The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Have you heard about the "undetectable plastic gun"? The gun control lobbies call it is "tailor-made for terrorism." The Washington Post reports that a state sponsor of terrorism is already attempting to obtain these guns. A Post columnist warns that the police "vehemently oppose the introduction of plastic guns into our armed society." Newsweek predicts the NRA will face a member revolt for opposing legislation to ban plastic guns: "This time the gun lobby may have shot itself in the foot."
The above is not today's news. It's the news from 1985 to 1988, the years of the first plastic gun panic. The supposed "plastic gun" was the Glock pistol, which contains more than a pound of metal, and is easily identified by metal detectors.
Today, millions of Americans own Glock pistols, and they are widely recognized as among the most common and ordinary of handguns. But back in 1985, the Glock was brand new, and the gun control lobbies found a brand new opportunity to terrify the American public. Many politicians and much of the press were eager to embrace the panic. Congress came close to enacting a wide-ranging gun ban.
This article tells the story of the first plastic gun panic.
The origins of the first plastic gun
In 1963, Gaston Glock, an Austrian engineer, created the Glock company. The Glock factory was near Vienna, in Deutsch-Wagram. It manufactured plastic and steel products, including curtain rings. After developing expertise in products combining plastic with steel, Glock became an Austrian army supplier field knives, machine gun belts, practice hand grenades, plastic clips, and entrenching tools.
In the early 1980s, the Austrian army asked a wide variety of manufacturers to submit bids to manufacture a new duty pistol. Although Glock had never made firearms before, it was invited to bid. Glock won the contract for what became the Glock 17 pistol. The Glock was the first handgun to use extensively plastic polymers. (Plastics in guns had debuted in 1959 Remington Nylon 66.)
Most parts of the Glock 17 were still made of metal: the slide, the barrel, the trigger assembly, the magazines, and so on. But the frame was made of plastic polymers. The frame is the biggest part of the gun; it is the structure to which all the other parts are attached. The Glock's plastic frame weighed only 14% as much as a steel frame, yet was stronger.
The stronger frame helped the gun absorb recoil better, thus improving accuracy and comfort for the user. The much lighter frame also made the Glock more comfortable to carry or wear for extended periods.
Even without the plastic, the Glock would have been a major innovation. Nobody had ever made a modern full-sized pistol with so few parts. The Glock was easy to disassemble and reassemble for cleaning. Compared to other pistols of the time, it was less likely to jam or misfire because of lack of cleaning. The gun was also extremely sturdy, and resistant to cracking or other damage even after firing thousands of rounds of ammunition.
After being adopted by the military and law enforcement in Austria, the Glock 17 began to find a world-wide market. Norway was the first NATO country to adopt it. In 1985, Glock opened an office in Smyrna, Georgia, the first of what would be Glock offices around the world.
As explained in Paul M. Barrett's book Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, the company aimed its initial promotions at the law enforcement market. The light weight and other improvements made the gun naturally attractive to officers and deputies. And Glock offered very generous terms to adopting agencies, including buying the agencies' former service handguns.
As law enforcement agencies adopted the Glock, other citizens could see that the new-fangled "plastic" guns were reliable and effective for lawful defense of self and others. Lawful defense is the only reason that law enforcement officers carry firearms. American citizens have always looked to law enforcement officers for good examples of appropriate arms for keeping the peace. That was true for the 1873 Colt "peacemaker" revolver and over a century later for the Glocks.
In 1986 the Washington Post sounds the alarm about plastic guns
"Qaddafi Buying Austrian Plastic Pistol." That was the headline from columnists Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta in Washington Post on January 15, 1986. According to the article, "The Libyans are said to be trying covert methods to obtain these weapons."
Today, Glocks are ubiquitous, one of the most common pistols, with many models. But in January 1986, they were little known in America, where only a few thousnd had been sold.
Swiftly, the gun control lobbies began warning Americans about the "plastic pistol." They dubbed them "terrorist specials" or the "Hijackers Special." Supposedly, this plastic gun was designed to sneak through metal detectors.
Government experts explain that the Glock—and all other handguns, are readily detectable
Phillip McGuire testified to Congress on behalf of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. McGuire was not exactly an opponent of gun control. He would later would take a job with the leading gun control group of the day, Handgun Control, Inc. McGuire testified before Congress:
There is still no evidence that we hold that a firearm intrinsically capable of passing undetected through conventional x-ray and metal detector systems exists or is feasible under any current technology immediately available to us.
Testimony of Phillip C. McGuire, Associate Director, Office of Law Enforcement, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms before the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, July 28, 1987.
At that same hearing, Raymond A. Salazar, Director of Civil Aviation Security for the Federal Aviation Administration testified: "We are aware of no current 'non-metal' firearm which is not reasonably detectable by present technology and methods in use at our airports today."
FAA Director for Civil Aviation Security Billie Vincent told Congress: "despite a relatively common impression to the contrary, there is no current non-metal firearm which is not reasonably detectably by present technology and methods in use in our airports today, nor to my knowledge is anyone on the threshold of developing such a firearm."
Congress was shown photos of Glocks under a metal detector, reveal that the Glock's easily visible profile. Even when the Glocks were disassembled, the photos showed the parts to be easily detected.
Sen. Metzenbaum's gun ban gains momentum
In the late 1980s, the Senate's leading gun control advocate was Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). In the November 1986 elections, Democrats won control of the U.S. Senate, and Joe Biden (D-Del.) would be the new Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The party change much improved the prospects for gun control bills getting a committee hearing and a floor vote.
In February 1987 Sen. Metzenbaum introduced legislation to outlaw all guns that contained less than 8.5 ounces of steel, because such guns could supposedly pass through metal detectors easily. (The original bill can be found in the Feb. 4, 1987, Congressional Record, at page S1792. The Library of Congress' Thomas website does not have full texts of bills from this period.) The original Metzenbaum bill would have allowed grandfathered owners to retain possession, but not to sell or transfer them. So upon the demise of a grandfathered owner, the heirs would immediately become illegal possessors of contraband.
The Metzenbaum bill did not ban the Glock, which contains 19 ounces of steel. The Glock was winning adoptions by law enforcement at a rapidly increasing rate. It was no longer plausible to claim that these law enforcement handguns were "terrorist specials."
Instead, the Metzenbaum bill banned many small handguns. Again, the BATF had testified that these too were readily detectable. According to the NRA (American Rifleman, Jan. 1988), the Metzenbaum bill covered many derringers (up to .38 caliber) as well as .22 or .25 caliber handguns from companies including Beretta, Colt, North American Arms, Raven Arms, Rossi, Smith & Wesson, Stevens, and Walther.
The bill's use of "steel" rather than "metal" for the minimum weight made a big difference. Many guns use zinc or aluminum in alloys. The thirteen ounce .25 caliber Raven pistol was made with zinc alloy, and had only 3.2 ounces of pure steel. Similarly, the Beretta 950 weighed over nine ounces, but the frame was aluminimum alloy, so the gun's steel weight was less than 8 1/2 ounces. Small handguns had long been a target of the gun control lobbies. The lobbies had been unable to prohibit such guns nationally by calling them "Saturday Night Specials." Now, small handguns were again set for prohibition–supposedly because they had something to do with the fuss about "plastic guns."
Other handguns, including historic models, had frames made from iron, brass, bronze, rather from steel. They too were set for prohibition.
In early December 1987, Metzenbaum tried to attach his legislation to a bill to increase aid to veterans. He narrowly fell short, 44 to 47 (counting two Senators not present, but who said they would have voted for the bill).
Senators Howard Metzenbaum found a powerful cosponsor for his gun ban: South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond. Thurmond was the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He had first come to national attention in 1948 when he bolted the Democratic Party to run for President as a "Dixiecrat." Thurmond and his supporters objected to the civil rights plank in the party platform, which had been spearheaded by Minneapolis Mayor (and future Vice-President) Hubert Humphrey.
Thurmond had a long career as governor and senator from South Carolina. In 1964, he became a Republican. He was the opposite of a civil libertarian, and a frequent sponsor of legislation that opponents said would infringe much of the Bill of Rights. (See, e.g.,
Being from South Carolina, Thurmond sometimes voted "pro-gun." Yet later, in the first Bush administration (1989-92), Thurmond took the lead in supporting administration gun control proposals, even when most other Republican Senators refused to go along. For example, one Bush-Thurmond theme was legislation to simultaneously abolish the Exclusionary Rule and enact more gun control.
Over in the House of Representatives, leading gun control advocate Mario Biaggi (D-Bronx, later imprisoned for felony corruption) had an even more ambitious "plastic gun" proposal. He favored prohibiting any firearm "substantially constructed of plastic or other nonmetal material." This would cover all long guns, since their stocks are made of wood or plastic, not metal. The ATF's McGuire testified that the Biaggi "definition covers almost every existing rifle and shotgun in commerce and almost any handgun using rubber, wood or plastic oversized grips."
Although the Biaggi idea did not advance, Metzenbaum was making progress. Even the Reagan Department of Justice was poised to endorse a "plastic" gun ban. Only the intervention of Vice President Bush (who was running for President, and seeking gun-owner support) stopped the DOJ. The "plastic gun" panic from 1986 had been cultivated so well by gun control advocates that they could still use the momentum to ban something that could be called "undetectable."
Congress passes the Undetectable Firearms Act
Given the apparent imperative to "do something," pro-rights legislators had introduced alternative legislation. House Majority Leader Thomas Foley (D-Spokane) introduced H.R. 4014, the Firearms Detection Act of 1988. It garnered 95 cosponsors, most notably Rep. John Dingell (D-Ann Arbor), who was a member of the NRA Board of Directors. In the Senate, similar legislation came from Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho), who had been the lead Senate sponsor for the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986, a major reform of federal gun control laws.
What resulted was a compromise, the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, H.R. 4445. Its sponsor was William Hughes (D-N.J.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Crime, and a leading gun control advocate. Hughes was willing to negotiate, and produced a bill that won unanimous support from the House Judiciary Committee and NRA endorsement. The minimum steel weight was reduced to 3.7 ounces, which must be in the general shape of a handgun. Language that arguably would have given the Secretary of the Treasury gun-banning discretion was removed. Industry research on prototypes was protected. As enacted, the bill banned no firearm that had ever been made, including the Glock. The Act is codified at 18 U.S. Code section 922(p).
Defense Distributed and the UFA
The Texas company Defense Distributed company has produced files for the production of a singles-shot plastic handgun, which it calls the "Liberator" pistol. It is named for a single-shot Liberator handgun distributed by the United Staates to anti-Nazi resistance forces in Europe during World War II. The gun can be manufactured in a home workship with a 3D printer. Complaint with the UFA, the Liberator includes the legally-required amount of metal, with a handgun profile. In prior litigation with Defense Distributed, the U.S. State Department expressly acknowledged that the Liberator complies with the UFA.
Most of the Defense Distributed files are instructions for how to make conventional metal firearms at home with a milling machine. These are files cut blank pieces of metal to manufacture the Colt 1911 (pistol, named for the year of its introduction), the Ruger 10-22 (.22 caliber rifle, introduced 1964), the AR-15 (introduced 1965), AR-10 (1956), vz 58 (Czech rifle, 1958), and Beretta 92FS (pistol, 1976). Home manufacture of firearms has always been legal in the United States, and has been going on since the early 1600s.
However, the Defense Distributed files do include SLDPRT and SLDASM files for AR-15 parts, including the lower receiver. These files are used in creating instructions for 3D printing. You can inspect the files for yourself at https://www.codeisfreespeech.com/. That website is run by a coalition of California Second Amendment groups. The temporary restraining order issued by the federal district court from the Western District of Washington simply prevents the U.S. State Department from issuing Defense Distributed a license to export said files. The U.S. government has never claimed that it has any legal authority to block distribution of the files within the U.S. to U.S. citizens. Even if the Defense Distributed website were to permanently close tomorrow, the files have been downloaded and shared hundreds of thousands of times since they were first posted in 2013.
Consequences of the 1986-88 plastic gun debate and its aftermath
Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, a strong anti-gun advocate, had remarked that the "plastic gun" issue was an opportunity "to get the debate on handgun control back on the right track." Indeed, the gun control lobbies in 1988 got to tell their members, correctly, that the lobbies had actually pushed a bill into law. The Act was the first time that Congress had actually voted to ban a type of gun—albeit a type that did not exist and had never existed.
The 1988 Act helped set the stage for the 1994 Congressional ban on "assault weapons." Conceptually, the 1988 and 1994 bills were very different. Yet the gun control lobbies were prescient that voting to ban things that don't exist can be a gateway to banning things that do.
For example Nebraska Democratic Senator James Exon had a generally pro-Second Amendment voting record. Yet in November 1993, he explained on the Senate floor why he was supporting Senator Feinstein's "assault weapons" ban:
Those who have been here long enough will probably remember that as the plastic gun problem. Plastic guns were becoming very common. They were guns that could be smuggled very easily through any surveillance system at an airport, for example, or any public facility where we have certain regulations and equipment in place to detect weapons.
I crossed the NRA on that particular proposition, and we were able to solve that finally by not outlawing plastic weapons but requiring, by law, that the weapons no longer be invisible to screening devices in public places because they had to have something that would show up on the screen that does the screening when we go through, for example, airport security.
Congressional Record, vol. 139, No. 156–part II, Nov. 9, 1993.
The leading promoter of the 1986 plastic gun panic was Handgun Control, Inc. In 2001, the group changed its name to the "Brady Campaign," belatedly realizing that many Americans were skeptical about being controlled. So instead of saying "gun control," the group now says "gun safety." An officer of the anti-gun "Million Mom March," which was later absorbed by the Brady group, explained: "Changing the name from Handgun Control to the Brady Campaign will have a positive effect, especially since this organization is a key player in the fight against the powerful gun lobby. The word 'control' suggested that gun safety advocates wanted control over gun rights activists by infringing on their Second Amendment right to bear arms. This couldn't be farther from the truth." Karie Stakem, Letter to the Editor, "Gun 'Control' Isn't Our Aim—Just Gun Safety," Virginian-Pilot & Ledger Star, June 29, 2001, at B10, available at 2001 WLNR 2096578.
The name may have changed, but the principles remain the same. In a 2016 amicus brief supporting the U.S. State Department's prior restraint against the Defense Distributed company posting gun manufacturing files on the Internet, the Brady brief pointed out: "The UFA was passed in part in response to reports that then Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was in the process of buying more than 100 plastic handguns that would be difficult for airport security to detect. Jack Anderson, Dale Van Atta, Qaddafi Buying Austrian Plastic Pistols, The Washington Post, Jan 15, 1986." Brady Center amicus brief, Defense Distributed v. United States Department of State, 2016 WL 704978 (5th Cir. 2016).
The words in the Brady brief was literally true—although a more candid amicus might have informed the court that so-called "plastic handguns" of 1986 were actually not "difficult for airport security to detect." A candid amicus might have also explained that the "plastic handguns" were Glock pistols, which are now recognized as common, constitutionally-protected handguns.
The 1988 law ended efforts to ban the use of plastic polymers in firearms. The only place where Glocks were prohibited was New York City. There, the police refused to issue handgun permits for Glock pistols. A police spokesman "said that the police banned the pistol because it was partly plastic and difficult to detect electronically."
But former NYPD officer Stephen D'Andrilli was running a business that helped guide New Yorkers through the City's arduous gun licensing process. When the Department rejected a client's application to purchase a Glock, D'Andrilli fired a freedom of information request, and discovered that Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward was licensed to carry a Glock 17. The Department claimed that Commissioner Ward's Glock carrying was "part of a controlled test." (N.Y. Times, Sept. 28, 1988.)
The day after Ward's Glock was revealed, the Department rescinded the ban on Glocks. The Department announced that it had concluded that the Glock can "in fact can be detected with today's present technology in the security field." According to the Department, the Glock ban would have been lifted in the next week; the revelation about Ward's Glock had only affected the timing of when the decision would have been made. (N.Y. Times, Sept. 29, 1988.)
D'Andrilli, now retired, runs a website that provides research and advocacy on firearms policy issues, and offers New Yorkers guidance on how to comply with the state's confusing gun control laws.
Post-1988, the Glocks continued to catch on with police commissioners and everyone else. By 1999, Glock had sold two million American pistols, in a wide variety of calibers and sizes.
Today, any gun store will have modern handguns and long guns from many manufacturers that use plastic polymers. Plastics are a very ordinary thing for modern firearms. They make guns better for all lawful purposes, including self-defense. Guns in the right hands save lives. Better guns for lawful defense save more lives. Yet in the late 1980s, gun control groups started a technophobic panic over life-saving improvements in gun safety and then tried to ban many firearms by inaccurately claiming that they were undetectable.