Gunning For Cheney

During the Vice Presidential debate, Senator John Edwards asked how Vice President Dick Cheney could possibly oppose laws such as one preventing “plastic” guns that can avoid metal detectors. The bill in question was written and supported by the NRA and supported by gun control groups. Senator Edwards implied that only someone far outside the mainstream could vote “no,” and Edwards obviously wanted to use this vote to question Cheney’s seriousness in dealing with terrorism.

Dick Cheney was one of only a handful of congressmen who voted against the bill when it came up in 1986. Yet, it was bad law. The law provided placebo cures for imaginary ills.

The hysteria over “plastic guns” arose in the mid-1980s when the Austrian company Glock began exporting pistols to the United States. Labeled as “terrorist specials” by the press, fear spread that their plastic frame and grip would make them invisible to metal detectors. Rarely mentioned was that Glocks still had over a pound of metal. Anyone who has ever been through a metal detector at an airport should understand how silly this fear was.

As Phillip McGuire, Associate Director of Law Enforcement of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) testified at the time: “The entire issue was raised in response to reports, many wildly inaccurate, concerning a particular firearm, the Glock 17.”

Despite all the horrible warnings about “plastic guns,” Glocks are now common and there are good reasons they are one of the favorite pistols of American police officers. They are reliable and lightweight. No guns have ever been produced without metal in them, nor is there any evidence that such guns can be made. At the time of the vote in 1984, no gun had less than 3.5 ounces of metal.

So what did this supposedly crucial law do? It had nothing to do with Glocks. The minimum metal requirement for a gun to be considered legal was set at 3.2 ounces — less than a fifth of the metal contained in the then controversial Glocks and less than any other gun.

The standard was picked because it did not affect anything, not because evidence suggested that some threshold was necessary for public safety. Gun control groups got their hysteria, while politicians were able to posture that they were “doing something.”

During the 2000 election, Cheney was also attacked for his earlier vote on so-called “cop-killer” bullets, but the discussion was just as misleading. The bullet was invented by police officers in the 1960’s to fire at suspects hiding behind objects or wearing bullet-resistant vests. These specialty bullets were only sold to police and were not available in stores anywhere in the United States. While often labeled “Teflon bullets,” teflon had nothing to do with penetrating protective vests (the teflon simply helps reduce the abrasion to the gun’s barrel). The important feature instead was their denser core, usually made out of tungsten.

Despite the phrase “cop-killer,” only police used these bullets, and even then extremely rarely. No officer has ever been shot at, let alone killed, with such a bullet. Nor did the law even deal with bullets that might actually be used to penetrate bullet-resistant vests. Most rifle ammunition will do this, though to have banned these bullets would have essentially outlawed most hunting.

As police know, there is still another irony attached to this discussion: unless the intended victim has protection, these bullets have less stopping power than hollow point bullets since they more easily pass through their victim and they are more likely than other bullets to wound than kill.

Just as with the law against “plastic” guns, this law changed nothing. Companies continued only selling these bullets to police.

Politicians often believe that it is important to “do something,” even though that something often does nothing or makes things worse. It might be hard to understand that someone opposes laws that merely make you look like you care. Yet, when Cheney was challenged on this vote during the 2000 campaign, he told ABC’s “This Week” that he takes seriously our country’s bill of rights that state “the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Like many of his votes in congress, Cheney’s votes made sense and required rare courage.

John R. Lott, Jr., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of More Guns, Less Crime as well as The Bias Against Guns.