Collateral Damage: Arizona drug dealers becoming arms dealers online

Investigators say Snapchat has become the go-to marketplace for drug dealers who are now crossing over into illegal gun sales.
Updated: Jun. 30, 2022 at 5:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Valley detectives say they are seeing a disturbing trend on popular apps like Snapchat, where drug dealers are cross-marketing as arms dealers, selling illegal guns and accessories, amplifying the danger to our community.

We’re talking about small online buys that can do some serious damage by turning a pistol into a machine gun. Snapchat isn’t just an app for silly filters. It’s become the go-to marketplace for drug dealers who are now crossing over into illegal gun sales.

Maricopa County Det. Matt Shay works with the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA, regional taskforce. “If you engage in armed drug dealing in Maricopa County, we are coming for you,” Shay said.

Lately, his specialty has been focusing on building cases against Valley drug dealers advertising 24/7 deliveries on social media. He was able to show us samples of cases where dealers are showing off massive supplies of drugs, stacks of cash, diamond jewelry, fancy cars, and lots and lots of guns for sale. “They want to protect themselves and their product and sometimes that ends up in violence,” Shay said.

That proof of success also makes them a target for drug rips where thieves set up a deal and show up armed, with no intention of paying. “And that brings violence into our neighborhoods,” Shay said.

Collateral damage is inevitable. “Everyone that’s in that parking lot, everyone that’s in that store across the street, in the neighborhood behind it, those guys are all in danger,” Shay said.

That’s precisely what happened in March. People were running for cover when a marijuana deal turned deadly outside the IKEA in Tempe. “They park in front of somebody’s random house, and that house gets peppered with bullets, plenty of stories of that happening,” Shay said.

In another case, bullets also hit a Tempe home, where an ASU student got shot six times trying to buy some weed off someone on Snapchat.

Switches and auto sears

Now, law enforcement’s seeing a whole new threat flood the market. Switches and drop-in auto sears are small illegal gun accessories changing the game entirely. They go onto the back of a handgun or snap into a rifle and can turn any handgun into a machine gun, letting the shooter empty a full magazine of ammunition with a single trigger pull in seconds.

Det. Shay took us to the range to show us how they work. “Affixing this onto the back of a Glock defeats the mechanism inside the gun to be semi-auto, and lets it fire fully automatic,” Shay said. You can get ten years in federal prison for simple possession just getting caught with one of these.

Switches and drop-in auto sears are small illegal gun accessories changing the game entirely.
Switches and drop-in auto sears are small illegal gun accessories changing the game entirely.(Arizona's Family)

He walked us through a safety demo, first shooting without the illegal devices. It’s just one bang each time you pull the trigger on a typical gun. With a switch, it’s almost impossible to control the kick as it spits out as many bullets as you have in the clip.

We didn’t even use a full magazine. “So out of that, how many rounds did you actually get on target? One, kind of by the head. And the other five went where?” Shay asked, assessing my shots. “Guys we recover these off, they’re not really concerning themselves with what’s down range,” he said.

Case in point, a man with a drug arrest warrant, used a Glock switch to fire- off 30 rounds in 2.5 seconds, killing a Houston police officer and wounding a sergeant. “These Glock switches are recovered here in the metro Phoenix area at least weekly,” Shay said.

He showed us countless clips of switches for sale locally on Snapchat and seized in drug search warrants. “We are recovering more of these Glock switches, far more cash, jewelry, high end cars, from the people that are doing large scale black market high end marijuana deals than we are off people selling cocaine and fentanyl,” Shay said.

High grade black market marijuana dealers most violent

Shay says Arizona legalizing recreational marijuana nearly two years ago only made black market sales more common and more violent, with dealers slinging high-powered guns and switches, reoffending faster than they can be prosecuted. “We’ll see these guys again and again, sometimes the day they get out, or a couple days later, and they’re posting on social media,” Shay said.

While the court of public opinion has become far more forgiving with marijuana cases now that it’s legal to use, Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell says she’s pushing her team to keep going after these cases. “This is one of my concerns as a county attorney,” said Mitchell.

It’s one reason prosecutors, police and federal agents are sounding the alarm in a recent partnership to crack down on gun violence in the Valley. “Some very serious drug offenders and other violent offenders are being released on either low or no bond and we’re seeing repeat crimes while they’re out on release,” Mitchell said.

Something’s got to give. “I mean flame is gonna feed gas and there’s gonna be an explosion, it’s just gonna happen,” Shay said.

Mitchell says she’ll keep pushing for courts to keep these repeat drug offenders locked up.