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The battle for the fate of the crowdfunded flamethrower

The battle is heating up.

 

AJ Dellinger

Tech

Published Aug 31, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 1:45 am CDT

In a suburb near Detroit, a literal flame war is taking place.

Chris Byars is the developer responsible for the XM42, a handheld flamethrower capable of blasting a 25 foot flame that he is retailing online. After raising nearly $158,000 on IndieGoGo for his project, Byars began selling his creation for $900 a pop. As of August 19, 22 of the devices had been released to early backers. 

The mayor of Warren, Michigan would like to make sure that number doesn’t crawl any higher. To stop it, he’ll do whatever it takes.

“In getting involved, I have decided through some degree of research that this is a very dangerous piece of equipment that should not be allowed for mass distribution,” Warren Mayor Jim Fouts told the Daily Dot.

His primary concern is seeing the device fall into the wrong hands—be that someone incapable of operating it properly or someone with destructive intentions for the high-powered product. 

“… It’s marketed that anyone can purchase this for $900 with a credit card and he’ll send it to you no questions asked. He’s not concerned with anything other than getting the money,” Fouts said of Byars.

What’s the use?

It’s difficult to judge the motivations for Byars’ decision to build a flamethrower, other than thinking it would be “awesome” to have one. But now that he’s built it, he’s pitching it as a tool with purpose in a variety of situations.

“Firefighters have come forward and praised the product for its application for seasonal burns, wildfire control, and training,” Byars told the Daily Dot. “Controlled burn prescribers have had it in their hands and love it for what they do (clear land of pest/invasive species of foliage). Farmers use them for seasonal burns to rejuvenate the land for new growth. Concerts and other events use them in their pyrotechnic displays.”

Byars’ belief is that fire has long be used in a utilitarian way, and his device just simplifies the process and makes it a more accessible tool for the average person.

“Your general non-industry owner of an XM42 uses it as a showpiece, or for taking care of weeds/brush on their country property, melting snow and ice, taking out hives of pest insects, starting their bonfires in an awesome manner, or simply using it to fire off into the air for a fascinating display,” he explained. “We’ve promoted responsible ownership and usage.”

Fouts disagrees.

“I suppose I should be allowed to have dynamite to use in the backyard to dig holes or I should be able to use a machine gun to get rid of some mice in the basement,” Warren’s mayor remarked, with some sarcasm.

A legal firefight

Fouts is currently fighting to place a ban on flamethrowers within the city of Warren, where Byars and his Ion Productions team is located. According to a report from the local ABC affiliate in nearby Detroit, Byars is choosing not to disclose his location because he fears being attacked.

While he may be worried about retribution for his creation, he isn’t particularly worried about legal repercussions; only two states have any sort of legislation prohibiting the use of flamethrowers, and Michigan isn’t one of them.

Flamethrowers are, perhaps surprisingly, not regulated in any way.

Flamethrowers are, perhaps surprisingly, not regulated in any way. The devices do not receive mention under the National Firearms Act, initially enacted in 1934, and thus does not fall under the typical stipulations for other weaponry. 

“This is a product that is banned by the Geneva Convention. The United States military decided not to use it as a result of the Vietnam War,” Fouts said. According to him, that should be more than enough precedent to prevent use of flamethrowers by the citizenry. The Inhumane Weapons Convention, signed by the United States in 1981, also forbids the use of “incendiary weapons” but applies only to militaries.

The mayor is hopeful that his fight against the flamethrower will catch. 

“I’m doing this for the city of Warren—we’re the third largest city in the state—but it really goes beyond Warren,” he said. “It’s goes to all the cities in Michigan and all the states in the United States. This is a potential terrorist weapon waiting to be used and we should stop it now before it gets wide distribution.”

Is it a weapon?

One of the biggest points of contention in the conversation between Fouts and Byars stems from whether the flamethrower is primarily a weapon or not. 

Byars has a wide definition for the flamethrower, seeing its use for everything from field work to fun, but doesn’t acknowledge it to be a weapon of any sort. 

Despite Byars not suggesting the XM42 to be a piece of weaponry, it’s Second Amendment activists who have rushed to his defense—and to make purchases. 

“Many have come forward and stated simply because of talks of prohibition, they want to support the company, buy the product, as it represents a freedom to own something even if others feel there is no practical use,” Byars said. “Just because a politician sees no use for a product is no reason for them to prevent law-abiding good citizens from owning it based on what ‘could’ happen if misused for a harmful purpose.”

Fouts said he has no interest in limiting the Second Amendment rights of anyone, but believes flamethrowers go above and beyond the typical firearm. “It is not a typical weapon. It is a weapon of mass destruction,” he said.

“While I will defend your right to purchase a gun and use a gun for protection, this goes beyond normal protection. This is a weapon that, if used in the wrong hands could lead to death and destruction… I support second amendment rights. I don’t want to get rid of people’s guns. But this is not a gun, this is a weapon of immense, mass destruction so horrific the Geneva Convention has outlawed it.”

Still, Byars is adamant that Fouts and those who want the product banned are overstepping their bounds. “Of course we oppose any sort of ban on ownership,” he said. “The notion that lawmakers tend to have that everyone owning particular products, be it firearms, knives, etc. are individuals that are going to misuse them is insulting and discriminatory.”

Byars believes there are protections in place that the flamethrower and devices like it do not need to be addressed as a separate entity.

“There are enough laws on the books already covering causing harm to people and property. There is no reason to add special prohibitions to flamethrowers,” he said.

He would, however, be comfortable with restrictions on residential area usage, because “you shouldn’t be sending a stream of fire anywhere near dwellings in the first place.”

For Byars and the advocates who support him and have flocked to his product, it boils down to one principle that Byars defends: “Personal responsibility and personal freedom. Own whatever you like, but if you use it in a manner that is harmful to others or property, punish the person.”

As far as Fouts is concerned, there is no “if” a person uses it for harm, it’s “when.”

“A person with a criminal background could purchase it, no questions asked,” he said.

In Maryland, the only state in which the flamethrower is specifically banned outright, it is categorized as a “destructive device,” defined as containing”explosive material, incendiary material, or toxic material,” and listed alongside bombs, grenades, mines, shells, missiles, poison gas, Molotov cocktails, and pipe bombs.

Not a Game

Regardless of the legality of flamethrowers as a product, there is real question as to whether the XM42 should be available. It’s the first physical product produced for commercial consumption by Byars’ Ion Productions team

Prior to launching the product, the only output from the team was Hoppy Bunny, a 2D platforming game released for Android devices. It has less than 1,000 downloads.

A PC game titled Roo Racers was announced and cancelled by the developers. A currently untitled PC game referred to as “Project Shadow,” which is described as a “multiplayer cooperative FPS that requires players to use resources and stand together to successfully escape a terrible fate,” is listed with a yet-to-be-announced release date on the company’s website.

All of the members listed on the Ion Productions team page have experience in computing and programming, but are also listed as contributors on the XM42 flamethrower. 

“When he’s not busy fighting off supermodels and solving difficult math equations on random chalkboards, Tony enjoys gaming (obviously) and programming,” reads the profile of programmer Tony Sroka, who is credited as a member of the XM42 development team.

Byars is the only one with a mechanical engineering background listed, but the majority of his profile focuses on his passion for video games.

Fouts believes that the group has failed to properly consider the consequences of a crowdfunded flamethrower.

“Does the device include safety mechanisms to ensure that children or unintended operators do not use the device? The answer is no,” he said. Fouts also believes the XM42 has not had its fuel delivery system tested to prevent leaks, nor has the the storage chamber for the gasoline double-lined to ensure that puncturing of the tank will not cause the release of the fuel.

“It’s a highly combustible material. It’s really combining butane with gasoline and it’s not inspected by Underwriters Laboratories, which normally would be the case,” Fouts explained. 

“The temperature of the combustable flame is approximately 1,000 degrees. My fire commissioner indicates that human skin melts at 161 degrees. It’s one of these incomprehensible, potentially catastrophic weaponry…which should not be in the hands of people.”

Access or excess?

At the core of the debate waging between the upstart flamethrower advocates and the two-term mayor with nearly three decades of public service is a simple question: is there a right to access to a device even if it is entirely excessive for its proposed purpose?

For Byars, the answer is a clear “yes.” For Fouts, it’s an equally clear “no.”

“I see no justifiable reason for it,” he said. “They said uses include controlling weeds and insects. Really? You’re going to use a flamethrower—1,000 degree flames that can shoot 25 to 50 feet—on weeds?”

“They said uses include controlling weeds and insects.”

Because flamethrowers haven’t previously been available to the masses, there is little in terms of precedent to work with. The case for both sides may come down to what lawmakers can imagine being done with the device. 

If they see it Byars’ way, which imagines the flamethrower as little more than a household hose that shoots fire instead of water, then perhaps one day it will sit on the shelves of your local home improvement store next to the weed whackers and bug zappers.

If Fouts gets his way, then Byars may have a lot more time to work on his new video game in the near future. And we’ll all have more time to consider the implications of the short distance between a crazy idea and its crowdfunded realization.

H/T Ars Technica | Photo via XM42.com

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*First Published: Aug 31, 2015, 11:00 am CDT