Police start effort to ban a gun shell County officers campaign against Dragon's Breath

February 16, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

Baltimore County police yesterday fired the first shot in this year's legislative battle over a flame-shooting shotgun shell called Dragon's Breath. And they brandished a charred officer's uniform as their trophy.

Draping white police uniform shirts over wooden silhouettes, police fired about nine rounds of Dragon's Breath from about 14 feet away. When Dragon's Breath worked, the shirts went up in flames.

But not all the shells worked, and it remains to be seen whether an attempt to ban the ammunition again this year will hold up against the kind of gun lobby counterattack that helped sink a similar bill last year.

"If you got that in your face, that'd be it," Col. Leonard J. Supenski, a Baltimore County police firearms expert and longtime advocate of gun control, said after the Dragon's Breath demonstration.

A spokesman for opponents of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Janice Piccinini, D-Baltimore County, quickly labeled yesterday's test a "dog and pony show" that diverts attention from the real issue.

"What is going on here is Supenski, a nationally known gun ban fanatic, using this stuff [Dragon's Breath] to set a precedent of getting an ammunition ban on the books," said Bob McMurray, vice president of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association.

"They don't seem to be very effective in banning guns, so they're trying to do this," he said, and bans on other ammunition would follow.

Colonel Supenski, who testified in favor of banning Dragon's Breath in last year's legislative session, argued yesterday that // the ammunition is useless for home protection, for hunting or for using as a distress signal.

He said the shells contain magnesium pellets and flint, which burn fiercely at temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees and can keep burning after they pierce the skin.

"It has no legitimate use," said Colonel Supenski. "Why should rank and file officers have to deal with it?"

Detective Ken Ziegler, a spokesman for Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said his organization supports the proposed ban, even though there are no documented instances in Maryland of Dragon's Breath being used in a crime or against people.

"This is obviously something that we want to stop before it gets started," he said.

After demonstrating yesterday that Dragon's Breath shotgun ammunition would ignite police uniforms at close range, county police fired the ammunition at a piece of furniture inside a training building at the fire academy.

An old sofa caught fire.

"This is not something you would want to use to defend your home," said Detective Ziegler. "You may or may not get the intruder, but you would definitely set your house on fire."

Mr. McMurray couldn't agree more. Most gun owners who know about it think Dragon's Breath is useless, he said. They consider it a "joke" and an expensive rip-off.

A package of three shells costs $16.95 by mail from a South Carolina mail order firm. With shipping and handling, the total is $27.49, compared to $10 for a box of 25 ordinary shotgun shells.

So why not agree to a ban, the way gun proponents in Florida agreed to a ban on Dragon's Breath in 1991?

Because, Mr. McMurray said, Maryland would start down that slippery slope toward banning other, more legitimate ammunition.

"What they're doing now is saying, if you can't have a legitimate use for it, then it should be banned," he declared. Dragon's Breath "seems to be horrible stuff with no legitimate use in the world. But what's the legitimate use of a Batman comic book? Should we ban that, too?"

A hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has been scheduled for 1 p.m. March 17.

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