The Original Plastic Gun Threat

Dave Kopel has a great article over at the Volokh Conspiracy on the original plastic gun panic that happened in the 1980s.

“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.

I remember that panic about Qaddafi trying to get a hold of Glocks. It’s interesting that quick law enforcement adoption is likely what saved a lot of pistols.

The comment section over there is a den of cliched wookie suitery:

“Thanks for admitting the NRA compromised.”

Of course it did, because the alternative to an “undetectable firearms” law that actually banned no guns was a much broader law that would have banned nearly all small, concealable firearms before the concealed carry revolution even got off the ground. If you say something like this while adjusting your trusty LCP you carry in your pocket, you’re an idiot.

Remember, “Something must be done!” is the impetus for most of this bullshit. NRA gave them “something” that didn’t ban a single gun, and it put the issue to bed long enough for technological change to make Metzenbaum’s position politically untenable.

“Remember Reagan signed the only outright Federal gun ban.”

Yes, as part of a much broader bill that was intended to prevent the gun culture from being extinguished. No one I’ve ever spoken with who was involved in the FOPA fight thinks that scuttling the whole thing over the Hughes Amendment would have been a wise idea.

So far we’re weathering the 3D gun scare a lot better than we weathered the original plastic gun hysteria. I was only 10 in 1986, but I remember the hype in the news. At the time, I wasn’t aware the whole issue was essentially bullshit: I did not come from a gun owning family. The difference is communication is much better these days, and it’s easier to counter disinformation campaigns. Social media has changed a lot, both for good and ill.

8 thoughts on “The Original Plastic Gun Threat”

  1. Remember – this handwaving freakoutery made it into a movie back then too.

    “That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me. You know what that is? It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany. It doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines here and it costs more than what you make in a month!”

  2. Honestly, we weathered the bump stock hyperbole better than we had any right to, even with a favorable congress and president.

  3. Interesting background on this. The last time I saw a full-on Hollywood freak out over plastic guns was In The Line of Fire which was a good movie to boot. Those who freak out about this aren’t too much into physics. Today with modern polymer I would never trust a 3D printed firearm to withstand a blast in the chamber and not blow my fingers off. Probably not tomorrow, either. I do see a day when plastics can withstand it. And when that day comes, this kind of tech will have rendered gun control obsolete. This poses much more of a threat to the gun banners than anything in the 1980s ever did.

    1. I’m no expert in polymers, but I’m skeptical that such a thing can ever be engineered.

      I think that for best results, at minimum the barrel, chamber, and firing pin will have to be metal. If electric ignition becomes a thing (potentially feasible) then the electrical contacts would probably be metal as well (I could imagine these being made of an electrically conductive polymer, but then this would likely have a significant metal content).

      1. I could actually imagine a plastic that can be strong enough to withstand the pressures with a gun, but I doubt that such a material could be used in a 3D printer in such a way that it will still be strong enough to withhold the blast.

  4. I don’t know if some anti-NRA pro-gun types appreciate just how much the 1986 FOPA aided the American Gun Culture. A flood of imported ammunition and ex-military rifles and pistols went into many hands that had never owned a gun before. Including a friend of mine who became so enamored he even became an FFL dealer who specialized in that material.

    1. Agreed. FOPA really helped the culture long term. The Hughes Amendments sucks of course, and a judiciary that does its job would strike it down. But we don’t live in that world. And there is nothing to say that in the next ten years a similar amendment is passed or an outright ban would have been passed.

      But all the things that FOPA removed, helped greatly.

  5. Really the greatest thing about this stuff is that the anti-gun types are distracted with – and investing money and energy – on something which, at least for now, is a fairly minor issue (the production of 3D-printed guns that are mostly made of plastic is not really a big deal from a practical standpoint in a country where it’s legal to make your own AR15s or buy them in gun stores).

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