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The 1986 Plastic Gun Panic

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Have you heard about the "undetectable plastic gun"? The gun control lobbies call it is "tailor-made for terrorism." The Washington Post reports that a state sponsor of terrorism is already attempting to obtain these guns. A Post columnist warns that the police "vehemently oppose the introduction of plastic guns into our armed society." Newsweek predicts the NRA will face a member revolt for opposing legislation to ban plastic guns: "This time the gun lobby may have shot itself in the foot."

The above is not today's news. It's the news from 1985 to 1988, the years of the first plastic gun panic. The supposed "plastic gun" was the Glock pistol, which contains more than a pound of metal, and is easily identified by metal detectors.

Today, millions of Americans own Glock pistols, and they are widely recognized as among the most common and ordinary of handguns. But back in 1985, the Glock was brand new, and the gun control lobbies found a brand new opportunity to terrify the American public. Many politicians and much of the press were eager to embrace the panic. Congress came close to enacting a wide-ranging gun ban.

This article tells the story of the first plastic gun panic.

The origins of the first plastic gun

In 1963, Gaston Glock, an Austrian engineer, created the Glock company. The Glock factory was near Vienna, in Deutsch-Wagram. It manufactured plastic and steel products, including curtain rings. After developing expertise in products combining plastic with steel, Glock became an Austrian army supplier field knives, machine gun belts, practice hand grenades, plastic clips, and entrenching tools.

In the early 1980s, the Austrian army asked a wide variety of manufacturers to submit bids to manufacture a new duty pistol. Although Glock had never made firearms before, it was invited to bid. Glock won the contract for what became the Glock 17 pistol. The Glock was the first firearm to use plastic polymers.

Most parts of the Glock 17 were still made of metal: the upper receiver, the barrel, the trigger assembly, the magazines, and so on. But the frame was made of plastic polymers. The frame is the biggest part of the gun; it is the structure to which all the other parts are attached. The Glock's plastic frame weighed only 14% as much as a steel frame, yet was stronger.

The stronger frame helped the gun absorb recoil better, thus improving accuracy and comfort for the user. The much lighter frame also made the Glock more comfortable to carry or wear for extended periods.

Even without the plastic, the Glock would have been a major innovation. Nobody had ever made a modern full-sized pistol with so few parts. The Glock was easy to disassemble and reassemble for cleaning. Compared to other pistols of the time, it was less likely to jam or misfire because of lack of cleaning. The gun was also extremely sturdy, and resistant to cracking or other damage even after firing thousands of rounds of ammunition.

After being adopted by the military and law enforcement in Austria, the Glock 17 began to find a world-wide market. Norway was the first NATO country to adopt it. In 1985, Glock opened an office in Smyrna, Georgia, the first of what would be Glock offices around the world.

As explained in Paul M. Barrett's book Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, the company aimed its initial promotions at the law enforcement market. The light weight and other improvements made the gun naturally attractive to officers and deputies. And Glock offered very generous terms to adopting agencies, including buying the agencies' former service handguns.

As law enforcement agencies adopted the Glock, other citizens could see that the new-fangled "plastic" guns were reliable and effective for lawful defense of self and others. Lawful defense is the only reason that law enforcement officers carry firearms. American citizens have always looked to law enforcement officers for good examples of appropriate arms for keeping the peace. That was true for the 1873 Colt "peacemaker" revolver and over a century later for the Glocks.

In 1986 the Washington Post sounds the alarm about plastic guns

"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."

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