Featured Article

Elon Musk said it was ‘Not a Flamethrower’

Police around the world disagreed

Comment

boring-flamethrower
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

After two days locked up in an Italian prison, American Max Craddock was finally able to make his case to a judge.

“It’s not a weapon of war,” his lawyer told the investigating magistrate. “It’s a toy they sell to children.”

Craddock had been arrested in the Sardinian port city of Olbia in June 2018 after trying to board a private party bus with a collectible flamethrower from Elon Musk’s latest startup, The Boring Company. Craddock had painted his flamethrower black, and written on it the name of a floating music festival in the Bahamas he had attended the previous year while starring in reality TV show Unanchored.

Alarmed by the sight of what he thought was a gun, the bus driver refused to drive off, and then called the police.

Elon Musk’s Boring Co. flamethrower is real, $500 and up for pre-order

“They were very chill at first,” Craddock told TechCrunch in a recent phone interview. “But as the night went on, it kept getting worse. I spent the first night in jail in Olbia and then they took me to prison.”

When Craddock managed to get a lawyer, she told him the judge would probably just let him go with a warning. Instead, the magistrate ordered him back to his cell. That was when Craddock, pictured below, learned possession of a flamethrower in Italy can carry a 10-year prison sentence.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bj1PZPLAQsw/

A few months later, author John Richardson was sitting down to work at his home in London when there was a loud knock at the door. He opened it and five police officers barged in wearing tasers and tactical gear.

“I think a couple of them also had handguns,” Richardson told TechCrunch. “But I’m slightly hazy on that because my legs went wobbly.”

The police officers sat Richardson down on his sofa and informed him that they had a warrant to search the premises. “I was like, ‘what’s going on here?’ ” Richardson recalled. “Then something clicked and I said, ‘Is this about the flamethrower?’ ”

The raid was indeed about his flamethrower.

Craddock and Richardson are not the only Boring Company customers to have fallen foul of law enforcement.

More than 1,000 flamethrower purchasers abroad have had their devices confiscated by customs officers or local police, with many facing fines and weapons charges. In the U.S., the flamethrowers have been implicated in at least one local and one federal criminal investigation. There have also been at least three occasions in which the Boring Company devices have been featured in weapons hauls seized from suspected drug dealers.

The upshot: What Musk and his army of fans thought was just another of his money-spinning larks is having real-world consequences for people and countries not in on the joke.

The Boring Company did not respond to detailed questions from TechCrunch for this story.

The spark of an idea

Inspired by Los Angeles traffic, Musk launched The Boring Company in December 2016. The startup’s mission was to solve urban traffic jams by moving cars through tiny tunnels. But re-engineering sewer tunneling technology to build a revolutionary subterranean transportation network doesn’t come cheap. In an effort to drum up awareness and funds, Musk announced in December 2017 a limited run of novelty flamethrowers designed and branded by The Boring Company.

It was a scheme that had produced results earlier that year. Musk raised $1 million just weeks after launching sales of a $20 Boring Company hat.

“I’m a big fan of Spaceballs, the movie,” Musk told Joe Rogan during an infamous podcast in 2018. “They have a flamethrower in the merchandising section of Spaceballs, and, like, the kids love that one.”

The device uses a standard propane gas canister and is functionally similar to propane torches for melting ice, killing weeds or applying roofing materials. But with its rifle-style stock, pistol grip and sci-fi styling, the Boring Company’s flamethrower had a very different aesthetic — more post-apocalyptic party accessory than everyday yard maintenance.

Musk did his best to hype sales, tweeting to his Twitter followers, which numbered about 22 million at the time: “Flamethrower obv best way to light your fireplace/BBQ. No more need to use a dainty ‘match’ to ignite!”

He also threw a launch party in Los Angeles, where Craddock was one of the first 1,000 customers to collect a flamethrower, just before his European trip. “I removed the gas canister, put the flamethrower in my carry-on, and had no trouble on the flights,” he said.

Musk’s influence and the appeal of the product provided a winning combination.

“I had no intention of going around setting fire to stuff,” said Richardson. “I just thought it looked pretty cool, and was something I could potentially flip for a lot more money down the line.”

The Boring Company would make 20,000 flamethrowers and sell them at $500 each, netting the young company $10 million.

‘Not’ a Flamethrower

The 20,000 flamethrowers quickly sold out, with orders flooding in from around the world. As the shipping date neared, however, The Boring Company realized its scorching new product could also be a legal hot potato.

“We are told that various countries would ban shipping of it, that they would ban flamethrowers,” Musk told Rogan in 2018. “So, to solve this problem for all of the customs agencies, we labelled it, ‘Not a Flamethrower.’ “

“Did it work? Was it effective?” asked Rogan. “I don’t know. I think so. Yes,” Musk replied.

The correct answer was no.

Elon Musk’s flamethrower has already made well over $3.5 million

In London, the flamethrower came to the attention of Operation Viper, a rapid response team dedicated to tackling gun crime. Working with customs officials, Viper tracked Musk’s flamethrowers en route to the nation’s capital. “There has been a debate as to whether these are firearms,” one of the Viper officers wrote in an email to Richardson. “Similar flamethrowers have been seized right across London.” One Londoner had his laptop and several cellphones confiscated along with the flamethrower.

Flamethrower raids were also happening around the U.K. and across Europe. A YouTube vlogger in Manchester was targeted by police after featuring the Boring Company’s gadget in one of his videos, while up to 1,000 purchasers in Switzerland had devices confiscated and were issued fines. One took his case to court, saying the flamethrower was little different from a school Bunsen burner. He lost.

Not just a European problem

Without the immediacy of a Customs check, the backlash to Musk’s flamethrowers in the United States took longer to arrive. But in June 2019, a Democratic lawmaker in the New York State Senate introduced a bill that would criminalize owning and using Musk’s flamethrower.

“Elon Musk’s Boring Company released a new flamethrower… without any concern to the training of the purchasers or their reasons for buying,” reads S1637. “This bill establishes that owning and using a flamethrower is a criminal act, unless it is used for agricultural, construction or historical collection purposes. These dangerous devices should not be sold to civilians, and use needs to be restricted to trained professionals.”

Not every police force believes that new laws are necessary — finding that existing ones are enough. In June 2020, police in Springfield, Massachusetts stopped a car for a missing inspection sticker. One of the officers noticed what he thought was a rifle hidden beneath a seat — actually a Boring Company flamethrower. Its owner, passenger Brandon McGee, was charged with carrying a dangerous weapon and an “infernal machine” (a device for endangering life or property using fire).

The same month, FBI agents executing a search warrant against a Pennsylvania man, Brandon Althof Long, stumbled across his Boring Company flamethrower propped against a wall. Long had been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to riot and cause civil disorder, and conspiracy to use fire to commit a felony, during riots in Ohio protesting police brutality.

The agents seized the flamethrower out of concern for their safety, which a U.S. district judge later ruled lawful. “Other individuals could be located inside the house and the flamethrower could have been used to endanger officers as they retreated from Long’s home,” she wrote.

Novel items like flamethrowers are rarely specified in law, says Ryan Calo, a law professor and co-founder of the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington. “Some items – like guns or spring knives – are weapons ‘per se,’ meaning that they are always weapons. But most statutes have an ‘or other deadly weapon’ clause as well, meaning that anything that is capable of causing serious bodily harm, even a rock, can be a weapon in the right circumstances,” he said.

The problem is, what circumstances? A flame-spouting weed-killer might not attract the interest of police, whereas a similar device styled like an assault rifle is more likely to be considered threatening. “And if you use the item during the commission of another crime, this can lead to a distinct offense of using a deadly weapon to commit a felony,” said Calo.

For all Musk’s portrayal of the Not a Flamethrower as just an entertaining toy, police forces — and criminals — in North America are increasingly treating them as dangerous weapons. In rural Wisconsin, a two-year narcotics investigation led police to arrest two men in July 2020 with a hoard of drugs, cash and weapons. Among the cocaine, pistols and assault rifles prominently displayed in the traditional seizure photo was a Boring Company flamethrower. Similar seizures were displayed by police in Canada in December and again this month.

guelph guns-seized- boring company flamethrower
Guelph Police Service lays out items seized including Not a Flamethrower, the novelty item sold by The Boring Company. Image credit: Guelph Police

No company has complete control over what customers do with its products. However, this isn’t the first time a product connected to Musk has been misused.

Tesla, the electric automaker led by Musk, has been criticized for naming its advanced driver assistant system Autopilot and for calling the $10,000 add-on option Full Self-Driving (FSD), even though the driver must remain engaged at all times and is legally liable. A German court has banned the company from using the terms “Autopilot” or “full potential for autonomous driving” on its website or in other marketing materials.

Elon Musk rails against German court decision on Tesla Autopilot terminology

Safety advocates have argued that using terms like Autopilot and FSD misrepresents the capabilities of the system. The name, along with the lack of an in-cabin camera that monitors the driver, has led owners to push well beyond the bounds of the system.

Videos showing Tesla owners misusing Autopilot and FSD abound on YouTube. Some have had run-ins with law enforcement. One Canadian man was charged for sleeping in his Tesla as it drove down the highway.

Eternal flame

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

John Richardson eventually got his Not a Flamethrower back from the Metropolitan police. He now intends to keep it out of the public eye, at least until it’s worth selling. “I’m happy to sit on it for however long,” he said. “And if there is a zombie apocalypse, at least I’ve got one.”

For now, Craddock remains the only person that TechCrunch can identify as having been incarcerated solely for possessing a Not a Flamethrower. “It was a hair-raising experience,” he said. “I’m in the middle of nowhere in Sardinia, on 24-hour lockdown with an older guy giving off Mafia vibes.”

After nearly a week in prison, Craddock was abruptly handed his belongings (flamethrower aside) and set free. “My lawyer asked the judge, ‘Do you really want to be the guy on international news keeping an American in jail over this toy?’ ” he said. “I think that was the key to getting me out.”

Craddock took the first plane home. He says he now regrets taking the flamethrower abroad, and carrying it in public: “I would have preferred not to have spent that week in an Italian prison, but now I’ve got a hell of a story.”

He also has another flamethrower.

“As soon as I got back, I built myself a new one,” said Craddock. “You can follow YouTube videos with links to all the things you need. It’s pretty simple.”

Here’s how to make The Boring Company’s flamethrower

More TechCrunch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

22 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

3 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

3 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info