Drone-mounted flamethrower, handgun reignite U.S. debate

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The quiet whirring of the drone's propellers gives way to the sound of gunshots - pop, pop, pop, pop - in the 14-second video titled "Flying Gun.

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The YouTube video of a drone-mounted handgun firing rounds into the Connecticut woods - and a companion video of a flying flamethrower lighting up a spit-roasting Thanksgiving turkey - have reignited efforts by state legislators to make it a crime to weaponize an unmanned aerial vehicle.

While the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration mulls regulations on drones, a number of states have established their own rules - though most of them focus on drone-mounted cameras as threats to privacy and security. Connecticut would be one of the first to restrict how drone owners can modify their craft into potentially dangerous weapons.

"I am a huge Second Amendment supporter and it would make me very happy because I don't see any, any civilian purpose for a flying gun," said Clinton police Sgt. Jeremiah Dunn, whose department investigated the video.

The "Flying Gun" video, posted last summer by Central Connecticut State University student Austin Haughwout, drew the attention of the FAA as well. No charges have been filed but the FAA said last week it was still investigating.

Dunn said his department was instructed by the local state's attorney's office that no Connecticut laws appear to have been violated in the first video and that the incident occurred on wooded private property, where a firearm could be legally discharged. Dunn said no local ordinances were violated, either.

The teen's father contends a new state law is unnecessary, arguing that his son did nothing wrong.

"This is a solution looking for a problem that doesn't exist," said Bret Haughwout.

Since that first video, Austin Haughwout posted a second one on YouTube in November of a drone he outfitted with a flamethrower to "cook" a turkey on a spit in the woods. Bret Haughwout said his son, a sophomore studying mechanical engineering, hasn't hurt anyone with his drones and is just a hobbyist interested in how machines work.

He said the drone that fired a handgun was "not at all an effective weapon" and "couldn't hit the broad side of a barn."

Last year, Connecticut lawmakers consider a proposal on weaponized drones and other restrictions, but it died in the state House of Representatives due to inaction, weeks before Haughwout's first video went online.

"Clearly what happened in Connecticut renewed our interest," said Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell, co-chair of the General Assembly's Program Review and Investigations Committee. Her panel conducted a comprehensive study of the drone issue in 2014 and proposed wide-ranging legislation last year and "many members of the committee were disappointed it didn't make to the House floor last year," Carpino said.

Public hearings are planned for Monday and Tuesday on two separate bills that would restrict the use of drones. One bill would make it a class C felony, punishable by one to 10 years in prison, to use a drone to release tear gas or other substances, or control a deadly weapon or explosive device. The other bill would create a similar crime plus impose limits on how law enforcement and state agencies can use drones.

If Connecticut's legislation passes, it would be one of the first laws that attempts to stop people from turning drones into flying weapons. Last year, Nevada passed a comprehensive bill that prohibited the weaponization of unmanned aircraft systems. It also prevents people from using them from within a certain distance of airports and critical facilities without permission. Other states, such as Arkansas and Mississippi, have focused on preventing peeping toms from using the technology to spy on potential victims. New Hampshire prohibits drones from being used for hunting, fishing or trapping while Michigan passed laws barring people from using a drone to hunt game but also to harass hunters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called Haughwout's videos scary.

"I don't know what he's thinking about, but that's just reckless on its face," Tong said. "I get and I understand that kids do crazy things, but that also raises a question about how we ought to regulate these machines as they get ever more sophisticated, because they do have the potential to cause damage or infringe on the rights of others."


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