Not Ready For Prime Time

Does new California law spell the end for the states junk-gun makers?

Time may be running out for Southern California's most infamous export. Last week, California Governor Gray Davis signed a bill first sponsored by state Senator Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) that threatens to outlaw the manufacture of cheap, poorly made handguns known around the world as Saturday night specials.

Five of the nation's top 10 handgun companies are located in Southern California, including Costa Mesa-based Bryco Arms.

The new state law requires all California handgun manufacturers to add childproof locks to their weapons. More important, it requires all new handguns to pass two tests that will commence on Jan. 1: each handgun must fire 20 rounds without a single misfire and survive a 1-meter drop six times onto concrete without discharging.

Those demands won't directly solve two of the guns' other dangerous tendencies: according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Saturday night specials blow up in their owners' hands at a higher rate than any other gun, and they are more than three times as likely to be used in violent crimes than any other weapon.

Indirectly, however, a Davis press release asserts that "the measure would effectively ban the manufacture and sale of poorly made handguns commonly known as Saturday night specials."

But that largely depends on how Bryco and California's other cheap-gun makers respond to the new law. Polanco spokesman Bill Mabie told the Weekly that manufacturers have until the end of the year to improve the quality of their weapons. "I don't know if they prefer to continue being the bottom feeders of the industry," said Mabie. "If they do, they can't manufacture weapons in this state."

As first reported by the Weekly in 1995, five of the six largest Southern California gun companies—including Bryco Arms—are directly connected to the family firearms business of George Jennings, the Valenica-based Sundance Industries being the lone exception. This relationship began in 1970, when Jennings opened Raven Arms, and it expanded eight years later when his son, Bruce Jennings, opened BL Jennings Firearms Inc.

But that was just the beginning. In 1982, Bruce's sister, Gail, and her husband, Jim Davis, formed Davis Industries in Mira Loma; the company has since moved to Chino. In 1988, Lorcin Engineering, owned by a high school buddy of Bruce Jennings, opened its doors in Mira Loma. That was also the year that Jennings' ex-wife, Janice, founded Bryco Arms. Additionally, Janice Jennings and the three children she had with Bruce are partners in Ontario-based Phoenix Arms, which was created after a fire severely damaged the factory making weapons for Raven Arms.

Because of their geographic proximity in a rough circle, these companies are known collectively as the "Ring of Fire." According to ATF records, Ring of Fire companies manufactured 892,986 weapons in 1993. That year, 62 percent of all gun-related crimes throughout the U.S. were traced by the ATF to Ring of Fire handguns.

Sales have fallen off considerably since then, due in part to cheaper handguns being marketed in the U.S. by more reputable manufacturers like Smith & Wesson and the Italian-owned Beretta. Meanwhile, cities from New Orleans to Chicago and Cleveland have filed many lawsuits against Ring of Fire companies in connection with numerous murders and accidental deaths involving California-made Saturday night specials.

Lorcin Engineering filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1996 in the wake of 35 separate lawsuits and $32 million in claims imposed by various cities. In March 1997, the Legal Action Project sued Bryco and BL Jennings Firearms after a 14-year-old boy was shot in the face by a gun that accidentally discharged while he and a friend were playing with it.

In 1998, things got even worse for the so-called Ring of Fire. That year, Cleveland sued Bryco, Lorcin, BL Jennings, Phoenix Arms and Davis Industries over a rash of 51 murders involving California-made Saturday night specials. Bryco also was named as a defendant in a 1998 Chicago lawsuit brought by the parents of Andrew Young, who was shot in 1996 by a mugger using a Bryco 59.

This year, Davis Industries became the second Ring of Fire company to declare bankruptcy.

Whether one of those companies will be Costa Mesa's Bryco Arms is unclear. Bryco officials have refused repeated interview requests, but a service representative asserted that the company is still open for business and is complying with the law; every weapon that leaves the factory, he said, comes complete with the required trigger lock.

Bryco's Costa Mesa factory is located just across the fence from John Wayne Airport. From there, daily cargo flights distribute tens of thousands of Bryco firearms to dealers across America each year. The sheer volume of those sales equates to huge profits. In one fairly typical year, 1996, BL Jennings Inc. made $6.2 million in profits from gun sales, reportedly providing owner Bruce Jennings with a salary of $1.6 million.

A recent Washington Post article provided more hard data that explained why the manufacture of Saturday night specials is such a profitable enterprise for companies such as Bryco, despite all the product-liability and wrongful-death lawsuits. The cheapest Ring of Fire handgun has a retail price of $69. (By contrast, a well-made handgun such as the Smith & Wesson Taurus PT 111 9 mm lists for $344.) The Post cited court records in Riverside showing that the average Saturday night special costs only $10 to produce.

The price disparity explains why the so-called junk guns are the weapons of choice for many low-income people—criminals and law-abiders alike. But the true price of these affordable weapons is their danger. Gun Tests Magazine, which rates handguns and other weapons for safety and accuracy, doesn't have anything nice to say about most Ring of Fire handguns, including at least two models that continue to be manufactured at Bryco's Costa Mesa factory: the Bryco J-22 and Jennings Bryco Model 59.

Of the Bryco Arms J-22, Gun Tests reported, "Due to the large number of malfunctions we encountered with this pistol, we cannot recommend it." The verdict was even harsher for the Jennings Bryco Model 59: "A somewhat reliable performance isn't too much to ask, and we didn't get that. Jennings needs to refine its magazines before we would even consider recommending this 9 mm."

Perhaps Bryco and the rest of the Ring of Fire companies that haven't already declared bankruptcy will fare better in January, when all handguns made in California will have to pass muster in Sacramento before they can be shipped out-of-state by the boxload. "Bryco's prospects remain to be seen," said Mabie. "Hopefully, our bill will keep Bryco and other manufacturers from cutting corners on safety. Either way, they won't be making junk guns anymore, that's for sure."

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