Monday, January 9, 2012

The Sleek Black Glock and the American Dream

For a weapon that has become iconic, it’s easy to forget that the Glock semiautomatic pistol didn’t exist thirty years ago. Gaston Glock, an engineer and machinist who made bayonets in his garage, started experimenting with firearms to snag an Austrian military contract that the army hadn’t actually offered yet. In Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, Paul Barrett describes how an experiment became a phenomenon, despite almost unprecedented opposition.

While established gun manufacturers like Steyr and Sig Sauer continued modifying existing pistols—many of which hadn’t changed significantly in decades—Gaston Glock experimented in his hobby lab. He tried avenues the big boys would never touch. His pistol had a larger magazine, fewer moving parts, and with its injection-molded plastic frame, weighed less than half as much as standard models. It could survive falling from a helicopter and still fire reliably.

In Europe, gunsmiths primarily manufacture for military and law enforcement. Even in countries with relaxed gun laws, private firearms ownership remains fairly rare. Gaston Glock, a suburban working guy who ran his factory part-time and spoke only German, had no other aspirations. That is, until a writer for Soldier of Fortune magazine almost accidentally introduced Glock’s pistol to the American gun market.

Karl Walter, an Austrian-born American gun retailer, proved a perfect conduit to get the Glock into American hands. He spoke German, which dovetailed nicely with Gaston Glock’s provincialism. He had business savvy and an awareness of America’s cliquish gun culture. And he had a plan that allowed his boss to turn a huge profit even if he sold very few of his lightweight, inexpensive weapons. Luckily for Walter, the Glock exceeded anyone’s humble expectations.

But American scaremongers, who have elaborate mechanisms in place to terrify the people, leaped on the Glock with unparalleled fury. Some said its plastic frame immunized it to regular screening, making it an airline hijacker’s dream. (The FAA and ATF roll their eyes at this claim.) Others said its large magazine and easy reloading system are custom-tailored for maximum casualty. (This claim has more basis, but still doesn’t withstand scrutiny.)

Moreover, Glock pistols suffered ridiculous media caricatures. While heroes continued packing Smith & Wesson revolvers, villains carried Glocks. The Glock’s Hollywood debut, in Die Hard 2, included a line of expository dialogue in which Bruce Willis got every claim of fact flat wrong. The Glock’s streamlined profile and matte black finish made it look natural in the bad guy’s hands.

Not surprisingly, to anyone who knows American gun culture, the bigger the scares got, the more people wanted this weapon. Every alarmist screed resulted in another mass run on America’s gun stores. And Bill Clinton’s ill-considered 1994 assault weapons ban, partially written to restrict the Glock, resulted in panic buying on an epic scale. Glock quickly surpassed Colt or Smith & Wesson as the emblem of firearms in America.

The more popular and diverse his pistols grew, the more autocratic Gaston Glock became. The unassuming suburban machinist suddenly bought a spacious mountain villa, travelled in private jets, and grew increasingly disdainful of his American market base. Men (and some women) who built his trans-Atlantic business, like Karl Walter and Phil Jannuzzo, got bulldozed by Gaston Glock’s monolithic presence. Even his own children felt like cogs in his machine.

Paul M. Barrett combines public record, remarkable connections with industry insiders, and a business journalist’s investigative skill to build a remarkable study of a gun. His intricate history and sociology make the Glock pistol come alive. And where many who have tried to participate in the American gun debate have been terrible pedantic bores, Barrett is an engaging storyteller who makes the Glock into a character in an involving drama.

Barrett maintains journalistic clarity, advocating neither gun control or gun rights. He simply acknowledges guns and gun culture as part of American life, to be treated like any other. And he examines both sides with dry wit. He finds if funny that gun control advocates’ quixotic campaigns have sold more guns than all the ads on earth. And he reduces gun rights advocates increasing Orwellian alarmism to a unique form of gallows humor.

Americans love our guns; no one should feign surprise at that. For good or ill, our national arsenal—roughly one weapon per adult—is part of American character. Rather than whine about guns’ ubiquity, or about Constitutional freedoms, Barrett coolly examines this part of our psyche. More importantly, he examines how a sleek Austrian import became a symbol of quintessentially American freedoms.

1 comment:

  1. That is, until a writer for Soldier of Fortune magazine almost accidentally introduced Glock’s pistol to the American gun market. Ghost Evo