Twenty-five years ago, it took the specter of a deranged dictator sending agents to the U.S. with plastic guns to get Congress to pass a law banning undetectable weapons. Now that law is about to expire, and though the dictator is dead, the threat is more real than ever.
In 1986, Washington columnist Jack Anderson reported that “Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi is in the process of buying more than 100 plastic handguns that would be difficult for airport security forces to detect.” Congress responded with the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which banned the manufacture, import, possession and transfer of firearms not detectable by security devices.
Representative Steve Israel and Senator Charles Schumer, both Democrats of New York, are rallying support to reauthorize the Undetectable Firearms Act, which was renewed in 1998 and again 10 years ago. As a statement of both law and public purpose, the bill should be updated. Israel’s bill would prohibit any firearm or magazine that is not detectable by a metal detector or that fails to present an accurate image when examined by an X-ray machine. Both previous reauthorizations of the law received overwhelming bipartisan support. Not even the National Rifle Association opposed them.
It seems unlikely that Republicans and the gun lobby will oppose reauthorization this time. Yet Speaker John Boehner has thus far avoided making any public commitment. (It’s not hard to anticipate the counterargument: If plastic guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have plastic guns.)
The technology that could make plastic guns widely accessible is advancing rapidly. In May, University of Texas law student Cody Wilson manufactured a plastic gun using a 3-D printer. Defense Distributed, a company Wilson founded, posted online guidelines to produce similar guns. Uri Even, an Israeli reporter, downloaded Defense Distributed’s blueprint and used it to manufacture a plastic gun, which he said he sneaked past security into a news conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Defense Distributed has also printed a functional magazine for an AR-15 that holds 30 bullets -- 23 more than New York state law allows.
It is true that even an updated and reauthorized law will not completely ensure public safety. No law can. That is not an excuse, however, for inaction. The emerging capacity for virtually anyone to produce guns that can evade detection poses a threat at airports and sensitive buildings, including the U.S. Capitol.
One promising focus of innovation is expanded chemical detection, which may enable more screening machines to sniff out gunpowder. Given the lack of realistic alternatives, that may be the best option technologically. Meanwhile, there is the Undetectable Weapons Act, which serves as both an assertion of principle and a deterrent to crime. Congress should reauthorize it promptly.
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