Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other lawmakers are pushing to reauthorize the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act, a congressional law meant to ban firearms invisible to X-rays and metal detectors, that is set to expire on March 8. 

The act targets plastic weapons and requires that every gun include enough metal to set off X-ray machines and metal detectors. It has been renewed three times since being signed by President Ronald Reagan.

In a statement, Schumer said, “If the legislation lapses, we could see a surge of these undetectable guns, which would increase security risks at places with large crowds, like concerts and football games.” 

The measure, which mandates that all firearms contain at least 3.7 ounces of metal to set off detection equipment, or be visible to airport security scanners, was removed by congressional Republicans with renewal of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2024. But with the looming threat of mass shootings, ghost guns, and the rise in DIY gun-making technology, a small bipartisan effort has kicked off to reinstate the regulation. 

While the law has been cyclically renewed, its significance and enforcement is overwhelmingly symbolic, said Rick Vasquez, a former firearms expert at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

“All of the machines in use will pick up any firearm, regardless,” said Vasquez, noting that modern security detection technology has long adapted to snoop out a variety of threats, including those that are nonmetallic. 

“They’re wasting time on this law, because there are so many other laws that they could be focusing on,” he added.

Even still, law enforcement and security experts have pointed to a number of emerging technologies that, while in their infancy, could pose a threat down the road. 

A 2021 audit conducted by the Department of Justice on the federal government’s monitoring of 3D-printed firearms highlights 3D-gun blueprints that could be hypothetically undetectable. But such a technology still requires the 3D-printed weapon to have its metal firing pins removed, the gun disassembled, and smuggled through security in a piecemeal form. The audit notes that only a limited number of 3D-printed firearms have been used in crimes. 

The original 1988 measure was passed in reaction to the then recently invented Glock handgun, produced in Austria. The handgun, which boasted a polymer frame, sparked fears that it could bypass X-rays and metal detectors. Newspapers began dubbing the weapon the “Hijacker Special” after reports leaked of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi expressing interest in ordering hundreds of the pistol.

The National Rifle Association and President Reagan did not oppose the measure, as it did not affect any existing weapons on the market. The law would go on to be renewed again in 1998, 2003, and 2013 with bipartisan backing. 

In 2013, Congress introduced measures to expand the act to specifically target any 3D-gun-maker that could manufacture such an invisible weapon, but those attempts were blocked. 

In January, U.S. Senators Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, introduced legislation to permanently authorize the act, which has since stalled in Congress. 

“It’s an important and commonsense measure that goes a long way to protecting our airports, government buildings and other public spaces,” Grassley said in a statement. “Allowing it to lapse now would be a mistake.”

The law provides a regulatory measure to deter gun companies from purposely advancing weapons and technology aiming to bypass detectors, according to John Donohue, a law professor at Stanford and expert on gun policy, who also supports the act’s renewal. 

“The ramifications for broad illegality are small, but the ramifications for the areas we do go through metal detectors — stadiums, courthouses, and planes — is huge,” Donohue said. “You can open yourself up to a hijacking problem pretty quickly.”