Why is the NRA so misinformed?

Three months ago, I introduced legislation "to prohibit the manufacture or importation of any firearm that the secretary of the Treasury determines cannot be detected by standard airport security devices." Since then, the National Rifle Association has knowingly persisted in a campaign of misinformation to defeat this urgently needed antiterrorist measure.

The Terrorist Firearms Prevention Act, H.R. 4194, simply preempts the proliferation of a new, emerging generation of plastic firearms that threaten to make security devices used in airports and public buildings obsolete. With their capability to slip through devices designed to identify metal guns, these "invisible" weapons could become deadly tools in the hands of terrorists.

But to hear the NRA tell it, the legislation would:

ban plastic water pistols;

ban the Glock 17 and other specific firearms;

ban nonexistent technology;

ban their legitimate use by law enforcement and military personnel;

be unnecessary because metal detectors "detect" plastic, and

be another attempt by gun control fanatics to deprive sportsmen and hunters of recreational guns.

Obviously, all of these contradictory claims can't be true. The sad truth is that none of them is. If the NRA is the most influential special-interest lobby in the nation, then it is also the most misinformed on this issue.

In March, I contacted the NRA in regard to its misconceptions about the bill. This was on the assumption that the organization would want to be at least factually correct on an issue so critical to the safety of American citizens.

In response, the NRA sent out a mailing to its members that accused me of "succumbing to media and antigun hysteria" and distorted my correspondence in the process. Someone also provided my constituents with preprinted form postcards, urging their congressional representative not to be fooled by "liberal rhetoric" and "the latest effort by the antigun lobby."

In my view, when the NRA opposes legislation to stop the spread of terrorism, it is perverting its legitimate responsibility to America's sportsmen and hunters by endangering their lives and those of every citizen who enjoys traveling in safety.

Since mandatory screening procedures went into effect in January 1973, the nation's airport security program has had a strong record of success. More than 33,000 firearms have been detected, almost 14,000 related arrests have been made, and 113 hijackings have been prevented.

Even if improved X-ray machines -- capable of displaying plastic images to an operator -- become standard detection equipment, there is no comparable advance on the horizon for walk-through metal detectors. Terrorists will still be able to breeze through metal detectors with a plastic weapon concealed on their person.

As the incidence of terrorists' attacks escalates worldwide, the need to close this technological gap is becoming increasingly evident. Recent plastic explosives planted on a TWA plane and at an American Express office in France tragically demonstrated that plastic is rapidly becoming the terrorist material of choice.

Ask anyone whose life is on the line daily in the airline business, law enforcement or government what he thinks about this invisible "terrorist's special." The answer has led more than 22 national organizations -- representing the air carriers, the airline pilots, the flight attendants, the airport operators, police, sheriffs, mayors, cities and others concerned about terrorism -- to support passage of H.R. 4194.

The legislation -- which is the subject of a House hearing today -- contains no hidden agenda. It does not ban plastic water guns, firearms manufactured in the United States prior to Jan. 1, 1986, or any specific imported weapons. Law enforcement and military uses are exempt.

The recent release of a report by the Office of Technology Assessment has silenced the NRA's chief argument that the technology for a plastic gun is nonexistent. It concluded: "From our investigations, it appears that the materials technology does exist to produce nonmetallic firearms whose only metal components may be some small springs."

The study also cited a Florida manufacturer, David Byron, who says he has developed a plastic handgun to be produced within one to two years. Byron also told a reporter, "If we don't do it market the gun , someone else will."

Even the Austrian manufacturer of the partially plastic Glock 17 recently told the antiterrorism agency of the State Department that he can produce an all-plastic weapon, but has not done so "in the interest of international security." The question is no longer whether the technology is here, but when the weapons will be available in the marketplace.

I am not naive enough to believe that plastic gun technology can be delayed forever. But I do hope we can buy enough time so that the technology to differentiate between a hair dryer and a lethal weapon can be improved.

Against this evidence, the NRA is one of the few groups aside from the gun industry that has chosen to defend plastic guns.

Andy Molchan, president of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers, recently summed up why the industry is salivating for their arrival:

"We don't need plastic guns from a performance point. We need them from a marketing and sales point. The only thing that's ever going to do anything for new gun sales in the future is to make the 150 million old guns obsolete, and that's exactly the promise that the plastic gun holds forth."

Now, who does the NRA think it's fooling?