US & Canada

Should flamethrowers be sold in the US?

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Media captionFlamethrowers face a ban in Warren, Michigan

A firm marketing flamethrowers as a "cool tool" has provoked a Michigan town to try to ban the fire-spewing machines.

Why make, build or sell a flamethrower? That is the question posed by the man who designed what he calls America's first hand-held flamethrower.

Chris Byars's answer: "It's awesome."

Byars says he has sold and delivered 30 of his XM42 model, costing $899 (£588). He has received orders for 400 more.

This is not something you can buy at your local store - the XM42 can propel burning napalm-like fuel 25ft (8m), igniting and scorching anything in its path.

A flamethrower could have a practical function, but that is not how Byers is marketing it.

Image copyright Ion Productions
Image caption The XM42 can spray burning fuel 25 feet (8m)

"I wanted one, personally, back in 2007, solely due to the 'cool' factor and [for] taking out wasps," he says in an email. After soliciting funds on Kickstarter, he used his engineering experience to build one.

But making such a machine for the "cool" factor is provoking one town to ban it."This is a potential weapon of mass destruction, whether it's Isis or home-grown." says Jim Fouts, mayor of Warren, Michigan, near where the XM42 is made.

He is pushing legislation for a ban in the town, and hopes more places will follow suit.

"In the wrong hands this could be catastrophic."

Mayor Fouts says he does not have to think hard to find examples where a flamethrower would have taken acts of violence to new depths.

Image copyright Ion Productions
Image caption Chris Byars uses his flamethrower for target practice

"Think of Sandy Hook," he says, invoking the Connecticut primary school where 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot dead 20 children and six staff members, after shooting and killing his mother.

"Imagine what that disturbed young man could have done with a flamethrower. Or, it could be a white supremacist that you're worried about."

Fouts has conducted research into the gruesome effects of spraying people with burning fuel, and says the flames can be more than six times the heat at which human skin "melts" - a layman's term for when DNA breaks down.

Chris Byars does not dispute the potential dangers of his invention.

Taking it to private land or a car park is "perfectly safe", Byars says, adding that it should not be treated as a threat in the way a firearm is.

Image copyright Ion Productions
Image caption The XM45 is designed to look "cool" , according to its manufacturer, Ion Productions

That is a statement Mayor Fouts takes issue with.

He says the scale of destruction that someone with a flamethrower can inflict far exceeds the amount of damage to life and property that a gun can cause.

Fouts is also worried without independent testing of flamethrowers, warning faults in construction could lead to a machine exploding in its operator's face.

Byars's answer to the lack of official testing is that the XM42 has been designed with the "insight of… electrical and mechanical engineers".

Image copyright Throwflame
Image caption Throwflame's industrial flamethrower can project napalm 50 feet (15m)

So what use can a flamethrower be, other than "fun"?

A firm in Ohio, Throwflame, sells flamethrowers with a 50ft (15m) range by mail order.

Founder Quinn Whitehead says he was watching a farmer struggling to burn off fallow crop and thought "there must be a better way to do this".

Whitehead developed an industrial flame thrower, branded the X15.

Like Chris Byars, he is confident that his own firm's checks make his product very safe, without going to an independent standards organisation.

Image copyright Throwflame
Image caption Throwflame says its flamethrower can be used to create firebreaks in Woodland

He also does no background checks on the people he sells to.

"Most of our customers use them agriculturally," Whitehead says. "It's not a toy. I don't know anyone who has enough money to use this as a toy. It costs $1,599."

Whitehead has developed efficient fuel mixtures with industrial use in mind.

His fuel of choice has the same properties as napalm, the mixture US troops used during the Vietnam war - with devastating effects for people who got in its way.

Image copyright AP
Image caption An American soldier demonstrates a flamethrower in South Vietnam in 1965

"The fuel-thickening mix gives us longer burn times and extra range," he explains, to control vegetation, clear woodland and create fire breaks in forests.

He says he has sold flamethrowers to fire officers and special effects firms.

For Mayor Fouts, the risks of such equipment falling into the wrong hands is too great.

"They are banned [for use as weapons] under the Geneva Convention and the US military also bans them."

That speaks volumes to him about the "catastrophic" results of allowing them to be bought online without age or criminality checks.

Germany, Japan, the US and UK used flamethrowers in World Wars One and Two. The US banned their use as a weapon after the Vietnam War.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Marines use a flamethrower in the Korean War

Regulation in the US is light to non-existent in most places.

Currently flame throwers are banned in the state of Maryland. They can only be used under licence in California, primarily by the film industry, and they cannot be attached to vehicles in Virginia.

Elsewhere they are often banned or restricted. In the UK and Australia, the law treats them as dangerous weapons.

However, the true test would only come if someone tries to import one and declares it to authorities,

Chris Byars has previously claimed that he successfully sold an XM42 in Australia, and that another order was seized by Belgium.

But there appears to be enough home-grown interest to sustain the business for now. And a spate of publicity over the Warren ban legislation has boosted orders for the XM42 and to some extent the X15 models.

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