The Assassins' Weapon of Choice
Glock helped create the modern U.S. gun market—and has become a preferred killing tool for criminals and the mentally disturbed. Philip Shenon on its allure—and allegations of corruption.
Gun-control advocates hope last weekend’s Arizona massacre will finally bring scrutiny to the secretive—and many say, sinister—Austrian company that made the semi-automatic pistol used to grievously wound Representative Gabrielle Giffords and leave six others dead.
The family-run gunmaker, the Glock company, headquartered in a small Austrian village north of Vienna, came from nowhere 25 years ago to turn itself into one of the world’s leading suppliers of handguns, with special success selling to U.S. law-enforcement agencies and private gun-lovers.
Glock helped recreate the American gun market, convincing its customers to replace clumsy six-bullet revolvers—once a gun of choice among private buyers—with lightweight, simple-to-fire, highly lethal semi-automatic pistols capable of pumping out dozens of rounds of ammunition without reloading. (Giffords was a Glock owner herself, telling The New York Times last year, “I have a Glock 9 millimeter, and I’m a pretty good shot.”)
While no one denies that the vast majority of Glock’s American customers are law-abiding, the company’s products have repeatedly turned up in the bloodied hands of criminals and the mentally disturbed, including Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old Arizonan charged with last weekend’s killings, and Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech senior who mowed down 32 people at the school in 2007.
Like Loughner, Cho carried a Glock 19, the company’s bestselling 9-millimeter pistol, in his murderous rampage across campus.
“Glock was one of a couple of companies that really introduced the capability of mass killing power in a handgun,” said Tom Diaz, senior analyst of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun-control group, and author of the book Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America.
He described the Glock 19, which retails for between $400 and $600, as “the archetypical pocket rocket, a small concealable handgun,” capable of firing enough rounds to hit dozens of targets within seconds. The Violence Policy Center said its research showed that Glocks and similar semi-automatic firearms figured in most major mass shootings in the United States over the last 30 years.
“Glock has been very good at turning a regular handgun into a weapon of war,” said Daniel Vice, senior attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Spokesmen for Glock in Austria and at its U.S. subsidiary in Smyrna, Georgia, did not reply to phone calls and emails from The Daily Beast for comment on the Arizona massacre and about the company’s business operations. In the past, Glock has insisted that its firearms are built to the highest standards of safety, and that it operates in the United States in strict accordance with American gun laws.
Whatever its response might be to the events in Tucson, Glock would find it difficult to deny that its phenomenal success in selling guns in the American market has come in spite of longstanding allegations of corruption within the company’s U.S. subsidiary, as well as murderous internal intrigue, including a 1999 assassination attempt against the company’s founder, Gaston Glock, blamed by European prosecutors on one of Glock’s closest business associates.
In the attack in a darkened garage in Luxembourg, a hit man, a former professional wrestler and French Legionnaire, attempted to bash in Glock’s skull using a hardened rubber mallet, a weapon apparently selected because it would leave a wound that would that appear accidental.
A fitness buff, Glock fought back and survived. Both the hit man and Glock’s disgruntled business associate were imprisoned after their convictions on the attempted murder charges.
In a major investigation of the company two years ago, BusinessWeek magazine reported that Glock was then the subject of an otherwise secret IRS investigation to determine if Glock had concealed profits from tax officials.
The magazine quoted the former head of the U.S. subsidiary, Paul F. Jannuzzo, as saying that Glock had “organized an elaborate scheme to both skim money from gross sales and to launder those funds through various foreign entities.” The magazine also quoted Jannuzzo, who was eventually charged by Georgia state prosecutors on racketeering charges, as alleging that “the skim is approximately $20 per firearm,” suggesting that millions of dollars has been hidden from the IRS over the years. The company insisted at the time it had been “victimized” by Jannuzzo and others and denied any wrongdoing.
An IRS spokesman in Washington refused to comment to The Daily Beast this week when asked if Glock was the subject of any continuing criminal tax investigation.
Company founder Gaston Glock, an engineer now believed to be in his early 80s, is grudgingly admired by his competitors in the U.S. gun market, both for his technological innovations and his marketing and lobbying savvy.
In 1982, Glock designed a handgun that could be molded from a tough but relatively cheap, plastic-like material instead of steel and that could hold dozens of bullets in a single, easy-to-replace magazine. Police departments in the U.S. and elsewhere had long complained about their dependence on heavy metal pistols that needed to be reloaded after only a few shots.
Glock quickly won over the law-enforcement market in the United States and then, with the endorsement of its products by large police departments, took aim at the multibillion-dollar market for private gun buyers. According to the trade magazine Shooting Industry, Glock imported 602,000 guns into the United States in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, representing more than a quarter of all the imported handguns that year.
For many gun buyers, the appeal of Glock’s products only grew after the Bush administration and Congress permitted the federal assault-weapons ban to expire in 2004; the law had blocked the sale of gun magazines that held more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
Since 2004, Glock has heavily promoted the fact that its lightweight pistols can hold more than 30 bullets. The latest promotional material on the company’s website notes that its pistols “can be loaded with a convincing number of rounds,” making its guns “superior in firepower to conventional pistol models of the same size.”
In Arizona, Jared Loughner was apparently convinced of the special value of a Glock, attaching a magazine to his Glock 19 that reportedly held the maximum number of bullets possible for the gun—33.
“Glock has been very good at turning a regular handgun into a weapon of war,” said Daniel Vice, senior attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, another gun-control group. “Glock guns are made so they are very easy for anyone to shoot, and Loughner could fire more than 30 rounds without having to reload.”
Vice said the consequences of allowing the federal assault-weapons ban to expire in 2004 were obvious in that supermarket parking lot in Tucson last weekend. If the ban was still in place, Loughner could have been stopped long before he killed so many people, since he would have needed to stop and replace the magazine, Vice said. “Loughner would have been limited to 10 rounds, which means that many lives in Arizona would have been saved.”
Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until 2008. He is author of the bestselling The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.