The Glock, From 'Handgun Tupperware' To Top Pistol

The Glock is rapped about in hip-hop songs and carried by heroes in action films. It was once touted as the gun of the future, but also derided as a terrorist's best friend. Host Michel Martin and Paul Barrett, author of Glock, discuss how an obscure Austrian manufacturer of door hinges and knives ended up making America's top-selling handgun.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. This past weekend, the people of Tucson, Arizona marked a solemn occasion, the one-year anniversary of that shooting spree by a mentally ill man that left six people dead and 13 others wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

In the wake of that shooting, blame was spread in many directions: over-the-top political rhetoric, the country's gun laws and - as has been the case in previous tragedies - the gun itself, a Glock.

The Glock has become an American icon, the subject of countless rap songs, the loyal sidekick of police officers and soldiers. It's also been the weapon of choice in some of the worst incidents of gun violence in this country.

Our guest today, veteran journalist Paul Barrett, has written about how an obscure Austrian manufacturer of door hinges and knives went on to become the maker of the top-selling gun in America. The book is titled "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." And Paul Barrett joins us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

PAUL BARRETT: Thanks for inviting me, Michel.

MARTIN: And I really think we should tell people that we are former colleagues. We worked together...

BARRETT: Full disclosure, 10 feet away, right?

MARTIN: ...at the Wall Street Journal. Yes, yes. Which leads me to my first question, which is, you've written, you know, well-regarded books before on race in America, on faith. How did you come to this subject?

BARRETT: I've written a lot about business, business and law. Those are sort of my basic stocks in trade. And there's just no line of work in this country, no manufacturing business or service business that's as fascinating as the gun business. I've been writing about the gun industry since the '90s. But the problem is is a lot of gun companies, like Glock, are privately owned. Glock is privately owned and based in Austria. It's very hard to get information about it.

In mid-2009, an old source of mine called me up out of the blue and said, you know, you've been bugging me for years to tell you the inside story about this company. Well, I've got a couple of boxes of documents in my basement, and I'm ready to talk.

So that's really the beginning of how I dug into this particular company. And once I did the initial piece for Business Week, I realized, you know, the whole narrative history of Glock is really just a perfect vehicle for describing the most recent chapter in the long story of the gun in America.

I mean, Glock arrived here in the mid-1980s, just as crime rates were skyrocketing. Cocaine-driven gang rivalries in many big cities were causing all kinds of shooting incidents. The police in this country came to the conclusion that they were out-gunned, as they put it, by the bad guys.

And here came Gaston Glock, this obscure Austrian industrialist, and he said: Put away your Smith and Wesson revolvers that hold only five or six rounds. I have the gun of the future for you, the Glock 17 - 17 rounds in the magazine, an 18th round in the chamber. And not only that, it looks kind of futuristic. It almost looks like something out of "Star Trek." And it was the rage.

MARTIN: Obviously, the back story of how Gaston Glock leapt from making, you know, as we said, curtain rods and door hinges and knives to pistols is, you know, a fascinating back story.

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: But let's sort of leap ahead to the United States. You know, the United States has a gun industry. You know, there are storied...

BARRETT: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...brands here, like Smith and Wesson, Colt...

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: ...of course, and people have a lot of loyalty...

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: ...particularly to something that's part of American history. And this gun, when it first arrived in the U.S., was disparaged as ugly, as handgun Tupperware.

BARRETT: Yes.

MARTIN: It was made of plastic, as opposed to, you know, beautiful, you know, steel and wood...

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: ...that, you know, revolvers that many people were used to. So how did this gun take over the market, essentially?

BARRETT: Well, one quick way of answering that is, you know, how did German and Japanese cars take over the market from the American automobile industry, which is every bit as storied as the American gun industry? The American gun industry had stopped innovating, and it had allowed its quality to slip. And more efficient, higher margin companies from abroad basically came to this country and ate its lunch, very much the way Toyota and Honda ate GM's lunch.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit, if you would, and as simply as you can about what makes the Glock distinctive and unique and so favored, particularly by law enforcement.

BARRETT: Right. Well, let's start with handguns 101. You have two broad categories: revolvers - which is, you know, the kind of gun you think of as cowboys having. It has a cylinder that spins that holds the ammunition - and then pistols, which are also known as semiautomatic pistols. And they have a magazine that snaps into the grip with a spring-loaded device that pushes the rounds up into the chamber so that they can be fired. That's the basic distinction.

The Glock is a pistol. And, as a result, it can hold far more rounds than the more traditional Smith and Wesson revolver. Beyond that, the Glock is made, as you mentioned, primarily out of industrial-strength plastic. So it is lighter. It is more durable. It doesn't rust. Its capacity to hold ammunition is greater. And so it is in every way, a more potent weapon. And at the same time it's easier to shoot. The trigger mechanism requires a trigger pull of only about five pounds. That compares to 12 pounds on a typical Smith & Wesson revolver. So you take a bad shooter and a bad shooter becomes mediocre, an OK shooter becomes very well-skilled. There really was very little not to like about the Glock as far as a cop who has to carry one on his or her hip for eight hours a day.

MARTIN: Now you point out in the book, two things; there was the design of the gun itself.

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: But there was also marketing...

BARRETT: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: ...that Gaston Glock was very fortunate in having a person of similar background...

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: ...who was his representative in the United States. How did his work contribute to the success of the product?

BARRETT: Right. Individuals are important and Glock did have a genius salesman whose name was Karl Walter. He was Austrian by birth and moved to this country as a young man. And he really had two techniques: one was whatever deal you want he would say to a police procurement officer, we'll figure how to make it work for you. In other words, he was willing to sacrifice profits upfront in order to win the business - something that his American competitors were not always willing to do.

Number two: he added sex and glitz to the Glock. He would invite police procurement officers and civilian gun dealers down to the company's suburban Atlanta headquarters, spend a lot of time with them, take them out to expensive restaurants, take them to strip clubs - the famous or notorious Gold Club - which was the best-known strip club in Atlanta in the 1980s and 1990s. And Glock got this reputation for being, you know, sort of the sexy, tough, and also high-quality gun and that just worked. And Karl Walter was a genius and he sold hundreds of thousands of guns to cops all across the country.

MARTIN: I confess though, one of my favorite stories in the book is where you point out that he had the idea to hire one of the exotic dancers, if you will...

BARRETT: Right. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...from the Gold Club, Sharon Dillon, to represent Glock at one of the gun shows.

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: But he decided that she should take the four-day instructional course that they taught at the plant...

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: ...so that she would know what she was talking about if anybody actually looked up and asked her a question. And he wouldn't tell anybody who she was, because he thought that they would be offended. It turns out that she got the highest score on the written test.

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: ...and was the best shooter in the whole group.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) my favorite story.

BARRETT: Her fellow classmates all assumed that she was some type of CIA operative, because who else could this woman possibly be, when in fact, as you say, she was an erotic dancer.

MARTIN: We're talking with Paul Barrett about his new book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." Were talking about how this plastic gun, manufactured by an obscure Austrian manufacturer of curtain rods, went on to become the top-selling gun in the United States and also really affected the culture of gun ownership. And I want to talk a little bit about that, Paul, if you would. But talking just a little bit more about the whole sort of connection between, you know, myth and reality where the Glock is concerned. You said that, you know, initially there was a genius kind of marketing effort to make this weapon, which already had product appeal based on performance, but to make it appealing to law enforcement. But there was also a countervailing, sort of, fear that this was something that could be appropriated by terrorists.

BARRETT: You're absolutely right. The gun was branded by gun control proponents as the hijacker's special, and that phrase showed up in all through the mid and later 80s, to the point where Jack Anderson - the famous muckraking columnist - wrote a whole series of columns about the Glock, and there were congressional hearings that spread over more than a year, where Democrats dragged Gaston Glock over from Austria and interrogated him about his gun.

The problem was that the allegation that the Glock was somehow able to defeat airport screening devices, just factually wasn't true. Most of those devices are x-ray devices so it actually doesn't matter whether you're talking about industrial plastic versus metal. And in any event, if it was a magnetometer, the slide on the Glock, the piece that's on - the flat rectangular piece on top of the gun, is solid steel, so it actually can be detected. This was, as one gun control advocate told me, just a huge oops moment for the movement. They had demonized a well-made weapon, and by doing so, had drawn attention to it and given it marketing cachet that it never would have been able to buy on its own.

MARTIN: And speaking of which, as we mentioned, that it's been a favorite topic. You also point out that it rhymes nicely...

BARRETT: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...so which one reason why it's a favorite of rappers. The late Tupac Shakur rapped about it in his popular song "Hit'em Up"...

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: ...when he talking about his rival the Notorious B.I.G. I'll just, you know, this is an excuse. I have to play a little bit of it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT'EM UP")

TUPAC SHAKUR: ( Rapping) Grab your Glocks when you see Tupac. Call the cops when you see Tupac. Who shot me, but your punks didn't finish. Now you 'bout to feel the wrath of a menace sucker, I hit 'em up. Yeah. Swing out on a bad boy. Yeah.

BARRETT: You know, I there you heard, you know, that Glock rhymes with cop and it rhymes with drop, and then with just a little bit of imagination you can think of a few other words that it rhymes with that would be helpful to a rap lyricist.

MARTIN: Exactly. But, you know, both to Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. did, in fact, die via gun violence. But again, separating myth from reality, were Glocks ever really does favorite of street criminals?

BARRETT: They were not and are not the favorite. They're expensive compared to the crappy Saturday Night special-type guns that your average stickup man prefers. And I'm not saying that they're not used in crime, they are. In fact, they've been used in some of the most spectacular mass shootings we've had in this country. However, as many police officers and others who know about these things told me, when you're talking about the type of crime that's most persuasive and most corrosive, particularly in big cities, you just don't necessarily find the Glock at the crime scene. So that's a little bit of mythology that was built up by the gangster rappers and by Hollywood proper.

I mean beginning in 1990, villains of all sort were showing up on the big screen waving Glocks around. I mean if you just pause for a second and think of all the young gangsters in movies who hold a gun sideways with their palm down, that sort of squared off looking gun, that's a Glock.

MARTIN: You alluded to a number of instances in recent memory where the same issues, the same attributes that makes the Glock a favorite of law enforcement have also allowed it to be used in some terrible crimes like...

BARRETT: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...last year in Arizona where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six others were killed and a number of other people were wounded. Jared Loughner had a Glock.

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman who killed more than 30 people had a Glock, used a Glock. Timothy McVeigh was carrying a Glock during the Oklahoma City bombing back in 1995.

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: I am wondering if he was ever asked about some of these terrible crimes involving his weapons. Did he ever...

BARRETT: Yes, he has been.

MARTIN: Yeah. And what does he say when people say, you know, you know how much - yes, it's a terrific weapon and many people in law enforcement and the military and just regular citizens who like to shoot really enjoy and appreciate the weapon for what it does but, you know, a lot of damage has resulted from this. What does he say?

BARRETT: When he's been asked that question, for example, in depositions during civil lawsuits; when his executives have been asked that question by journalists, they have a very ready answer - which is well, if only everyone had a Glock then the bad guys wouldn't get away with it. In other words, the good guys would whip their gun out and take care of the problem. So their attitude is more guns would lead to less horrific crime.

MARTIN: Is there anything you think, is there any way in which there is any common sense approach that people could possibly agree on that would allow people to have guns who need them and want them, who are going to use them for law-abiding purposes and legitimate purposes, but people who shouldn't have them, shouldn't have them?

BARRETT: Right.

MARTIN: - can't get them? Is there anything you saw in the course of your...

BARRETT: Yeah. No. No. It's a terrific question and it's an essential question. I think the way to start that conversation so that it has the possibility of being productive is accepting various realities. And the foundational reality is we have a Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court has now interpreted to mean that people have been individual right to possess handguns.

The second thing, I think, you got to accept, is that most of those gun owners are law-abiding citizens, and most of them are doing no harm with those guns and many of them are very, very attached to them. If you deny the reality of the cultural importance of guns to many Americans, whether they've been in the military or in law enforcement or they grew up hunting, or they just like action movies. If you don't accept that then you are rejecting reality. Beyond that, I think there's plenty of room within the Second Amendment and within a respectfull attitude toward people who enjoy guns, to regulate their use in a very reasonable ways. In fact, we already do it. We have background check laws. We have a federal law that makes the crime for a felon, or someone who's been adjudicated mentally ill, to acquire a gun.

The problem often is, is those laws are not really enforced effectively, and as a result you end up with a lot of gun crime. We have a lot of gun crime in this country and there's no denying that.

As far as common sense solutions, my approach is that we ought to focus on controlling crime, not controlling guns. Focusing on enforcing laws that are on the books, that the vast majority of Americans already except - such as felons should not be allowed to walk around with guns - and make sure those laws get enforced well. They have been, for example, in New York City, where there's been very little change in the gun control laws, but over the last 20 years or so there's been much better policing, and as a result, the streets of New York are much, much safer today.

I think if we use New York City as a model in terms of its effective policing, we would make a lot of progress on crime without necessarily offending gun owners.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, this story, you know, we've been talking about the mechanics of the Glock and, you know, it's a business and it makes a lot of money.

BARRETT: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: It's also a soap opera.

BARRETT: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: You know, we mentioned that there's a type of backstory, Gaston Glock, kind of a colorful guy, himself, and -yeah...

BARRETT: Well, he went from being this very kind of pedestrian guy to being a, you know, a billionaire flying around the world on his own private jet and, you know, sure enough he attracted a large coterie of hangers on and aides. And by 1999 he was at odds with his chief financial adviser who hired a hit man to kill him when he became under the impression that Gaston Glock thought that he was cheating him. And out of that murder attempt, which Glock handily survived with out a handgun, I might add - he beat up the guy who jumped out of the shadows to kill him. He pulled...

MARTIN: The weapon of choice there being a...

BARRETT: Being a rubber mallet, of all things.

MARTIN: A rubber mallet, of all things. Not a gun.

BARRETT: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARRETT: The apparent plot was to make it look like old Gaston Glock, 70 year old at the time, had fallen down a flight of stairs. The problem was Gaston Glock was in very good shape and just beat the heck out of the guy who attacked him. But you've got all kinds of drama here - right up to the present. Glock, who is now 82 years old, divorced his longtime wife Helga just this summer, and married a woman who is 31 years old. A very attractive blonde woman who happened to run his high-end equestrian center in southern Austria. And as a result of that, you have the Glock children - three adult children - who are being interviewed in the Austrian press talking about their fears for the future of the company, because of the appearance of this much younger woman and the exclusion of their mother. So there's drama from top to bottom.

MARTIN: But the clock continues to sell.

BARRETT: And as a business, it just churns along. It's just become one of the great brands. I mean it's a, it is to handguns what Google is to Internet searches. People use it interchangeably. When newspaper columnists who really know nothing about guns want to refer to a gun, you'll often just see the word Glock inserted in the headliner in the text of an Op-Ed column. It's truly extraordinary American business and culture story.

MARTIN: Paul Barrett is the author of "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." He's also assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Business Week. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York.

Paul Barrett, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BARRETT: Oh well, thank you, Michel. I appreciated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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