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

April 26, 1988|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

WINTER PARK, Fla. — 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.

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