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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

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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