearm to use it for criminal misuse.

KASTE: He says also that the White House did approach the company, asking it to consider changing the design, but they're resisting that, he says. The argument is that changing what's known as a very reliable gun design might make it less reliable, especially if the firing mechanism is changed. So that's their position.

CHANG: Can I ask you this? It feels like makers of firearms have been facing more lawsuits, like, in the past couple of years. Is Chicago's lawsuit part of some new strategy against the gun industry?

KASTE: It seems to be. The background here is that the gunmakers are protected by a federal law passed in 2005 that shields them from lawsuits, but it's not an absolute protection - not all lawsuits. There are some loopholes for things like, for example, when a gun is considered a nuisance. That's something this Chicago lawsuit claims about the easy-to-convert Glocks. Some Democratic-run states have also recently passed laws that make this kind of lawsuit more easy to do, and Illinois passed one just last year. The gun industry, for its side, says that this is all just meant to tie them up in court. They point to the fact that Everytown for Gun Safety has lawyers working on this, and they believe this is part of a bigger strategy. And they - the lawyers for every Everytown, by the way, tell me that we should also expect to see more cities filing similar lawsuits to this against Glock very soon.

CHANG: That is NPR's Martin Kaste. Thank you, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.