In a fully expected turn of events, Congress reauthorized the Undetectable Firearms Act, or UFA, of 1988 on Monday, and it was signed into law by a signature machine at the White House since the president was out of the country. It seems appropriate that a bill banning imaginary firearms should receive a fake signature, but it is frustrating and disappointing nonetheless, especially in light of the fact that the bill was supported by the firearm industry’s trade association, the NSSF, and unopposed by the NRA.
While it is theoretically possible to make a working firearm from materials other than metal, it would be a stretch to call such firearms “functional.” The energy produced when an ammunition cartridge is ignited is significant. If the cartridge is not fully supported in a way that will contain and direct the pressure, the result is catastrophic failure – in other words, the gun blows up in the shooter’s hand. A cartridge is like a powerful firecracker. The chamber and barrel of a gun are designed to contain the energy and direct it down the barrel, propelling the bullet in front of it.
Recent experiments in 3D printed, plastic firearms are an example of proving that a concept works while simultaneously demonstrating that it is impractical – even while throwing the mainstream media into a panic over the “new threat” to public safety. In order for the plastic gun to be strong enough to contain the energy of a fired cartridge, the plastic must be so thick that the gun is extremely bulky, about the size of a typical hairdryer, and the barrel must be very short – almost non-existent – in order to let the pressure out quickly. That makes the guns very inaccurate. Unlike steel, the plastic withstands the pressure by flexing – like a balloon inflating and then returning to close to its original size. To reload, the barrel must be removed and either a new barrel installed, or the spent case must be knocked out with a dowel and a new cartridge forced into the chamber. Then the barrel can be reinstalled and the gun fired again, but each firing stretches and weakens the plastic, increasing the odds that it will fail and explode in the shooter’s hand.
A similar device could be made without an expensive 3D printer from solid plastic and a drill. Something similar could also be made of wood, or cement, or molded epoxy and fiberglass, but like the plastic, it would have to be bulky, single-shot and difficult to reload.
Regardless of what the gun is made of, the ammunition presents the same challenges. Traditional ammo is made with a brass or steel case, and a lead or brass projectile. Lighter projectiles of ceramic, stone, or plastic might conceivably be used, but to be effective, they would have to be fired at greater velocities, requiring larger powder charges and increased chamber pressures. Like the “Mythbusters” attempts to build a wooden cannon, the idea is possible, but not viable. Busted.
The latest media freak-out over “undetectable plastic guns” is an echo of the panic that greeted the introduction of the then-revolutionary Glock in the 1980s and spawned the original Undetectable Firearms Act. My late father wrote about it in a column my brother Chris included in his book “Neal Knox – The Gun Rights War.” “The funny thing,” Dad wrote, “is that the Glock pistol, which many of the editorial writers, and some misinformed congressmen, have identified as the target of ‘plastic gun’ legislation, wouldn’t be affected by legislation such as Mr. Metzenbaum’s bill, for it contains more than a pound of steel.”
The original UFA, introduced by then Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, was simply a warmed-over Saturday Night Special law which, again quoting Neal Knox, “has been out of style since Justice Department research has shown criminals prefer, or would substitute, larger, more powerful – read that ‘more lethal’ – handguns.” In other words, Metzenbaum jumped at a chance to leverage a false panic induced by a demonstrably false Jack Anderson column into an excuse to introduce a pet bill he had been saving for the right occasion.
And so, a quarter-century later we see the old pattern repeated: A technological advance leads to inaccurate media reports, leading to panic, which in turn fuels a demand that Congress do something to address imagined, irrational concerns. Such is the nature of a phobia-fueled panic attack.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said reauthorization of the UFA was better than nothing, but bemoaned the fact that it didn’t address “gaping loopholes” in the law. He specifically talked about manufacturers being able to build a plastic gun with metal parts that could be easily removed to make the gun undetectable.
Like his predecessor as the Senate’s gun-banning point man, Howard Metzenbaum, Mr. Schumer neglected to actually read the law he was criticizing. The UFA clearly states that the steel must be an integral part of a “major component” of the firearm and goes on to define “major component” as “the barrel, the slide or cylinder, or the frame or receiver of the firearm.” The 3D printer plans for the plastic gun posted on the Internet include a non-functional billet of steel that keeps the “gun” in theoretical compliance with the UFA, but expect ATF to promulgate regulations banning that “loophole.” What Mr. Schumer really wants is to make it illegal for anyone to make any parts for firearms on 3D printers or in home workshops. How a law against printing, drilling, milling, or filing in your garage is going to keep a terrorist planning on taking out an airliner from fabricating his tools of choice, has never been explained.
If Mr. Schumer’s irrational fears and compulsion for control were taken to its logical end, all “potentially dangerous” technology would be removed from the Internet, high school shop classes would be closed, and files and power tools would have to be registered, but only to people who could demonstrate a “legitimate need” to have them. And the Mythbusters would be doing 1 to 5 at Folsom.
God save us from hoplophobic control freaks.