We're Number Gun

Miami's own Taurus International Firearms is taking aim at the competition

This past January the world's first all-titanium guns debuted at the annual SHOT (Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade) show in Atlanta. The dramatic unveiling of the line of ultralightweight snub-nosed revolvers caused something of a sensation. "Jaws dropped across the floor of the exhibit hall," is how technical editor Dick Metcalf of Shooting Times described the scene in that magazine. The surprise wasn't that someone had surmounted the technical challenges of manufacturing a weapon entirely of titanium, but rather that the accomplishment had been achieved by a minor player in the weapons field, Taurus International Firearms.

While Taurus bulls its way toward the forefront of the handgun industry, the company remains virtually unnoticed in Miami-Dade, its international headquarters. "We are an undiscovered story," marketing manager Gary Mehalik comments. "If we were not making guns, the company would be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for making the biggest gains in the industry."

It's difficult to verify which U.S. gun manufacturers are winning in the teeming international arms marketplace; most of the companies are privately held and secretive. But there's no dispute that Taurus has made strides in both quantity and quality. During the past decade the firm has doubled its product line and introduced innovations such as a built-in trigger lock and a hunting handgun.

"It's an interesting company and it's been growing and growing," says Andrew Molchan, director of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers (NAFLFD). "Not really an overnight success, but they have kind of inched ahead in what is a very established and conservative market."

That market has come under increasing scrutiny since the highly publicized school shootings in Colorado and Georgia earlier this year. Although gun-control legislation recently failed in Congress, other measures are pending. And local governments across the nation have filed tobacco-style civil lawsuits against gunmakers, seeking to hold them liable for the costs associated with firearm-related deaths and injuries.

Taurus was founded in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1939 and its main factory remains there on the country's southern coast; the ten-year-old Miami facility imports Brazilian-made guns destined for companies and governments in Europe, Asia, Africa, and throughout North America. Additionally the well-guarded, state-of-the-art Taurus factory on NW 49th Avenue near Opa-locka Airport has been churning out pistols and gun parts for close to a decade.

A few months ago the NAFLFD gave Taurus an award for its titanium-revolver line, which has just begun to arrive in stores (retail price is about $600). Weapons cognoscenti regard another prizewinning Taurus revolver, the Raging Bull (in either .454 Casull or .44 Magnum calibers), as one of the best high-powered handguns made, especially considering its moderate price of $600 to $750. Taurus also recently started producing its first long gun, a .22-caliber rifle.

Taurus International is one of only two handgun manufacturers operating in Miami-Dade County, according to records filed with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The other one -- Navegar, Inc. in southwest Miami-Dade -- gets a lot more attention. Navegar makes the Tec-9 semiautomatic pistol, which has been used in shooting sprees, including the Columbine High tragedy in Colorado.

Although Taurus has managed to keep a low profile in the news, it has been named a defendant in most of the lawsuits filed during the past year against gunmakers. Currently 22 local governments, including Miami-Dade County, are claiming damages for various alleged offenses, principally negligent distribution of guns and failure to prevent their unauthorized use. Miami-Dade's January 27 suit names 25 manufacturers and sporting councils, including Taurus International and its Brazilian parent company, Forjas Taurus. Among the suit's demands are compensation for the cost of treating gunshot victims at Jackson Memorial Hospital. (Federal data show 227 Taurus handguns were traced to Florida crime scenes in 1997, while 598 Smith & Wesson weapons were linked to crimes in the state. Andrew Cunanan used a Taurus .40-caliber pistol that year to kill designer Gianni Versace and then himself.)

The lawsuits and public concern for gun safety in the wake of the high school shootings have made an already hunkered-down industry even more secretive. Several gun dealers contacted for this story refused to talk. Taurus CEO Robert Morrison declined to be interviewed and the company turned down a New Times request to tour the Miami plant, citing security concerns. Gary Mehalik, however, patiently responded to numerous inquiries.

Like most other U.S. firearms manufacturers, Taurus does not release earnings figures. But in the past four years, Mehalik estimates, the company has doubled the number of models available: It now manufactures 38 handgun models and one rifle. In addition Taurus made a deal last year that gives it a virtual monopoly on handgun exports from Brazil to this nation: Taurus and Brazil's other major firearms manufacturer, Amadeo Rossi Municoes, have formed a Florida corporation to import and distribute Rossi guns in the United States. (From 1991 through 1996, Brazil ranked either first or second among all foreign countries in the number of handguns exported to the United States.) The Forjas Taurus factory has also taken over the manufacture of all Rossi handguns.

U.S. production figures compiled by the ATF show the Taurus International factory in Miami made almost 19,000 pistols in 1997, up from 12,000 in 1996. That's only a fraction of the much larger Forjas Taurus production in Brazil. The Porto Alegre plant doesn't release production figures. U.S. Customs data, however, show Brazil exported a total of 133,270 handguns to the United States in 1998; a high proportion of those would have been manufactured at the Forjas Taurus factory. By comparison Smith & Wesson, which is roughly three times larger than Taurus, made about 380,000 pistols and revolvers in 1997 and approximately 387,000 the year before; 1993 and 1994 production totals for many manufacturers, including Taurus and Smith & Wesson, were much higher.

Not long ago Taurus was near the bottom of the handgun food chain. Now the two Taurus factories, which feature a computerized, robot-operated metal molding process, win awards for technical excellence. The molding system, though expensive to install, produces high-quality parts cheaply. At the Miami plant, two pistol models are assembled and hundreds of thousands of parts are manufactured for Taurus's and Rossi's Brazilian-made weapons. Mehalik says several competing gunmakers (that demand anonymity) have contracted Taurus to produce parts.

But not everyone is impressed with the company. "Taurus is sort of a middling manufacturer that doesn't attract that much attention," says Kristen Rand, director of federal policy for the Violence Policy Center. "There are the old-line manufacturers whose guns tend to show up in crimes primarily because there are so many out there. Then there are what we call the bottom-feeders who make the junk targeted to the criminal market. Taurus is just in the middle. They're a little less junky than they used to be."

Forjas Taurus has long been a major gun supplier in South America. It ventured into the U.S. market in 1968 (the year Congress banned the import of so-called Saturday night specials) but was not popular, owing mainly to "what must be admitted as mediocre quality," according to the company's Website. Taurus used to produce cheap copies of Berettas and Smith & Wessons; its guns still share many design elements with those makers. For most of the Seventies, Forjas Taurus was owned by the same conglomerate, Bangor Punta, that owned Smith & Wesson. The two gunmakers were independent companies, but they shared technology. Then a group of investors headed by Brazilian businessman and former Smith & Wesson employee Carlos Murgel bought Forjas Taurus. In 1980 Taurus purchased Beretta's operations in Brazil.

Taurus International was incorporated in Miami in 1982 and began aggressive U.S. marketing efforts, offering a lifetime-repair warranty. The Miami manufacturing plant started up in 1990.

In 1997, before the current wave of calls for mandatory gun locks, Taurus introduced a built-in safety lock on some of its pistols. "Our industry is filled with a lot of opinionated people, and some of the more extremist members had a tendency to look at the Taurus lock when it first came out as a bad thing to promote," says Bob Steger, president of RSR Wholesale Guns, a distributor based in Winter Park that represents 100 manufacturers. "But that trigger lock was really ahead of its time." The lock is now available on several Taurus pistols and the new rifle; since this past January the company claims it has shipped a separate locking device with all guns that do not have the built-in safety system.

Soon after Miami-Dade County filed its gun lawsuit, Taurus CEO Robert Morrison wrote to Mayor Alex Penelas. "We are requesting that you ... [dismiss] Taurus from the litigation," the letter concludes.

"Their response," Mehalik recounts, "was to serve us [with court papers]."
Regardless of reactions Taurus appears intent on sticking with its aggressive approach to marketing. "Years ago [Taurus] just about egged us to take on their line," says Steger of RSR Wholesale Guns. "I told the guy, 'No, no,' but they finally improved the quality so much I couldn't say no. Now Taurus is extremely popular with our salespeople. We just finished up a national sales meeting and Taurus put on a presentation. Part of it was to go around the room and ask every salesperson what they wanted to see in the guns or what they thought should be different, and they were real open to the suggestions. It seemed like they've really got their act down."

Taurus now has an entire sales team focused on the profitable American law-enforcement sector, which has so far stuck with well-respected manufacturers like Glock, Smith & Wesson, and Sig-Sauer. Taurus thinks its new lightweight titanium revolvers will help it to win police contracts. The U.S. Navy SEALs, Mehalik notes, are currently "evaluating" the all-titanium line.

Smith & Wesson, the 147-year-old American manufacturer, introduced its own part-titanium revolver shortly before Taurus's product came out. If the gun giant feels threatened, it gives no indication. "In the revolver business [Taurus is] one of the players," spokesman Ken Jorgensen concedes. "But they're not strong in the law-enforcement market."

"I'd prefer other weapons, but some of the stuff Taurus is putting out there is pretty damn good," says one officer in Miami known for his firearm expertise. Since he's speaking for himself and not his agency, he prefers to remain anonymous. "Taurus doesn't spend a lot on research and development. They get already proven models and produce them a lot cheaper. Some of their pistols are very popular among people who don't have a lot of money to invest in an expensive weapon."

kathy_glasgow@miaminewtimes.com

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