Plastic Guns

By David B. Kopel


"Plastic guns" are firearms made partially from high-tech plastic polymers. The first such guns were invented by Glock in the 1980s, and have achieved wide popularity among both government and non-government firearms owners. During the mid-1980s, gun prohibition groups campaigned to have the Glock banned, but did not succeed. Instead, Congress passed a purely symbolic law, the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which did not affect any guns.

In 1963, Gaston Glock, an Austrian engineer, created the Glock company, in Deutsch-Wagram, a town near Vienna , Austria. The company manufactured plastic and steel products. The company began combining plastic with steel, and became an Austrian army supplier of military products such as machine gun belts, practice hand grenades, plastic clips, field knives and entrenching tools.

In the early 1980s, the Austrian army asked a wide variety of manufacturers to submit bids for selling a new duty pistol to the army. Although Glock had never made firearms before, it was invited to bid. Glock won the contract with a bid to for what became the Glock 17 pistol, a 9mm self-loading pistol which incorporated plastic polymers.

Although the gun still had a substantial metal component, the use of plastic made the gun much lighter, and thus much more comfortable to carry or wear for extended periods. The Glock's plastic frame weighs only 14% as much as a steel frame, yet is stronger. The stronger frame helped the gun absorb recoil better, thus improving accuracy and comfort for the shooter.

In the addition, the gun was extremely reliable. Much more than most other self-loading pistols, it could handle a wide variety of ammunition. (Ammunition in a given caliber can vary greatly in the weight and shape of the bullet, and in the amount of gunpowder.) The Glock was also easy to disassemble and reassemble for cleaning, and was much less likely than many other guns to misfire because of lack of cleaning. The gun was also extremely sturdy, and resistant to cracking or other damage even after firing many thousands of rounds of ammunition.

After being adopted by the military and law enforcement in Austria, the gun began to find a world-wide market. Norway was the first NATO country to adopt the Glock.

In 1985, Glock opened an office in Smyrna, Georgia, the first of what would be a series of Glock offices around the world. By 1999, Glock had sold two million pistols, in a wide variety of calibers and sizes. The gun is extremely popular with police (who have to carry guns for extended periods).

Today, some other gun manufacturers have begun to use polymers, but Glock remains the clear leader in building polymer firearms.

As the Glock was beginning to win an American market, newspaper columnist Jack Anderson claimed that the gun could be passed through airport metal detectors. Gun prohibition groups asserted that the gun was a terrorist special and was used by Libyan agents.

The campaign reflected a long-standing dynamic of the gun control movement in the United States: it is much easier for anti-gun groups to win support for campaigns against guns which are unfamiliar than against well-known guns or types of guns. Thus, the campaign against "plastic guns" began to acquire some traction in Congress. Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, a strong anti-gun advocate, remarked that the "plastic gun" debate had been very helpful in moving the gun control debate in a positive direction.

The Federal Aviation Administration and other expert witnesses testified to Congress that the Glock was readily detectable--since it still contains a substantial metal component. Photos of a Glock under a metal detector reveal that the Glock's profile is easily visible.

Even so, Senators Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) and Strom Thurmond (R-SC) began to win substantial support for their "plastic gun" bill. By 1988, the bill had been modified so that it would not affect the Glock (the only plastic gun then in existence), but would have outlawed tens of thousands of all metal handguns--everything that had less than eight ounces of steel. For example, the thirteen ounce Raven pistol, which is made of alloys, and therefore has less than eight ounces of pure steel, would have been banned as a "plastic gun"--although it contains no plastic.

The Reagan Department of Justice under Attorney General Meese (who had fought the NRA for years over the bill that finally became the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986) was poised to endorse the "plastic" gun ban. Only the intervention of Vice President Bush (who was running for President, and seeking gun-owner support) stopped the Department of Justice. Still, the issue had risen to a level where Congress had become determined to "do something."

What resulted was a compromise legislation which the NRA agreed not to oppose. The result was the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988. The Act banned the future production and sale of firearms with less than 3.7 ounces of metal. The metal component must have the general shape of a handgun. The Act is codified at 18 U.S. Code section 922(p).

The bill was prospective only, and thus had no effect on any existing gun. It does not appear to have had any effect on any gun that anyone has wanted to build since 1988.

The Act satisfied the major lobbies on both sides of the gun issue. The NRA was pleased that nothing to actually increase the control of real guns was enacted. The anti-gun lobbies 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 nobody was manufacturing), and thus helped set the stage for the 1994 Congressional ban on "assault weapons" (although, as with the 1988 law, the politics of the 1994 law were far more significant than the law's actual effect).

Because the Undetectable Firearms Act seemed to please both sides of the gun issue, it passed overwhelmingly. In the House of Representatives, only four Representatives voted "no." One of them was Republican Dick Cheney of Wyoming, who would be elected Vice-President in 2000.

For further information

Glock website.

Jack Anderson, "Qaddafi Buying Austrian Plastic Pistol," Washington Post, Jan, 15, 1985.

Peter Alan Kasler, Glock, The New Wave in Combat Handguns (Boulder, Colo.: Paladin Pr., 1992)

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