Two new super-destructive handgun bullets - one designed to do maximum damage to human tissue, a second that can penetrate body armor - are about to go on sale, despite the objections of police and gun-control advocates.
The inventor, a research chemist making his first venture in ammunition, defends Rhino-Ammo, the flesh-ripping bullet, as "a strictly defensive round" for citizens protecting themselves against attackers and intruders.
"The beauty behind it is that it makes an incredible wound," says David Keen, chief executive of Signature Products Corp. in Huntsville, Ala. "That makes the target stop and worry about survival instead of robbing or murdering you."
Police worry that criminals will use the armor-piercing rounds, which make officers' bulletproof vests worthless.
"Once they're on the market, they're out. They can get into the wrong hands," says Beth McGee of the National Association of Police Organizations.
"What if an antitank round falls into the wrong hands?" Keen retorts. "I cannot promise anyone this round won't fall into the wrong hands. I can assure you we will sell only to the right people."
The packaging for Rhino-Ammo claims the bullet breaks into thousands of razor-like fragments when it strikes human flesh:
"Each of these fragments becomes lethal shrapnel and is hurled into vital organs, lungs, circulatory-system components, the heart and other tissues. The wound channel is catastrophic. . . . Death is nearly instantaneous."
Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said today he would introduce legislation banning any bullet that can penetrate bullet-proof vests.
The Black Rhino version has a convex point designed to penetrate bullet-stopping material such as Kevlar. Once it reaches soft flesh, Keen says, it is as destructive as Rhino-Ammo. According to its package, "Nothing stops a charging Rhino!"
FIRM NEEDED NEW MARKETS
Signature Products originally made coatings for radar-evading stealth aircraft. But when the Cold War ended and defense contracts dropped off, Keen needed new markets for his technology.
"When (Rhino-Ammo) hits somebody, they're going to die," Keen says. "It causes a horrific wound. That's not by accident. It's engineered by design. The round disintegrates as it hits. There's no way to stop the bleeding.
"I don't care where it hits. They're going down for good."
Keen says Black Rhino bullets will be sold only to police and federally licensed firearms dealers. But there are approximately a quarter million such dealers in the nation, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"It's non-sporting ammo. The concern is that it's basically increasing firepower that's out there," says Bob Walker, a lobbyist for Handgun Control Inc., the group formed by Sarah Brady, wife of former White House press secretary James Brady, who was disabled by a bullet meant for President Reagan in 1981.
In 1986, Congress banned the manufacture of "cop-killer" bullets that were Teflon-coated or made of certain metal alloys. This year's crime bill broadened the ban to include other metal-alloy bullets.
"Cop killers" are any bullets that can penetrate a bulletproof vest, like the Black Rhino can. But because Rhino rounds are made of carbon-based plastics called polymers, rather than metal, they sidestep the ban.
"There's nothing illegal under federal law" about Rhino bullets, confirms Jack Killorin, spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
New types of ammunition come onto the market all the time.
One especially destructive bullet was yanked off the open market voluntarily after public uproar. Black Talon bullets, which peel back upon impact and create gaping wounds, prompted several congressmen to propose stiff taxes on them to offset the costs of treating such wounds.
Black Talons, made by the Winchester division of Olin Corp., are now legally available only to police, but knockoffs are readily available, forensic experts say. And they still figure in crimes: Black Talons killed six commuters and wounded 19 on a Long Island Rail Road train last year.
Black Talons belong to a category of metal bullets, commonly called hollow points, that fragment or flatten on impact. As deadly as hollow points can be, they pale in comparison to Rhino-Ammo: A typical hollow point loses about 10 percent of its mass to fragmentation upon impact, while 90 percent of a Rhino-Ammo bullet breaks into pieces.
That means Rhino-Ammo makes a bigger hole. Rhino rounds test-fired into gelatin molds produced holes the size of baseballs, Keen says.
Rhino-Ammo will sell for $4 per round, or about seven times as much as traditional bullets, and come with a money-back guarantee, Keen says.
"The mentality on the street is that if something costs more, it's better. Every kook in the world is going to go out and buy it," says George Kass of Forensics Ammunition Service, a consultant to local, state and federal police agencies.
Keen says he supports gun control and favors the federal ban on assault weapons but he's not concerned over criticism of his Rhino products.
"I think we should only have guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens. And the only reason people should have guns is to defend themselves until they can summon law enforcement," Keen says.
"I sleep real well at night. You break into my house, you're dead."