Who could possibly oppose continuing a ban on "plastic" guns? Referencing threats of terrorist sneaking plastic guns onto airplanes, last week Senator Ted Kennedy called renewing the legislation "clearly necessary in today's America." Yet, despite broad support in the past from both the NRA and gun-control groups, it was a bad law, providing placebo cures for imaginary ills.
The Terrorist Firearm Detection Act of 1988 banned both the creation and the possession of plastic firearms. The current furor is about the reauthorization of the law, which expires this coming December. Senators Kennedy and Frank Lautenberg have just introduced legislation to reauthorize the law, and it appears to have caught the Bush Administration off-guard. And last week the House passed reauthorization of the law.
The hysteria over "plastic guns" arose in the mid-1980s when the Austrian company Glock began exporting pistols to the United States. They were labeled "terrorist specials" by the press, and fear spread that their plastic frame and grip would make them invisible to metal detectors. Nobody mentioned that there was over one pound of metal in them. Try going through an airport detector with that. In fact, no working guns have ever been produced without at least some metal and nobody has even shown that such guns can be made.
So what were the effects of the law? Actually, none whatsoever, it had nothing to do with Glocks. The minimum metal requirement was set at 3.2 ounces, less than a fifth of the metal contained in the then-controversial Glocks and significantly less than in any other gun. No congressional testimony linked the standard with any potential security breaches.
The standard was picked precisely because it did not affect anything. No gun maker was hurt, while politicians pretended they were "doing something." Glocks are now-a-days common and one of the favorite pistols of American police officers. They are reliable and lightweight.
The real problems regarding airline security run much deeper than yet to be invented plastic guns. Recently a college student embarrassed the Transportation Security Administration by hiding box cutters (obviously made of metal) for over a month on two Southwest Airline planes. He had even e-mailed the TSA immediately after he did it. No tests of airport screening have been made public since the government took over screening last fall, and, in private meetings that I have attended, the TSA acknowledges there is a wide range of undetectable lethal weapons that can be smuggled onto airplanes.
Without full-body searches, there exists no way to detect ceramic or plastic knives that are taped, say, to the inside of a thigh. People who have flown recently are well aware that they are simply not patted down all over their body. Unless you are going to conduct full-body searches on people, determined terrorists are going to be able to get weapons on planes no matter how carefully screeners monitor x-ray machines and metal detectors.
Obviously no one but terrorists wants terrorists to easily smuggle weapons onto airplanes. But shouldn't we pass the law just in case someone should ever invent such a gun? Unfortunately, the law not only wastes time, it distracts from the real issue. It will not keep terrorists from getting those guns if the right plastics are ever invented.
In addition, terrorists would have to figure out how to make bullets out of plastic and find some way to prevent gunpowder from being detectable.
Whether the debate is over assault weapons, cop-killer bullets, or gun show "loopholes," much of the debate focuses on things that just don't exist. Passing laws simply to "do something," can be worse than doing nothing. Conjuring up phantom guns may be fine for Halloween, but the imaginary fears behind plastic guns keeps us from addressing the real problems.
November 14, 2003
John Lott [send him mail], a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Copyright © 2003 John Lott