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Ring of Fire Guns as a Hazardous Consumer Product

Ring of Fire handguns may be numerous and increasingly powerful, but are they good for anything? This is not a frivolous question. There is a sizeable objective literature on the quality, reliability, and performance of these guns. Most of this information is published in the magazine Gun Tests. GUN TESTSThe equivalent of Consumer Reports for gun buyers, Gun Tests accepts no advertising, conducts its own rigorous product evaluations, and seems to be as willing to criticize guns as to praise them. Aside from Gun Tests, leading firearms experts from both inside and outside the industry have commented publicly on Ring of Fire handguns.

Most Ring of Fire handguns are viewed negatively, even contemptuously, by gun experts. Serious pro-gunners find the small-caliber pistols to be downright laughable. Massad Ayoob, a leading gun writer, refers to them as "mouse guns."

Jeff Cooper, whose quote on continued violence in Los Angeles appears at the beginning of this report, recounts an anecdote: "We hear of an unfortunate woman who, during a nighttime asthma attack, confused the small handgun she kept under her pillow with an asthma inhaler and proceeded to relieve her symptoms. It was not a fatal mistake, partly because she used a .2 5 ACP, which everyone knows is not sufficient to clear sinuses.

Gun Tests, commenting on the use of .25 ACP pistols for personal defense, dismisses them as "a modem sort of talisman to ward off evil people. " But " [t]he .25 ACP outsells nearly everything, " the writer admits, "so someone must believe in it.

Other commentators emphasize the poor quality of Ring of Fire handguns. David Guthrie, a firearms industry analyst for a Memphis brokerage firm, described guns produced by the Jennings family companies as "junky and not reliable." Edward Owen, Jr., chief of the Firearms Technology Branch at BATF, said of the Jennings family and their guns, "[T]hey don't do any more to them than they have to make them work. In a 1994 interview Owen added, "If someone gave me one as a gift, I'd throw it away."'

Ring of Fire handguns - those produced by the Jennings-related companies, at least - are not like other handguns. For these companies, the key to success has been keeping the price of their guns as low as possible. As Jim Waldorf of Lorcin Engineering puts it, "There are more poor people than rich people. Cheap is synonymous with volume.

Staying cheap has meant sacrificing quality in design, materials, and performance. To minimize the need for expensive machining, for example, many of the guns are made with metal that is so soft it can be shaved with a knife. Many other design and safety features commonly found on better-made handguns are omitted. Overall, the strategy works. Phoenix Arms is estimated to be able to produce its .25 ACP Model Raven for only $19 per unit the guns can be completely assembled in a few minutes.

The details are reported in Gun Tests:

How the manufacturers go about keeping costs low is no big secret. A large percentage of pocket pistols currently on the market utilize alloy frames and slides, more often than not with a high content of zinc. Because such materials are relatively soft and usually have a lower melting point, they are easier to work with than ordnance-grade steel. Consequently, production costs are reduced, which translates into lower retail prices.

Another approach to reducing manufacturing costs is to keep the product as simple as possible....

Such simplicity keeps prices down, but is not without its down side. This is most often found in three areas: unsophisticated safety systems, few convenient features and limited durability. Few of these inexpensive guns have such niceties as slide hold-open devices, and none should be carried with a round in the chamber. The Gun Tests editorial staff personally knows an individual who routinely carried one of these budget pistols "cocked and locked." After several months of doing so, the safety inadvertently disengaged while riding in his front pants pocket and he ended up shooting himself in the leg.

The guns are made of such poor metal that they have become a disposal problem for law enforcement agencies. In Sacramento, California, a local recycler who had melted the guns together with other junk metal refused to accept them any more; the low-quality alloy adversely affected entire batches of material. Sacramento's guns are now placed inside junked cars and shredded.

Some violence prevention advocates may be puzzled by this reporter's discussion of the poor quality of Ring of Fire handguns. Why should such guns be seen as inferior to other handguns? If, for example, a poorly made firearm jams during a drive-by shooting, then fewer people may be shot - a good thing, from a violence prevention point of view. This information is presented, and presented from the firearms community's point of view, for two reasons. First, because by keeping production costs down, poor quality increases sales - cheap is volume, says Jim Waldorf. In turn, high sales volume is in part responsible for the leading role played by Ring of Fire handguns in firearms crime, a subject to be discussed later.

Second, the poor quality of these guns reduces their utility as a means of personal defense. The Ring of Fire manufacturers promote their guns mainly for their defensive use; certainly, with few exceptions, they have no sporting purposes. But an unreliable gun may bring nothing more to its owner than a false sense of security.

This point was made dramatically in a May 1994 installment of ABC television's Day One, The owner of a Colorado Springs gun shop, a woman, is firing one of these guns in a demonstration for ABC's correspondent when it jams. As she attempts to clear the gun, the correspondent begins a question: "If you were relying on this for self protection... " She responds, "Well, I Just got killed. " Later in the broadcast, a Colorado police officer added that he had investigated "countless" homicides and other crimes involving Ring of Fire handguns, but that he could not recall a single episode of their effective use for self-protection.

If these guns are in fact not suitable for protective use, what benefits do they bring to offset their frequent use in crime? In this balancing of risks and benefits, many argue that Ring of Fire handguns fail unequivocally. And in the 1990s this has become not a matter of political rhetoric or television anecdote, but of considered expert opinion and legal policy.

For example, the state of Maryland has established a Handgun Roster Board, charged with prohibiting the manufacture and sale of handguns judged not to be "useful for legitimate sporting, self-protection, or law enforcement purposes. The board is not made up of anti-gun activists; by law, its members include the superintendent of the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services; representatives of the Association of Chiefs of Police and the Maryland State's Attorney's Association; a handgun dealer, gunsmith, or manufacturers' representative; a representative of the NRA or its state affiliate; a representative of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse; and three at large citizen members.

A long list of Ring of Fire guns has specifically been disapproved by the Handgun Roster Board. A still larger number have not been evaluated by the Board because their manufacturers have not submitted the guns for testing. According to experts in Maryland, it is clear from the characteristics of these guns that most would not be approved if submitted. None of these guns can legally be sold in Maryland.

In fact, if current federal law treated all firearms equally, most Ring of Fire handguns would simply be outlawed. These guns, legally manufactured in the United States, could not legally be imported if they were produced elsewhere. They would fail the public-safety standards established by BATF for imported firearms under the guns must provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968. But, as a result of a deliberately created legislative loophole, domestically manufactured handguns are not required to meet these standards.

The standards, known as factoring criteria, have eliminated the most easily concealable imported handguns. To be approved for importation, other handguns must also pass a battery of design and performance evaluations. (The details of the importation criteria will be presented later.)

In response to a request from the Violence Prevention Research Program, BATF has evaluated the Ring of Fire handguns to determine whether they meet the standards required of imports." Most Ring of Fire handguns are too small - to easily concealable - to meet the importation criteria. Others meet the size criterion but fall below other design or performance standards. The list of handguns that fail the importation criteria includes every gun made by Phoenix Arms and Sundance Industries, nearly every gun from Bryco Arms, Davis Industries, and Lorcin Engineering, and the most popular guns from AMT.

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