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Russell Bear Is No Kin to Smokey: He Aims to Help You Prevent Crime, Not Fire

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Russell Bear, 33, is sitting back on the couch of his Severn, Md. home with a hand-held flamethrower roasting flies—in midair. The device, which is the size of a small revolver and can fit in a purse, has other functions. Bear uses his to barbecue, light his fireplace and snuff out bees’ nests in his rain gutter. But the real reason that Bear, a refrigeration technician, invented the weapon was to help people protect themselves against muggers or rapists. “Most guns mean death,” he says, “but with this you’ve got a chance to warn someone.”

Some warning. The recently patented mechanism has two triggers: Pull one and a stream of ether sprays out, like that from a can of Mace. The second trigger ignites the ether and produces a jet of flame accurate up to about 50 feet. For targets too close for the weapon to be used safely, it can administer a stunning, though not fatal, low-current, 2,000-volt charge. Bear is still negotiating with potential manufacturers, but estimates the retail cost will be about $100.

The Patent Office doesn’t rule on the legality of inventions, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has declared that Bear’s device is not a firearm, although local laws still could cause it to be banned. “I guess you couldn’t prevent criminals from getting hold of this,” Bear admits, “but I’d still like to see restrictions on it anyway.” The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has already asked Bear about the possibility of buying samples for its officers, and the Army, Navy and Air Force have also contacted him.

Bear, the son of a Glen Burnie, Md. railroad man, has tinkered all his life. At age 6 he strung lines for a primitive communications system on phone company poles, replacing them every time a lineman ripped them down. In high school he hauled so many gadgets to class that exasperated teachers finally told him to stop. Now he lives with his wife, Carlotta, and two children on an eight-acre farm. Though the flamethrower is his first patent, he says he has “books full of other ideas.” Among them is a cold-weather survival suit with attached heat source that he uses while working in commercial freezers. He thinks it might be useful for motorists stranded in winter. He is also devising a portable, rechargeable hair dryer. That would be of interest to Carlotta. As for the awesome flamethrower, when Bear’s on the road, she locks it in the basement out of harm’s way.