On April 27, the day President Clinton announced a new gun control initiative, Florida executive Franklin W. Brooks seized the moment to sell 150,000 shares of his company's suddenly more valuable stock.
With interest spurred by the Columbine High School massacre and unprecedented moves toward gun legislation in the Senate, the stock's value had nearly tripled in a week, allowing Brooks to realize a six-digit gain. The same day, Jeffrey Brooks, his son and company secretary, sold 20,000 shares and another officer sold 44,000.
Brooks's company is Saf T Lok Inc., a tiny South Florida firm that has discovered a magical nexus between tragedy, politics and business.
At a time when Americans are demanding safer guns, Brooks's company makes a simple combination lock that prevents a gun from firing -- a product advertised as one of the few devices on the market that can secure a fully loaded handgun.
In a moment of exquisite timing, a company that has been fraught with internal problems -- that has had to overcome bad publicity and scramble for product endorsements -- now seems on the verge of a potential bonanza. Sudden interest in gun safety has sent stock prices soaring, and it offers a possible gold mine for Brooks and other officers and directors, including a former senator and a former House member who joined the board two years ago.
With the House now set to consider a Senate-passed gun control measure requiring safety devices with all new handguns, Brooks and other Saf T Lok officials are blanketing Capitol Hill to try to give their product an edge in the marketplace.
Brooks boasts that he has placed handgun models equipped with the Saf T Lok device on the desks of 150 members of Congress and Attorney General Janet Reno.
"Everybody knows us there," he says of Capitol Hill.
But it is a high-stakes gamble, records show. The company's financial position is precarious, its storeroom loaded with 100,000 unsold locks. Battling lawsuits filed by a former president and shareholders, Saf T Lok is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible violations of federal securities laws. Some gun safety experts question the product's reliability, and some prospective buyers have balked at its price.
Saf T Lok's turbulent recent history and the solutions it has pursued say much about Washington and the commercial promise it can offer. As Saf T Lok officials have discovered, political positioning can be as critical as business acumen in dealing with the federal government.
Former senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and former representative James V. Stanton (D-Ohio) sit on Saf T Lok's board and hold financial stakes in the company, and Brooks has acknowledged that the high-powered connections have opened doors in government. DeConcini said in an interview he has talked to some members of Congress about Saf T Lok, and Stanton said he is helping to make the case with former House colleagues that a gun control measure should include language congenial to Saf T Lok.
Stanton's son, Richard, lobbies for Saf T Lok and helped it secure a General Services Administration contract allowing it to sell discounted locks to federal and state employees through the agency's Web site.
The same players have tried to build bridges with the National Rifle Association, which has fought gun safety technology. DeConcini met with executives at the Maryland-based gun maker Beretta USA and has approached police officials across the country.
Still, huge challenges remain. No gun manufacturers have been willing to incorporate the device in their weapons, and only one big-city police department -- Boston -- has purchased locks for its force. Priced as high as $90 (but sold in bulk to law enforcement agencies for about $50 each), Saf T Lok competes against many cheaper products, from cables to key locks costing as little as $10. Little testing has been done to help consumers choose the best locks.
If nothing else, the events of the past five weeks have sent Saf T Lok stock powering upward, from just over $1 per share the day before the Littleton, Colo., shootings to nearly $4 on May 20, the day of another school rampage in Georgia.
"It keeps us hopping," Brooks said. "Guns and kids come to the fore and all people know is Saf T Lok has to do with guns and kids."
Brooks, 64, a gun collector, inventor and ex-Marine, conceived of the lock a decade ago out of concern for his grandchildren's safety. He spent several years designing a combination lock consisting of three small levers, built into a revolver or at the base of a magazine clip.
His privately held West Palm Beach company merged with another in 1996 and kept its name, but it has continued to suffer from mercurial stock values and management unrest.
In 1996 the Wall Street Journal reported that Saf T Lok's claim to have been endorsed by the U.S. Secret Service was untrue, causing stock prices to plummet from $8 to $5 a share. When the company backed off of this and other claims, one investment adviser said Saf T Lok officials engaged in "pump and dump" tactics -- using public relations hype and unrealistic business promises to artificially drive up stock values, then selling shares to bring in cash. The company denied the charge, but stock prices suffered.
Brooks said in an interview that he has no apologies for selling off shares when prices rise and that he has twice sold stock to reinvest in the company. He said he invested $500,000 in start-up money in 1996 and worked for 10 years -- "most of the time for no pay at all."
"I too am entitled to reap the benefits when the time comes," he said. He said he still holds 200,000 shares and options to purchase a million more.
Also in 1996, Saf T Lok hired Lisa Broderick Fogel as president. She quit after eight days, later claiming in a lawsuit that the company was "technically bankrupt and deeply troubled." Brooks at first said he fired her, then backed off. In April the company settled with Fogel for $500,000 and stock options.
Another setback came in 1996 when Sandia Laboratories, under a federal contract, ranked combination locks lowest among 14 "smart gun" technologies it studied.
In 1997 the company gave options for 50,000 shares each to Joseph and Richard Stanton, the former House member's sons, who serve as consultants; later that year, it gave options for 250,000 shares each to DeConcini, who left the Senate in 1994, and James Stanton, who retired in 1997.
The company also gave options for 50,000 shares to James Pasco, executive director of the 272,000-member Fraternal Order of Police, which gave Saf T Lok its exclusive endorsement. Pasco said he has been a part-time adviser to Saf T Lok management but played no role in the endorsement. Saf T Lok also paid the FOP $25,000 to use the order's name and logo in promotions, according to FOP President Gilbert G. Gallegos.
More stock options went to Timothy J. McCarthy, police chief in Orland Park, Ill., a few months after his officers began using Saf T Loks off-duty. Brooks said that McCarthy, a former Secret Service agent wounded in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, returned the options after questions arose about the arrangement. McCarthy did not return phone calls.
Stock prices were about 40 cents a share in October 1997, when President Clinton announced in a Rose Garden ceremony that eight gun manufacturers had agreed to offer safety locks. That sent Saf T Lok shares soaring to $3, and Brooks and other company officials sold more than 500,000 shares.
More problems arose in early 1998 after Saf T Lok began an aggressive promotional campaign. A New York investment service urged clients to sell Saf T Lok stock, saying it had driven up its price by offering its public relations, consulting and marketing advisers $2 million in incentives if they successfully boosted the stock price by $3 a share.
John L. Gardner, then the company's president, said the charge was untrue. But in May 1998 the SEC began an investigation of the company's activity dating back to 1996.
The same month, Saf T Lok announced an agreement with another company to create a laser-driven fingerprint locking mechanism for firearms that would be available by the end of 1998. Frenzied trading ensued, with the stock price rising 33 percent, to nearly $5 a share. The agreement was canceled soon afterward.
Saf T Lok fired Gardner, who then claimed in a pending lawsuit that he had been wrongfully dismissed. Brooks said Gardner exceeded his authority in making deals for the company.
More management turmoil led to three shareholder suits, now merged into one pending federal case. The shareholders claim that Brooks and Gardner issued "false and misleading statements" to boost stock prices.
Undeterred and chronically optimistic, Brooks has not given up on his product or his company, which he said is on track with its finances and marketing plans.
Brooks personally works Capitol Hill, walking the corridors with several demonstration guns in hand. He said the sergeant-at-arms sends an escort to guide him through the metal detectors and into congressional office buildings, where he shows his locks to members and aides.
"Nobody has closed the door on us. Not even the NRA," he says.
Brooks's supporters are urging House members to write in language requiring certain types of gun safety devices. The Senate-passed bill has broad language without specific standards.
James Stanton, who served eight years in Congress, said he and DeConcini "don't have large economic holdings in the company, but we believe in the issue." Stanton has exercised options for 30,000 of his 250,000 shares, purchasing them at $2 a share. DeConcini said he has exercised none of his options.
Brooks and his supporters swear by their product, pointing to tests by an Orlando engineering firm that found the lock worked flawlessly in 36,000 attempts.
But Beretta has questioned Saf T Lok's reliability, a complaint the gun maker has raised about virtually all gun safety technologies. Last year, Beretta won a California lawsuit charging that it was negligent by not incorporating safety devices into its handguns. The company's defense is that it has found no reliable device.
In a recent SEC filing, Brooks acknowledges that Saf T Lok faced "a number of significant problems," including the need to obtain funding.
But Saf T Lok's report to the SEC said the company is "optimistic" for the future, partly because "the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado has gelled the public attention to the need to make handguns safer and less available to juveniles."
Staff researchers Alice Crites and Margot Williams contributed to this report.
Shootings and Stock Prices
Stock prices for Saf T Lok, a small Florida company that makes combination locks for handguns, has climbed since the deaths of 14 students and a teacher in Colorado last month. The debate over gun legislation has further driven up stock, which peaked the day of another school shooting in Georgia.
Columbine High School shooting occurs, leaving 15 dead and 23 injured.
President Clinton outlines his post-Littleton gun control legislation requiring safety locks to be sold with all new guns.
Senate agrees to debate bill on youth violence starting May 11.
White House holds summit on youth and violence.
Senate passes amendment to juvenile crime bill requiring locks or secure storage containers for all handguns sold by licensed dealers.
Senate passes juvenile crime bill requiring locks or other safety devices. Six injured in Georgia school shooting. Clinton visits victims of Colorado shooting.
SOURCE: Bloomberg News
CAPTION: Franklin W. Brooks, 64-year-old chairman of a tiny Florida company named Saf T Lok, holds samples of his company's combination gun lock assembly.
CAPTION: Packaged Saf T Lok products are ready for shipping from West Palm Beach, Fla. This box contains magazine locks for semiautomatic weapons.