Today the Glock pistol has become the gun of choice for both criminals and law enforcement in the United States.
In his book Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, Paul Barrett traces how the sleek, high-capacity Austrian weapon found its way into Hollywood films and rap lyrics, not to mention two-thirds of all U.S. police departments.
The Glock was created in 1982 by curtain-rod manufacturer Gaston Glock. Glock didn't like the handguns available on the market and decided to manufacture a new gun from scratch. Before starting, he asked gun experts in his native Austria what could be done to improve a handgun for the modern era.
"They said, 'A gun with much larger ammunition capacity, a gun that is much more durable and reliable ... [and] the gun should be easy to fire [and] easy to learn how to use,'" Barrett tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "He integrated all of those elements into the Glock, and that's how he won his original contract with the Austrian army."
The original Glock 17, the model adopted by the Austrian army, contained only 36 parts and could hold 17 bullets in its magazine. It didn't have an external safety like other semiautomatic handguns. It also didn't have a decocking mechanism. The result? A lightweight, interchangeable model that could be dropped, submerged and subjected to temperature extremes — and still accurately fire.
Coming To America
In 1988, the Glock made its way to the United States. It was perfect timing, coinciding with the rise of the American drug trade, when many cops were feeling outmanned by gangs on the street. The Glock's large capacity and light body gave it advantages over other guns.
"Police departments were amazed when they took their officers out to the range and found out not only could they learn to use the Glock pretty quickly, but the Glock also made them more accurate as marksmen," he says. "And that's in part because it has a very light, very steady trigger pull. ... Critics of the guns say the trigger pull is so light that it makes accidental discharges so likely. But the Glock always has had that dual nature to it — the advantages can be reframed as disadvantages."
One early advantage for police departments, says Barrett, was that Glock gave them large discounts when purchasing the gun for their departments.
"This was smart, because the point was to get the police departments to adopt the gun, and that would give the gun credibility in the much larger, much more lucrative civilian market, where you can charge full price and get your full profit margin," says Barrett. "So this was ... a very crafty strategy."
Another strategy, says Barrett, was to get the Glock screen time in Hollywood. In 1990, the Glock began to appear in the hands of police officers in Law and Order and other police procedural shows. It was also used by Bruce Willis in the movie Die Hard 2. Willis' character gave a long soliloquy touting the advantages of using a Glock.
"[He] introduced the gun as a character to people who don't know anything about guns," says Barrett.
That publicity helped the Glock, as did its frequent mention in rap lyrics.
"The Glock was adopted early on by some of the biggest names — Tupac, Dr. Dre. As soon as it appeared here, they began to embrace it for its dark, futuristic side," he says. "The fact that it looked tough, [had a] large magazine capacity, and, not incidentally, the fact that it rhymed so well with words you might want to use in rap lyrics. Within the space of a few years, you not only had the Glock showing up in lyrics — you had song titles with the name in it and people changing their stage names to incorporate Glock into them."
Gun Control And Debate
In 1991, the first Glock shooting spree took place in Texas. Twenty people were killed. Hours after the shooting, members of Congress were debating whether guns like the Glock should be restricted.
"It took awhile, but by 1994, a bill was passed — this is what we remember as the Assault Weapons Bill — and was signed into law by President Clinton," says Barrett. "It had a variety of restrictions. One of them was limiting the pistol magazine capacity to 10 rounds."
The legislation, which expired in 2004, was initially seen as a terrible blow to the Glock. But the company quickly found a way to use the ban on high-capacity magazines to their advantage, he says.
"Glock had seen this bill coming for years and had been running the factory nonstop — three shifts a day, seven days a week — building up the large-capacity firearms and the large-capacity magazines," he says. "When the law was enacted, it allowed for a loophole that grandfathered in pre-existing equipment before the ban went into effect. [And] Glock had this huge stockpile of the very equipment that many gun owners wanted to get because it was banned — and the value of that equipment skyrocketed."
Glock also encouraged police departments to trade in their old equipment for newer, higher-capacity weapons. The old equipment — which contained the higher-capacity magazines manufactured before the ban — was then sold on the used-gun market, and found its way to the streets.
"Police departments were implicated in the proliferation of handguns all across the country," Barrett says, a fact that came to haunt the municipalities that, a decade later, tried suing the gun industry for flooding the streets with guns.
"Glock's executives would pop up on television and say, 'Who are you accusing of putting guns on the street? We've done business with the very business in the city that's suing us. It is their guns on the street.' "
Glock's statements helped undercut those lawsuits, says Barrett.
"This process of always finding the exceptions, finding ways around efforts to restrict the Glock became a trademark for the company," he says. "Right from the start, it helped the company, and it continue[s] on through its entire history."
On selling the Glock to U.S. law enforcement
"[Glock] was smart enough to hire a genius salesman. ... This man Karl Walter was really a guru in figuring out how to appeal to the police — whether that meant offering them extremely attractive financial terms or hosting police procurement officers at [a famous strip club] in Atlanta. This was a guy who could make a deal with anybody and figure out how to sell the Glock."
On an article in Soldier of Fortune magazine touting the Glock's body, which was made out of plastic
"[The writer] said, 'I was skeptical, too. I went over to Austria. I tried this gun. People, you've got to try it, too.' This was a huge door-opener for Glock. The focus on plastic soon developed into a controversy that was also a selling point because the gun control advocates [said], 'Because the gun is plastic, it'll become a terrorist tool. You'll be able to sneak it into airports, past the metal detectors.' This created a genuine controversy. ... Suddenly people were talking about the Glock before there were even more than a handful of guns in this country. This kind of attention is priceless. ... And then it turned out that the allegations weren't true, that you could see a Glock on an airport X-ray machine because a big piece of industrial-shaped plastic shaped like a gun looks like a gun."
On selling guns using beautiful women at trade shows
"It's extremely similar to the way cars are sold, by means of sex and models and lots of other products. In the same way you have models at trade shows of all sorts, you certainly have them at gun trade shows. The appeal is just as obvious as it might seem. Guns are to some people an expression of virility. ... A buxom, scantily clad woman appeals to some customers."
On current efforts to strengthen gun control
"No new federal gun control legislation was passed in the wake of [Columbine and other school shootings], which is in some ways more remarkable that in the wake of Virginia Tech and in the wake of Tuscon, we have similarly seen no new efforts to restrict the legal sale or ownership of guns. In fact, it's quite to the contrary. Over that time, gun laws in the United States are getting looser, not tighter. It is easier to carry a gun in many states. It is easier to get gun permits. And we have now had a Democratic president for three years, and he's said barely a word about gun control one way or the other. I think it's very fair to say that the gun control debate has really been won for the moment by the NRA and by the industry that it cooperates with, and by those people who are in favor of widespread civilian ownership of guns."
On taking shooting lessons
"People who don't own guns really need to think about this: It's just darn fun to fire a gun. It's interesting. It requires a lot of attention. It's competitive. And it's just as people say — it's a real feeling of power to handle a firearm. That appeal is, in my view, undeniable and part of the reason that guns symbolize individualism, self-sufficiency to such a large portion of the population. I felt it myself."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about the Glock and how this high-capacity, Austrian-made pistol, which was introduced in the '80s, became the preferred gun for America's cops and for some demented mass killers, a symbol of law enforcement and menace.
My guest, Paul Barrett, is the author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." Barrett writes about what sets the Glock apart from other pistols and how it was marketed to cops, Hollywood and individuals. The company Glock even managed to make a profit from the 10-year ban on assault weapons. Barrett is an assisting manager editor of Bloomberg Business Week.
Paul Barrett, welcome to FRESH AIR. So if you think of the Glock as a celebrity within the gun world, what is it most famous for?
PAUL BARRETT: It's most famous for its dark glamour. It's a gun that's been associated with mass murders, such as the shooting in Tucson about a year ago. It's a gun that has appeared countless times in Hollywood thrillers, and it's a gun you see every day in police procedurals on television. So I think that's the way most people would identify with it.
GROSS: But real law enforcement agencies use it, too. Give us a sense of who, like which.
BARRETT: Right, that's exactly right. The thing about the Glock is it's both image and it's reality. About two-thirds of all police departments across the United States authorize and purchase the Glock. These are departments such as the New York Police Department, the largest in the country, and federal agencies like the FBI, the DEA, Customs Service. The Glock has truly become the dominant law enforcement handgun in the United States.
GROSS: Does the Defense Department use it for anything?
BARRETT: Yes. Beretta, the Italian company, has the main contract with the big Army, with the main part of the U.S. Army. However, a number of elite units, Special Operations units, prefer the Glock. They're allowed to buy their own weapons, and they've purchased the Glock. Beretta got in before Glock really got off the ground, and at some point in the future I expect Glock will present quite a challenge to Beretta for the main Pentagon contract.
GROSS: So when the Glock was first manufactured, and this is, what, 1982...
GROSS: ...what made it different from other guns?
BARRETT: Well, Gaston Glock, the Austrian curtain rod maker who invented the Glock, started with a genius approach, which is to say he started from scratch, a blank piece of paper. And he asked gun experts: What would be the ideal firearm for the modern era? And they said a gun with much larger ammunition capacity, a gun that is much more durable and reliable.
And so that prompted him to think about injection-molded plastic rather than the traditional materials of blued steel and walnut grips. The gun should be easy to fire, and the gun should be easy to learn how to use. It shouldn't have complicated safety mechanisms.
He integrated all of these elements into the Glock, and that's how he won his original contract with the Austrian army.
GROSS: So because it was made out of - largely made out of plastic and not steel, it was lighter to carry, which was an advantage.
GROSS: And it wasn't going to rust.
GROSS: And it didn't have a safety lock.
BARRETT: It doesn't have an external safety of the traditional sort that a semiautomatic pistol will have. It also doesn't have a so-called de-cocking mechanism, which some guns, like, for example, the Beretta that we mentioned earlier has. These features make it more similar to a traditional revolver in that you just pull it out, you point it, and you pull the trigger, and it's ready to go.
On the other side, however, gun skeptics have pointed out that this makes the Glock more prone to accidents, and if someone is not trained to use the gun, if someone, for example, lets their finger linger on the trigger, that is true, it is easier to fire the Glock than it is some other guns. So the safety issue has two sides to it.
GROSS: And how many rounds did the Glock 17, the first Glock, hold?
BARRETT: Yeah, coincidentally it holds 17 rounds in its magazine. I say coincidentally because most people think that's why it's called the Glock 17. Not so. Gaston Glock was a little bit eccentric in naming his guns, called his first basic pistol the 17 because it was his 17th patent, and he was very, very proud of that.
So that still remains the basic Glock model, but you can have up to a 33-round magazine in a Glock. So it can have quite a bit of capacity.
GROSS: So an Austrian named Gaston Glock, who isn't even in the gun business, decides to manufacture a gun from scratch to suit what the Austrian army needs, come up with the Glock 17, it works really well, and then U.S. law enforcement agencies start buying it, in part because the invention of the Glock coincides with a lot of American cops feeling outgunned by gangs and drug lords.
So how does he start getting a foothold in the American law enforcement world?
BARRETT: Well, the first big element is the one you very correctly identified, which is he had just perfect timing. Gaston Glock was ready to come to the United States in 1986, 1987, and at precisely that time, particularly in many big cities, crack cocaine was creating a whole lot of violence on the street, particularly gun violence, and cops just felt that they were at a disadvantage. So timing was crucial.
The second thing was Glock himself is not really much of a salesman, but he was smart enough to hire a genius salesman in the United States, a transplanted Austrian who had been selling weapons to police departments around the country for many years, and this man, Karl Walter, was really something of a guru in figuring out how to appeal to the police, whether that meant offering them extremely attractive financial terms or it meant hosting police procurement officers at Atlanta's notorious Gold Club, the most famous strip club in town. This was a guy who could make a deal with anybody and figure out how to sell the Glock.
GROSS: Well, this guy, the salesman, is really interesting in and of himself. His name is Karl Walter, and what was he doing? How was he selling guns before the Glock?
BARRETT: He was kind of a freelance representative of European gun companies, mostly very specialized companies that sold military-style weapons to American police departments. And he traveled around the country in a customized RV that was basically a traveling gun shop made up with all kinds of display cases.
And he would pull up to a police department, and they'd come in and look at his sniper rifles and his semiautomatics and his fully automatic guns, and he would sell them. These were very high-margin items. And this gave him a lot of entre to these same police departments when he came back and said I've got a new product; this is not a fancy product, this is a basic product, this is going to be your new basic handgun.
And he had a lot of credibility with these departments, and again, he was a very, very persuasive guy, charming guy, and you know, he was amenable to taking people out to expensive dinners, taking them out to see adult entertainment. Whatever it took, Karl Walter got the job done.
GROSS: So before we get to the kind of deals that he made, what were the selling points of the Glock itself when it came to selling them to American law enforcement agencies?
BARRETT: Right, well, the large capacity we talked about was really the central point. The Smith and Wesson revolver that most police departments were using in the 1980s was the same gun they'd been using for 75, 80 years. This was a gun that was - you know, had a great tradition, but it had only five or six rounds.
And here came Glock saying we offer you 17 rounds in the magazine, and by the way, it's a lot easier to rearm your gun when you're under pressure in a gun fight, so you can get another 17 rounds real quick, rather than having to push bullets into a cylinder.
The second big thing was if you're going to switch from a revolver to a semiautomatic pistol, it was much easier to learn how to use the Glock. As we mentioned earlier, it doesn't have complicated safety mechanisms, it doesn't have a de-cocking lever.
Police departments were amazed when they took their officers out to the range and found that not only could they learn to use the Glock pretty quickly, but the Glock actually made them more accurate as marksmen. And that's in part because it has a very light, very steady trigger pull – again, a feature that has a different facet to it because critics of guns say that the trigger pull is so light that it makes accidental discharges so likely.
But again, the Glock always has that sort of dual nature to it. The advantages can be reframed as disadvantages.
GROSS: So one of the ways that Karl Walter wanted to sell the Glock in America was just get some publicity for it. So he decides Soldier of Fortune magazine, let's try to get them to write an article. And he succeeds, and the article is titled "Plastic Perfection." Just a reminder that the Glock is made primarily out of plastic. So that's why it was headlined "Plastic Perfection."
So how helpful was this Soldier of Fortune article in actually publicizing the Glock?
BARRETT: Well, this was crucial because the article was written by a very credible gun writer named Peter Kokalis, who was well-known in gun circles, both law enforcement and civilian.
And there was going inevitably to be a lot of skepticism about the Glock because it was made from plastic, and if you roll time back to the '70s and '80s, that was a period when were still saying, oh, something's made of plastic, it's cheap, it's, you know, made in Taiwan. There was still a lot of skepticism about the transfer over to industrial-strength plastic for all kinds of products.
And Kokalis addressed that issue head-on, and he said, I was skeptical, too. I went over to Austria. I tried this gun. People, you've got to try it too. And this was a huge door-opener for Glock.
And the focus on plastic soon developed into a controversy that was also a selling point, because the reaction from gun control advocates was that because the gun is plastic, it'll become a terrorist tool. You'll be able to sneak it into airports, past the security devices.
GROSS: Past the metal detectors.
BARRETT: Exactly, and this created a genuine controversy. I'm talking about congressional hearings, Jack Anderson, the muckraking columnist of his day in the '80s writing column after column, syndicated in newspapers all across the country.
Suddenly people were talking about the Glock before there were even more than a handful of the guns in this country. This kind of attention is priceless. As Karl Walter said to me: I could not have paid $50 million, $100 million, for that kind of notoriety.
And then it turned out that the allegations weren't true, that in fact you could see a Glock on an airport X-ray machine because a big piece of industrial-strength plastic shaped like a gun looks just like a gun on the monitor. Secondly, if you have a magnetometer, the gun has an all-metal slide, a solid steel slide - that's the rectangular piece on top of a pistol that moves back and forth as it fires.
And also the bullets, of course, are metal. So if someone's going to actually shoot a gun, they need bullets, and the whole controversy evaporated. Gun control advocates really were embarrassed by the whole thing, and Glock was left with all of this attention. It was quite an extraordinary episode.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Barrett, and we're talking about his new book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about the Glock and its place in American culture and law enforcement and what it has to say about guns and the history of gun control in America. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Paul Barrett. His new book is called "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." And Barrett is assistant managing editor and senior feature writer at Bloomberg Business Week.
So we were talking about how this salesman, Karl Walter, introduced, kind of sold the Glock to America, and the Glock was made in Austria. The Austrian army had been using it, but it was new to America in the '80s.
So one of the things that Karl Walter does to help sell the gun to law enforcement agencies is to give police departments really big discounts on their purchases of the Glock. How did that work? Why did he do it?
BARRETT: Right. Walter's savvy was crucial to Glock breaking into the American market. He gave Gaston Glock, his employer, several important pieces of advice. First of all, the gun is manufactured very efficiently at the factory. The factory was built brand new to make this gun. So Glock has very, very high profit margins.
Gaston Glock was inclined to sell it at a relatively low price, retail price in this country, and Karl Walter said no, we're going to set the retail price relatively high. We don't want people think this is a junk gun. We want them to think that this is a high-quality gun, and the price will indicate that.
But then when he went to police departments, he said, look, I'll give you a huge discount from the, you know, the recommended retail price. Basically, you tell me what you can pay, you give me your old guns as trade-ins, and I'll outfit you with new Glocks.
And this was smart because the point was not to make an early profit on the police departments. The point was to get the police departments to adopt the gun, and that would give the gun credibility in the much larger, much more lucrative civilian market, where you can charge full price and get your full profit margin. So this was Walter's very, very crafty strategy.
GROSS: One of the places that Walter wanted to sell the Glock was to the New York Police Department, but there was a ban against the Glock in New York. Was that in New York City or the whole state?
BARRETT: New York City, where the New York Police Department controls gun regulation, and this was an extraordinary situation because the police department did not ban a category of guns, it didn't say large-capacity guns, it said Glock. This brand can't come into this city. Neither the cops nor civilians may own it, and so...
GROSS: Why? Why? Why did they single out the Glock?
BARRETT: This was related to this plastic pistol controversy, the idea that the Glock was going to become the hijackers' special, that only a diabolical criminal would want this mysterious plastic gun that could hold so many rounds. In New York, this was taken to the extreme of a flat-out ban.
But this ban only lasted until 1988, when there was a real news scoop by the Associated Press that was then picked up and trumpeted by the New York Post. It turned out that while everyone in the city was banned from having the Glock, the top cop in the city, the police commissioner himself, was carrying a Glock under his suit coat.
And obviously this was a terribly embarrassing situation for the police department. Suddenly the Glock was no longer a threat to the populace. The ban was dropped, and within a short period of time, the New York Police Department was beginning to buy Glocks itself, and within a few years you had the largest police department in the country, the police department that's portrayed most often on television, carrying Glocks, and this was a huge breakthrough for Karl Walter, for Gaston Glock, and for the Glock pistol.
GROSS: OK, so Karl Walter does a great job in selling the gun, but there's another guy who helps sell the gun, and his name is Rick Washburn, and he had a company that supplied everything from swords, daggers, shields, guns, bombs, for theater, opera, ballet, movie and TV, that needed violence onstage or onscreen.
BARRETT: We love our weapons, yeah, and so - and Rick Washburn is the guy who picks out the right weapon and puts it in the hand of the actor. He runs this very well-known prop shop here in New York. He's basically the East Coast guy, go-to guy for both television and movies.
And he became aware of the Glock because Karl Walter made a point of bringing it to his attention. He was skeptical of the Glock as a weapon because Rick Washburn knows weapons for real, not just theatrical guns. But he was won over to the Glock and its practicality and functionality, and in 1990 he began putting the Glock in the hands of secondary characters on television.
The first show he put it in was called "The Equalizer," a CBS show that was quite popular in its day. And thereafter he began putting it in the hands of police officers in "Law & Order," the, you know, the great police procedural show that dominated that genre in the 1990s.
And, you know, characters like Rick were crucial in spreading the gospel about the Glock. And the fascinating thing was Glock didn't even have to pay him to do it. Rick did it because this was realistic. He wanted his clients, the movie-makers and television directors, to be on the cutting edge. And so he just put the Glock up there on the screen.
GROSS: How often has the Glock been name-checked in rap lyrics?
BARRETT: Oh my - you couldn't count. I mean, the Glock was adopted very early on by some of the biggest names: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre. As soon as it appeared here, they began to embrace it, more because of its dark, glamorous side, the fact that it looked sort of futuristic and tough, the fact that it had that large magazine capacity, and also, not incidentally, the fact that it rhymed so well with words you might want to use in rap lyrics.
And within the space of a few years, you not only had the Glock showing up in the lyrics, you had song titles with Glock in it, and you even people changing their stage names to incorporate the word Glock into their stage name.
GROSS: Was Tupac killed by a Glock?
BARRETT: Yes, he was, a 40 caliber, when he was rubbed out in Las Vegas. Of course we don't know who pulled the trigger. No one was ever convicted.
GROSS: Right. So we've talked about some of the ways that the Glock was sold. Another way is that Karl Walter - and you've referred to this a little bit - he used to take the clients he was trying to woo, to sell to, to a famous adult entertainment club in Atlanta called The Gold Club.
GROSS: You describe it in the book as the city's best known venue for exotic dancing and allied entertainment.
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BARRETT: Yeah, well, I mean, you know, the Gold Club was a place of many pleasures. It's now known, because it's been shut down for some years by the FBI, that there was a lot of drug traffic going on. And while I don't have any personal experience with this, I think it's also safe to guess that the dancing led to prostitution as well.
So all of these things were sort of the add-ons you would get if you were subject to Karl Walter's wooing, as you very accurately put it, and he was there every Thursday night with a large group of potential customers, so much so that Thursday nights in the late '80s, early '90s were known as Glock night at the Gold Club.
And you would see some of the dancers, at least for a period of time, wearing Glock shirts before they took the shirts off, and this became a real phenomenon. It was known throughout the industry. And Walter's ability to wrap Glock in that kind of sexy, dirty, slightly illegal reputation was a great advantage.
GROSS: And he hired one of the dancers, didn't he, to be, like, the model for the Glock at one of the big gun shows?
BARRETT: Right, absolutely, a woman named Sharon Dillon, who was one of the premier dancers of the day, well, he hired her to be the face of Glock at the so-called Shot Show, which is the main event in the industry every year. He required Sharon Dillon to go through a four-day training course so she would actually know something about guns, which she did, and my reporting showed that she actually was quite a good shot.
He declined to tell the cops and federal agents who were training alongside her just exactly who she was, and so the rumor spread that she was some type of CIA bombshell operative, when in fact she was just Sharon Dillon the stripper from downtown.
She was brought out to Las Vegas, where she created a complete stir and made Glock the star of the 1990 Shot Show, so much so that the show as a whole named her the model of the year for the gun industry.
GROSS: Paul Barrett is the author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with
, AUTHOR of the new book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." It's about how this Austrian-made, high-capacity pistol became the preferred gun of American police departments, as well as the FBI, and became a star of crime films and TV shows. Barrett is an assistant managing editor of Bloomberg Businessweek.
So, the gun catches on in law enforcement agencies, in movies and television shows, and then there - it gets being used on the streets, and is a cause for all concerned. The first really big Glock shooting spree was in 1991 in Killeen, Texas. What happened?
BARRETT: Yeah. This was a killing that took place at a cafe called Luby's. And a psychotic guy drove his pickup truck into the front window of Luby's, jumped out and started shooting. And the fact that he was armed with a Glock, in addition to another firearm, and had that enormous ammunition capacity, made this horrendous massacre much worse than it otherwise would have been. That's just because he was able to get off more rounds and reload more quickly.
The police actually responded extremely quickly, because there happened to be a law enforcement training session taking place just a few minutes away, just by coincidence. So a whole bunch of cops came running over, they intervened, and the gunman ended up killing himself. But before he did, more than 20 people were killed, you know, dozens were injured, and this was, until that date, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
And this led directly to debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, on the day of the shooting, about whether guns such as this ought to be restricted. In other words, members of the House of Representatives were talking about the Glock only hours after the Killeen shooting took place.
GROSS: Yes. Because the House was debating proposals to tighten rules on gun ownership.
GROSS: The Senate had already passed a version of this legislation a few months earlier.
GROSS: So how did the House vote on limiting these high-capacity magazines?
BARRETT: It took a while. This was 1991, but by 1994, a bill was passed - this is what we remember as the Assault Weapons Bill - and was signed into law by President Clinton, and became effective in 1994. And it had a variety of restrictions. One of them was limiting the ammunition capacity for pistol magazines to 10 rounds.
This was seen at the time as a terrible blow to Glock. But little did most observers understand, but it actually was, once more, a tremendous counterintuitive advantage for Glock. Why? Because Glock had seen this bill coming for years and had been running the factory nonstop, you know, three shifts a day, seven days a week, building up the large-capacity fire arms and the large-capacity magazines, so that when the law was enacted and allowed for, basically, a loophole that grandfathered in preexisting equipment before the ban went into effect, Glock had this huge stockpile of the very equipment that many gun owners wanted to get because it was banned, and the value of that equipment skyrocketed, so that a large-capacity magazine that might've cost $19 at retail in 1993, by 1995 was selling for $50. Another profit bonanza for Glock.
GROSS: And there's another incredibly clever, you can say devious, way that Glock got around the ban by...
GROSS: ...with police departments. Why don't you describe what it did with police departments?
BARRETT: Absolutely. Glock became famous for its trade-in policies. This began before the ban, but it was made all the more lucrative by the ban. So, Glock would first in the '80s, early '90s, persuade a police department to trade in a Smith and Wesson revolver for the Glock 17. Then Glock would come back just a couple of years later, like a crafty, you know, auto salesman and say, well, you really ought to trade up. Now we've got the Glock 40 caliber, which is a larger caliber, and that has more stopping power. And we're going to give you just a great deal. It's going to cost you almost nothing to get brand-new guns. All you got to do is give us your old guns. And police departments, which were eager to save money, were quite happy to do this.
Well, the reason the Glock could make such advantageous deals from the police departments' perspective was that those pre-ban, large-capacity former police guns were worth a fortune on the used gun market, particularly one such guns had been banned. So Glock now had, what, you know, in some ways you could see as kind of contraband, but that had been grandfathered in under the law, and that they were able to resell on the secondary market for huge profits. This process of always finding the folds in the law, finding the exceptions, finding the ways to kind of get around the intent of efforts to restrict the Glock became a trademark for the company, and right from the start it helped the company, and it continued on through its entire history.
GROSS: So, in terms of unintended consequences, it meant that police departments, in trading in their old Glocks, were inadvertently contributing to having more high-capacity weapons on the streets, because those guns would be sold to people who would use - who would carry them on the streets.
BARRETT: Absolutely. And that fact, the fact that the police departments were implicated in the proliferation of handguns all across the country, would come back to haunt the municipalities for which those police departments worked later in the decade, when those municipalities tried to sue the gun industry on the theory that the gun industry was irresponsibly flooding the streets with guns that could be put to no useful or lawful purpose.
Well, when those lawsuits were launched against Glock and its rival manufacturers, Glock's executives would pop up on television and say: Who are you accusing of putting guns on the street? We've done business with the very city, the police department in the city that's now suing us. It's their guns that are on the street. So this really undercut those lawsuits, and again, one more example of Glock's kind of counterpunching approach that, at every turn, with such advantage to the company in commercial terms.
GROSS: So we talked a little bit about the advantages and the disadvantages of the Glock as a gun. It's light...
GROSS: ...because it's plastic. It's largely plastic, not steel. It's got an easier trigger pull.
GROSS: And it doesn't have an external safety device. Now the easy trigger pull and the lack of an external safety device are a plus if you really know what you're doing. And...
GROSS: And you know how to use a gun and everything goes smoothly. But it can be a problem. And what are some of the ways that it was a problem, even among peoples in law enforcement?
BARRETT: Oh, absolutely. There was a phenomenon in the late '80s and into the '90s known as a Glock leg or a Glock thigh or a Glock knee. What that referred to was the tendency of some police officers who would grab the gun from their holster and immediately put their finger on the trigger. They were used to the much heavier trigger pull of a revolver, and just by depressing the - putting a little bit of pressure on the Glock's trigger, they'd shoot themselves in the leg.
We had an instance of this much more recently when the professional football player Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg with a Glock in a nightclub just a couple of years ago and ended up going to prison in that incident. This has been a problem with Glocks. You can pull the trigger more easily. That's just not something that can be debated. And if you're not trained properly and you're behaving irrationally, there's a greater danger of injuring yourself.
And this is what led to a lot of liability suits. Glock was targeted by a civilian - civil lawsuits all through the early '90s on the theory that there was something wrong with the way the Glock was designed. And sometimes those accidents involved police officers. The thing was that Glock was very deft, once again, in figuring out which cases to settle, which cases to try. When they had a case where the person pulling the trigger had behaved in a really negligent, obviously silly way, they would try that case and sort of teach a lesson that, you know, we're not patsies. And where there were situations where the user might have been a little bit more innocent, they would quickly settle that case, get the gun back and wrap the whole thing up with a court-ordered confidentiality order. So once again, Glock, the very deft commercial actor.
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Paul Barrett. His new book is called "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about the Glock. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Barrett, the author of the new book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." And it charts how the Glock started off as a gun manufactured in Austria by somebody who wasn't even a gun manufacturer. It was used by the Austrian army, and then it became very popular in the United States among law enforcement agencies, in movies and on the street.
So, Gaston Glock, the founder, the creator of the Glock, the head of the company...
GROSS: ...survived an assassination attempt when he was in his 70s.
GROSS: What year was this?
BARRETT: That was 1999. And this points to the fact that on top of all the other fascinating aspects of the gun and the technology, marketing, Glock has, since relatively early on, been a company shot through with intrigue, recrimination, accusations of wrongdoing. And in the '90s, that culminated in this incident that you referred to.
Glock came to suspect that a guy he hired, a Luxembourg financier named Charles Everett - his nickname was Panama Charlie, because he did a lot of business setting up paper corporations in Panama - well, he had been hired to set up shell corporations in a big, complicated international structure for Glock as a way of minimizing taxes. But then Gaston Glock came under the impression that Panama Charlie was also stealing from him, that some of those shell corporations might have been set up for Panama Charlie's benefit.
So he came to Luxembourg to confront his financier, and the financier arranged for them to look at a brand-new car in an underground parking garage. And when they went to look at this new sports car, an assassin jumped out of the shadows and attacked Gaston Glock. And it turned out this assassin had been hired by Charles Everett.
The very odd thing about the whole thing was that rather than trying to shoot Gaston Glock - you'd think you'd go after a fire arm industrialist by shooting him - he hit him on the head with a rubber mallet. The scheme seems to have been to have set up a situation where it would've looked like Gaston Glock had fallen down a flight of stairs, and that his death had not involved some type of wrongdoing.
What they didn't calculate for was the fact that Gaston Glock - 70 years old at the time - was a very ornery old bird, and he fought back. And when the cops arrived not too long afterwards, the assailant and his victim were both kind of semiconscious on the floor of the garage. And the hit man - who, by the way, just for fun, was a former French Legionnaire and former professional wrestler - was taken into custody, sentenced to prison, as was the guy who arranged the hit. And Charles Everett, the former financier, is still in prison today in Luxembourg as a result of this failed and somewhat goofy assassination attempt.
GROSS: Well, the assassination attempt led to investigations of Glock's finances...
GROSS: ...because it was his financial adviser who ordered the hit.
GROSS: And they discovered all these shell companies.
GROSS: So how did that affect the company?
BARRETT: Well, there was a huge controversy over whether the financier had arranged it so that he actually owned a big chunk of the company. And it was Gaston Glock himself and his lawyers who initiated a lot of this investigation and civil litigation, as he tried to reassert control over his corporate empire. And, as you say, it raised questions about how Glock was operated, about why all these shell companies existed all around the world and what the purpose of it was.
My reporting showed that like a lot of companies, Glock had set up is very complicated corporate structure in order to minimize its tax liability. This is a type of corporate behavior that, in fact, is quite common. General Electric, for example, is the best-known major corporation known for being expert at doing this. What you do is you move your product around from jurisdiction to jurisdiction so that by the time it's sold in a high-tax jurisdiction - like, for example, the United States - the profit margin is smaller, so that the IRS here in the United States sees a smaller profit and taxes a smaller profit.
This can be done legally. I mean, there are a lot of very fancy lawyers in New York and Washington who spend full-time figuring out how to do this within the law. And it can be done illegally. Glock has not been tagged with misbehavior in the United States in connection with this, but the IRS has taken a close look at the way clock operates, as I report in the book, but it has not led to an actual prosecution of any sort.
GROSS: So, you know, there was an assault weapons ban that President Clinton signed in 1994 that outlawed high-capacity weapons. So, you know, the 17-around Glock was illegal under that law. Ten years after the assault weapons ban was enacted, it expired. It expired in 2004 and...
GROSS: ...Congress did not renew it. Which is why Jared Laughner was able to buy the high-capacity magazine gun that he used in Tucson in the shooting that injured Gabrielle Giffords, who just...
BARRETT: That's right.
GROSS: ...just resigned her position in Congress, who said that she needed to focus on her recovery.
BARRETT: You got that exactly right.
GROSS: So you're very skeptical that Democrats will be able to pass any gun control legislation if they haven't passed it in the wake of that Tucson shooting.
BARRETT: Yes. And it's not just in the wake of the Tucson shooting. I mean, you can go all the way back to the terrible events at Columbine, the school shootings that captured so much attention back in '98, '99. No new federal gun control legislation was passed in the wake of those school shootings, which in some ways is even more remarkable than the fact that in the wake of Virginia Tech and in the wake of Tucson we have similarly seen no new efforts to restrict the legal sale or ownership of guns.
In fact, it's quite to the contrary. Over that period of time, gun laws in the United States are getting looser, not tighter. It is easier to carry a gun in many states. It is easier to get gun permits. And we've now had a Democratic president for three-plus years and he's said barely a word about gun control one way or the other. So I think it's very fair to say that for a variety of reasons - and we can talk about those if you wish - the gun control debate has really been won for the moment by the NRA and by the industry that it cooperates with and by those people who are in favor of widespread civilian ownership of guns.
GROSS: One thing you mentioned in your reporting is that, you know, Gabrielle Giffords used to carry a Glock and she hasn't, at least as of yet, spoken in support of gun control.
BARRETT: That is correct. Since the shooting she has remained silent on that issue. It's also correct that she owned not just a Glock but she owned the precise model that the killer in Tucson used, the Glock 19. And I think the fact that someone like Gabrielle Giffords who, in other - for other purposes you wouldn't necessarily think of as, you know, particularly being a gun owner of a gun aficionado, does own a gun is very telling.
We have had a transition in this country where I think gun rights are getting more respect than they used to get. The United States Supreme Court has issued several important rulings in the last several years supporting gun rights, knocking down municipal gun control laws in Chicago and in New York, and all of this, I think, traces back to one very crucial development, which is indisputably good news.
And that's this: While crime rates were rising from the early 1960s through the early 1990s, adding a lot of punch and credibility to the argument that more guns means more crime and providing a very strong argument - at least on the surface - to gun control proponents that we're a nation in the grip of rising violent crime, since 1993, crime rates in the United States have been going down.
They went down dramatically across the 1990s and have continued to fall into the 2000s. Meanwhile, we don't have fewer guns in the United States. We have, of course, more guns, because every year millions are produced and sold. So the reality of falling crime rates has taken a lot of the air out of the gun control movement and this is a very fascinating development which I think liberals, Democrats, and people who are professional gun control advocates have not really come to grips with.
If there's an argument about guns it really has to shift. It has to be adjusted to take into account the fact that crime levels in a place like New York are now back to where they were in the late 1950s. I mean, New York is a much safer city. That's not because there are fewer guns on the street - our gun laws haven't changed. So people need to think about these things in a different light, whatever your partisan view is.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Barrett. He's the author of the new book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Barrett, the author of the new book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun" and Barrett is also assisting managing editor and senior feature writer at Bloomberg Business Week. Now, you recently went to the big annual gun and ammo trade show in Las Vegas.
GROSS: And we knew that you were going there and we asked you to send us some of the literature that you found there.
GROSS: So in the catalogue for the trade show there was an auction to raise funds for the Hunting Heritage Trust.
GROSS: And one of the two guns being auctioned was what is now officially called the Glock Statue of Liberty gun.
GROSS: It's the original Glock 17. And let me read from the catalogue: It features an intricate hand-engraved tribute to the Statue of Liberty. This theme was selected to recognize the company's 25th anniversary and coincides with the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The high bidder will also receive a hunting trip with Glock spokesperson R. Lee "The Gunny" Ermey, as well as a framed drawing of the original Glock 17.
I just find it really interesting that somehow the Glock is being equated with the Statue of Liberty.
BARRETT: Fascinating. And just one more illustration of what we've been talking about in this entire conversation, of how deft Glock is, as an Austrian company, as a foreign interloper, associating itself with American imagery, American values, and so forth. The hunting trip with R. Lee Ermey - people may not know him by name. He's the actor and commercial spokesman who is most famous for being the sadistic drill sergeant in "Full Metal Jacket," a very, very memorable performance.
This is the guy who if you see a picture of him, you recognize him right away. This is Glock's spokesman. He is certainly one of the most popular figures at all industry events. So the fact that Glock lands him as their face and voice is crucial. The fact that Glock itself is selected to be the handgun of the show, the gun that the American gun industry is going to auction off and focus all this attention on, this is, you know, this is just free advertising for the cost of a single pistol, which, believe me, to Glock is not very important. Moreover, I can now report to you that the auction is done and the winning bid for that Glock was $15,000.
BARRETT: Yeah, $15,000 for something that it costs, you know, $70 or $80 to make at the factory, and then they did some engraving so who knows how much that adds onto it. But someone stepped up - and the bidding was secret and the bidders wanted to remain private, apparently - but someone was willing to put down $15,000 to own this memorable Glock. That's very, very telling.
It's not a Smith and Wesson, it's not a Colt. You know, it's not a Ruger. Those are all great American brands. It's a Glock.
GROSS: You took shooting lessons as part of the research for this book, and you took shooting lessons with the Glock. What did you learn about guns and why people own guns from having one yourself and learning how to shoot it?
BARRETT: Right. Well, the first thing is, and people who don't own guns really need to think about this, is it's just darn fun to fire a gun. It's interesting. It requires a lot of attention. It's competitive because you want to - once you learn how to use it, you want to use it well. And it's – it is, just as people say, it's a real feeling of power to handle a firearm.
And that appeal is, in my view, undeniable and is part of the reason - not the whole reason, but part of the reason that guns symbolize individualism, self-sufficiency, to such a large portion of the population. And I felt it myself. I mean, it was just interesting and fun to do it.
GROSS: Do you own one now?
BARRETT: I don't. I live in New York City. It's extremely onerous to get a gun permit here. I think too onerous, as a matter of fact, but it's just not worth the hassle. So when I shoot, I go to the range of a friend and borrow weapons. I was just - when I was out in Las Vegas at the gun show, we went out into the desert and did some shooting and it was a lot of fun. The thing to be careful about is make sure you're following the law.
Because if you're not using your own gun, you've got to make sure you're following the local laws.
GROSS: You know, when I went to summer camp, we were taught archery, bow and arrow.
GROSS: And riflery.
BARRETT: Sure. The .22. I mean, you probably can still smell the...
GROSS: I'm a New Yorker, you know?
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BARRETT: No, no. But that's the thing. Guns are completely woven into American culture, and the sound of the .22, you know, which are very, very small rounds, you know, spattering against a target is what many people grew up with at summer camp. I mean, my dad, you know, participated in the rifle team in his high school, DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. I mean, there was a rifle team that practiced in the basement.
So the divergence we've had in a recent couple of generations, where people are so powerfully anti-gun or powerfully pro-gun, that's a fairly recent phenomenon. In the not-too-distant past, guns were just part of American life.
GROSS: You said when you started taking gun lessons as part of your research for your book, "Glock," you had to undo a lot of muscle memory that you'd gotten from countless TV shows and movies where people carry guns. What did you have to unlearn from what you'd seen?
BARRETT: Well, the main thing, people tend to pull guns out of their holsters on television and movies with a fair amount of flourish, with the gun ending up pointing at the ceiling, sweeping across the room, that kind of thing. All of those are absolutely forbidden. You're supposed to move rather robotically and always keep the barrel pointed only at what you intend to shoot, and in fact what you intend to destroy. So at first, and thank goodness I was doing it with a dummy Glock, I was waving the thing all over the place like some sort of television detective and my instructors got me under control. And when I actually got out on the range, I managed not to shoot myself or anybody else.
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GROSS: That's good. All right. Well, Paul Barrett, thank you so much for talking with us.
BARRETT: You bet. Thanks so much for having me on your show.
GROSS: Paul Barrett is the author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.