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The Straight Dope

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In the film In the Line of Fire, John Malkovich plays an ex-CIA-operative-turned-psychopathic-assassin who manufactures a gun made out of polymer or some kind of plastic compound. He's able to smuggle the disassembled gun into a fund-raising dinner for the president because the gun doesn't set off the metal detectors. (The bullets he conceals inside a rabbit's-foot key ring.) It's a terrific movie, but I did wonder whether the Secret Service's satisfaction in seeing a film in which they are portrayed heroically (in the person of Clint Eastwood) was offset by a horror of the training-film-for-assassins details featured. Is it in fact possible to make or buy a nonmetal gun similar to the one in the film that is capable of firing bullets with sufficient force to kill? --David English, Somerville, Massachusetts

Been answering a lot of gun questions lately, haven't I? But the topic does seem to have a certain continuing relevance. So far as is known (known to the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms bureau, anyway), no gun made entirely of plastic is currently available. The closest thing is probably something like the Glock 17, an Austrian-made automatic pistol that has some plastic parts, including the grip and trigger guard. Training is required to recognize a disassembled Glock on an X-ray scanner. But it's still 83 percent metal by weight.

Are all-plastic weapons feasible? Some think it's only a matter of time. In 1986 Congress's Office of Technology Assessment reported that a 99 percent nonmetallic gun might someday be made using composite plastics, with metal used only for springs. In 1988 a small Florida company called Red Eye Arms claimed it was going to have a prototype plastic grenade launcher ready in 18 to 24 months. Congress got so spooked by the publicity about plastic weapons, even theoretical ones, that it banned their production in the U.S. Whether that scared off Red Eye or whether they were just hustling the gun-industry equivalent of vaporware, I don't know, but I can't locate the company now.

But why sweat plastic guns? The real threat is plastic bombs, which do exist and which have been used in numerous acts of terrorism, most famously the 1988 explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Pan Am bomb consisted of ten pounds of the Czech-made plastic explosive Semtex crammed into a radio-cassette player. A chemical marker is now added to Semtex and other such explosives to enable them to be detected by airport security devices. But years ago the former communist rulers of Czechoslovakia shipped 1,000 tons of marker-free Semtex to Libya, the L.L. Bean of international terrorism. The original recipe is undetectable except by high-tech gizmos that are too expensive to install at every airport (though a new detector that promises to be reliable and maybe cheaper is now being tested). In short, the bad guys can't yet use plastic weapons to kill the president. But they can use them to kill you.

Where did the word "Great" come from in the official title "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"? When and why did Britain start calling itself great? Since the British Empire has disintegrated, shouldn't they change it to plain old Britain? --Wai Kong Lee, Montreal, Quebec

Well, I guess it's less of a mouthful than Formerly Great Britain or Still Pretty Good Britain, which are the other obvious choices. But the fact is, things will really have to go to pieces before the Brits will be obliged to drop the "Great" from their country's name. Originally the island was called Britain, period, but the name dropped out of common use after the masses coalesced into the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland and the principality of Wales. It was revived as part of efforts to unify the island in the 16th century, with the inevitable PR types appending the word "great" to make the objective sound a little more grandiose. James I, who was also James VI of Scotland, unified the thrones of England and Scotland and had himself proclaimed king of Great Britain in 1604. The term became official with the Act of Union in 1707.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.

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