The Perfect Terrorist Tool? : Talk of Plastic Gun Stirs Calls for New Legislation

Times Staff Writer

Their offices are remodeled railroad box cars. Visitors autograph the bathroom wall. The president of the company made his fortune selling cemetery plots. He drives a cream-colored Rolls-Royce, and gold--scads of it--is his jewelry of choice.

They call themselves Red Eye Arms Inc. Their boast: the ability to build a plastic handgun, the next generation of firearms. Their motto: "We are the future in armament."

"This could be the foundation of another IBM," said John Floren, Red Eye's tanned president, chief financier and promoter. "This could make every weapon in the world obsolete."

Despite its odd-ball offices and the fact that the arms company has yet to produce anything more advanced than a computer drawing, the military takes Red Eye seriously. The idea of a lighter, rustproof weapon is heady stuff indeed. Another Red Eye executive, Dwight Brunoehler, calls the guns "dishwasher safe." They would be "rinse and fire" weapons, he says.

Some members of Congress are interested, too, but for a different reason. They see the product of such technology as the perfect terrorist tool, a hijacker's delight, because of the relative ease with which a gun could be passed through airport metal detectors and X-ray machines.

In congressional hearings, the Secret Service has testified that it might have to shut down White House tours if a plastic handgun came on the market.

Members of both the House and Senate have introduced bills to ban plastic handguns. So far, none has passed, but last Thursday, a House judiciary subcommittee approved a bill that would put a five-year ban on plastic weapons. That bill must still face opposition in both the House and Senate.

This is, however, a Second Amendment debate with one curious twist: a plastic gun does not yet exist.

The pro- and anti-handgun forces have been sparring over the question for more than two years, and plastic handguns have been central in some of their most biting advertising campaigns. Yet there are those who think the technology to produce such a gun is years away, that Red Eye is perhaps more smoke than firepower.

Proposals but Little Else

"I have seen proposals, spiels and graphics," said Ed Ezell, a firearms expert who is a curator in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. "I have yet to see them produce any hardware.

"I don't think they've gone anywhere with this except around the promotion circuit," he said.

Others in the gun world, including the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Assn., echo Ezell's skepticism. But another school of thought is that the Red Eye design warrants examination and that building a gun out of super-tough polymers is only a question of time.

One who takes that view is former Secretary of the Navy John B. Connally, who recently signed on with Red Eye as a consultant.

"If the prototype bears out, obviously this is going to be of incalculable value to our armed forces," said Connally, who last year went bankrupt after suffering huge losses in the Texas real estate market.

The military, meanwhile, is taking its own long look. Red Eye has an unfunded research contract with the U.S. Army. And the Marine Corps has been impressed with what it has seen thus far.

"I think they look like a pretty good outfit," said Lt. Col. George Solhan of the Marine's research and development command, which is assisting Red Eye in the initial stages of making a prototype for a 40-millimeter grenade launcher. "The concept has a lot of merit. The Marine Corps is trying to create an environment in which Red Eye can either succeed or fail."

Greg Eyring, a chemist with the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, said that even if Red Eye does not come up with a plastic gun, he believes eventually someone else will.

'Probably Inevitable'

"I think it's probably inevitable," he said. "Legal or not, I think they will be around."

Eyring suggested that some intelligence services may already be using a form of plastic firearm. An example often cited is a Soviet-made Troika pistol, supposedly capable of firing three shots before it is discarded.

The great plastic gun furor began in January, 1986, when columnist Jack Anderson reported that an Austrian-made handgun, the Glock 17, had passed through airport security equipment undetected because it was part plastic. Further, he reported that Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi was attempting to buy some of the weapons.

That triggered the debate, and in the two years since, the question of plastic handguns has been a consuming and occasionally acrimonious one within the industry, as well as among lawmakers.

Karl Walter, U.S. representative of the company producing the Glock 17, said that the Anderson report was misleading because only two ounces of the gun's 21.5 ounces were plastic.

"It's like calling a car rubber if it has four tires," he said.

Walter also told the House judiciary subcommittee that a fully assembled conventional pistol escaped detection during the same test at Washington's National Airport and said that none of the guns had ever been sold to Kadafi.

Sees Great Interest

As for the American gun industry, Robert Haas, a senior vice president for Smith & Wesson Corp., said there was great interest in developing a plastic pistol--or even a partially plastic model--because that would reduce the many steps now required to produce a standard metal pistol. But he characterized the controversy over plastic guns, and the passage of legislation against them, as a needless "preemptive strike."

"I think the whole thing is a monstrous waste of time," he said. "To be passing laws to prohibit products that don't exist--there seem to be more pressing problems."

Opponents of the guns adamantly disagree, saying that the time to strike is now, before any kind of all-plastic firearm is in production. To do so later, they say, would be an irreversible mistake.

"Everyone agrees the technology is here or around the corner and Congress has the unique opportunity to take preventive measures," said Susan Whitmore, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc., one of the strongest anti-handgun lobbies in Washington. "Until we have the safeguards to detect non-metallic handguns, we have to ban them from the marketplace.

"Once they are here and on the streets, it's going to be impossible to stop," she said.

Seeks Military Link

For its part, Red Eye Arms insists that it does not want to make handguns at all and that it only wants to work with the military. David Byron, the man who developed the plastic gun technology for Red Eye, said that, as he envisions the production of military weaponry, each one would have a permanently embedded computer chip that would set off security alarms. He said the gun would cease to function if the chip were removed.

"The Federal Aviation Administration has my absolute cooperation," he said. "I will work with them to make sure they are detectable. I've been after them for years to upgrade their equipment."

Even if Red Eye can make such detectable weapons, critics charge that the guns could be reproduced with relative ease and question whether removing computer chips would actually disable them.

Ed Haversat, the fourth member of Red Eye, disagreed.

"It's the technology and the know-how," he said. "You are not going to be able to build one in some backward country."

Red Eye says it plans to produce five prototype grenade launchers within the next two years at a cost of some $8 million to $10 million, money it plans to raise in the private sector. Red Eye's Brunoehler said that when the military offered to fund the prototype, the company turned the money down. He said working with military money would be too cumbersome, causing his company to report each small change as the weapon is developed.

Cause for Skepticism

That claim has left others skeptical of Red Eye Arms.

"Have you ever heard of anyone turning down R&D; (research and development) money?" asked James J. Baker, chief lobbyist for the NRA, which in the past has fought any attempt to ban plastic weaponry.

Ezell of the Smithsonian agreed. "People just don't turn down real money."

Baker also said that Byron had promised a handgun prototype on two other occasions but failed to deliver. Red Eye's answer is that the military wanted a grenade launcher, not a plastic pistol.

"We could have built a handgun a couple of years ago," Brunoehler said.

Whether Red Eye can actually produce a plastic gun remains to be seen. But the issue has been the basis for some interesting happenings. For one, plastic guns--and the desire to ban them--have produced a political odd couple. Liberal Democrat Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio and arch-conservative Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina have sponsored two bills that would ban the manufacture or import of guns that cannot be detected.

Viewed as Gun Control

Both measures were opposed by the NRA, which said that the bills were little more than a slightly veiled method of gun control. That kind of stance has done little to endear the NRA to police groups, which also watched the NRA lose its battle against outlawing Teflon-coated, armor-piercing bullets. Congress banned the bullets, which can penetrate police bulletproof vests, in 1986.

Whitmore of Handgun Control Inc. said she believes the NRA is on the run, primarily because of what she called the radical positions on gun control it has taken in recent years.

Baker of the NRA said that his organization has lost 300,000 members over the last two years, but he attributed the loss to the raising of yearly dues from $15 to $20.

Having fought the Metzenbaum-Thurmond bills, the NRA has now lent its support to one introduced by Sen. James A. McClure (R-Ida.), a long-time ally of the gun lobbying group. The bill would ban all plastic guns, but opponents say it is filled with loopholes, and543781920agencies.

Critics of the McClure bill argue that one provision stipulates that metal detectors would have to be set so high that keys, coins and even zippers would set them off, thereby causing long lines and body searches at airports.

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