Why the Glock Has Been Unstoppable

Bloomberg BusinessWeek illuminates the upside down world of firearms politics, where social and political judo seem to turn every attack in the industry's favor, especially Glock's. In what other business does it help to have product lines shut down by legislation and to be portrayed by influential columnists and top Hollywood filmmakers as tools of terrorism? And how many other lobbies have most of their job done by an organization of their dues-paying customers?

If you doubted the management guru Tom Peters' tweet that "UICs >>> ICs. (Unintended consequences far far exceed intended consequences.)," consider this:

In September 1994, after a string of grisly shootings--the 1989 Stockton (Calif.) elementary school attack, the 1991 Killeen massacre, the 1993 Waco siege--Congress passed the assault weapons ban, which President Bill Clinton immediately signed. The law, which limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds, seemed likely to hurt Glock. It had the opposite effect. Long before the law's enactment, Glock was running its factory at full tilt. "We're getting 5,000 guns and 8,000 to 9,000 magazines a week from Austria," Dick Wiggins, a Glock representative, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in May 1994. "We're tens of thousands of orders behind," he added. "Our pistols are scarcer than hen's teeth."

As a compromise to get the law passed, the Clinton Administration had agreed to allow continued sale of gear manufactured before the ban. Glock executives figured the new law would incite a buying frenzy, and they were right. "People who own guns that use magazines holding more than 10 rounds--including the Glock 9mm popular with police--are buying extra magazines as fast as they can," USA Today reported. " 'We were cleaned out of magazines in the space of a few hours,' says Mike Saporito of RSR Wholesale Guns of Winter Park, Fla., which supplies thousands of retail shops. 'Sales have gone through the roof.' "

Seventeen-round Glock clips that had sold for less than $20 quintupled in price over the next few years. The unintended consequence of the law was that more high-capacity weapons and magazines ended up in stores, at gun shows, and on the street. Indeed, "the Clinton gun ban," as the NRA called the legislation, created a fascination with large clips that hadn't existed before in civilian gun circles.

The Austrian company found new ways to feed the demand the law had unintentionally created. Having supplied scores of major police departments with 9mm weapons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Glock gave these agencies the opportunity to trade in their modestly used pistols for brand-new ones. The exchanges earned the company powerful customer loyalty and gave Glock another large batch of pre-ban magazines that could be resold on the burgeoning used market. In one exchange in late 1994, Glock received 16,000 used high-capacity clips and more than 5,000 older pistols from the Metropolitan Police Dept. of Washington, D.C.

Yes, the Austrians have even mastered the all-American strategy of cash for clunkers. But many veteran New York City officers have stuck to their old .38 revolvers, partly because they're less likely to jam, partly because the Glock's unique safety mechanisms need special training, at least in the experience of the D.C. force in the late 1990s, partly because of their light trigger pull, which can be a feature or a bug, depending on who is firing at whom, and in what state of mind.

The Business Week article ends on a discouraging note about the possibility of reducing gun violence by new legislation. A central problem is many gun owners' perception that any firearms control measure is an entering wedge for severe restriction. People concerned about reducing the heartbreaking human and economic cost of gun violence need to discard stereotypes about firearms enthusiasts and develop new strategies less likely to recoil.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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