Gun That Looks Like Pen Cleared ATF

The guy ahead of you in the airport security line empties his pockets into the plastic tray: keys, coins, wallet, pen. When he clears the metal detector and collects his belongings, he's gotten a gun past security, right under the guard's eyes.

The weapon in this scenario is the Pengun, a single-shot pistol under 6 inches long designed to look to the untrained eye just like a pen until it is reconfigured for firing.

Because of the weapon's shape when it is to be fired, the Pengun requires none of the special background checks the federal government requires for most so-called gadget guns — the kind of weapon so well concealed inside an everyday object that it is hard for the untrained eye to notice.

"If I put it on the table, no one will know it's a pistol," said Marc Lefebvre, who described himself as a major investor in the weapon's maker, Stinger Manufacturing Corp. of Saulte Sainte Marie, Mich. "If no one had ever seen our product, 80 percent of them would not know what it is."

There have been no incidents on planes involving the legally sold weapon, and a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration said no travelers have been stopped trying to bring one onto an airliner since federally trained screeners began working at airports 19 months ago.

But gun control advocates say the cleverly disguised gun should be seen as a threat to security and that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should reconsider its decision to classify the weapon as a typical handgun.

Pen-guns are normally classified as an "Any Other Weapon" under the National Firearms Act, and therefore would require stricter background checks to buy than would be required for the purchase of a typical handgun. But because of the design of the Stinger model, which has to be reconfigured to be fired, it is classified as a Title I handgun, an ATF spokesman said.

"We have the ability to re-evaluate this gun but I don't know if we are going to at this time," ATF spokesman Bill King said.

The Pengun received its classification in June 1990, when it was designed by the R.J. Braverman Co. Stinger Manufacturing only began making the gun about two years ago, Lefebvre said.

"The firearm had to go under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in order to get it classified," Lefebvre said.

Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based group that advocates for stricter gun control, described the ATF as "lax" for not reclassifying the Pengun when Stinger started manufacturing it.

"It has always been a threat, but certainly in the context of 9/11, we have to look more closely at the threat of a weapon disguised as another product," Sugarmann said, referring to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Stinger's Pengun was able to avoid the "Any Other Weapon" designation by meeting four requirements: It cannot be fired when it is in its straight position; the handle is at an angle of more than 30 degrees from the barrel when it is in the firing position; it can be fired with one hand; and the handle is a functional part of the weapon, Lefebvre said.

The pistol is 5 3/4 inches long in pen form. It fires a .22-caliber bullet, or can be fitted to fire a .17-caliber bullet, and has to be reloaded after each shot. Lefebvre said it was a "belly gun," with a range of under 16 feet.

The gun packs very little kick for the shooter. "A woman could fire this pistol without any issue," Lefebvre said.

Though the weapon can be made to look just like a pen, Lefebvre said it is manufactured with "certain alloys [so that it will] set off all the bells and whistles anywhere there is security."

Since Stinger began making the gun, the company has sold around 4,000, mostly to police forces and to collectors looking for novelty weapons, he said.

"Some people use them as a concealed carry weapon, because it's a very concealable weapon," he said.

The federal regulations on the purchase of "gadget guns" came into law under the 1934 National Firearms Act, which was a move to fight organized crime by putting controls on so-called gangster weapons. The main target of the legislation was the machine gun, but other weapons associated with mobsters were also included.

The law requires anyone who wants to buy one of the weapons on the list to undergo a rigorous background check that includes approval by the local police department. The process, which is in addition to any state requirements, can take months.

A spokeswoman for the Transportation Safety Administration said to her knowledge no Penguns have turned up among the 8.6 million banned items confiscated from travelers by airport screeners since February 2002.

The objects travelers put in the tray are supposed to be run through the x-ray machine, and Davis said that would result in screeners taking a closer look at the Pengun, if someone tried to sneak it onto a plane.

"We've certainly confiscated our share of concealed weapons," TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said. "Our screeners are highly trained and they've shown some skill at recognizing these kinds of items."