America's Gun Culture and Its Effect on the 2012 Election

The author of Glock explains the rise of the handgun and where gun legislation is headed.

By + More

In the mid-1980s, an Austrian factory manager and curtain rod manufacturer named Gaston Glock introduced American consumers to a handgun that was lightweight, efficient, and could hold more bullets than the traditional six-round revolver. Soon, many police forces and private gun owners were hooked, and despite a number of challenges and controversies, the Glock handgun became a ubiquitous part of American culture, says Paul M. Barrett in his new book, Glock: The Rise of America's Gun. Barrett, an assistant managing editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, recently spoke with U.S. News about Glock's business and cultural legacy and how the weapon affected America's gun control debate. Excerpts:

How did Glock break into the American market?

Gaston Glock, until the early 1980s, was an obscure figure in Austria. Through a series of really serendipitous events he got the opportunity to design a new pistol for the Austrian army. He combined a number of elements in the firearm that previously hadn't been combined in quite that way, and he came up with a truly innovative product: a sidearm that had a very large ammunition capacity, was very light and very durable. It just so happened, and this was total coincidence, that at that moment police departments in the United States were looking for a new service weapon.

[Read: Mitt Romney Shoots for Middle Ground with NRA Speeches]

How did the Glock become so popular?

While it was welcomed in the United States by law enforcement as an innovative tool that solved problems that cops perceived themselves as facing, it was also met with fierce hostility from anti-gun forces, from the gun control movement, which branded the gun uniquely dangerous because it was made largely out of plastic. It branded the gun as a so-called hijacker's special. This led to congressional hearings, it led to bans on the gun in major jurisdictions, such as New York City, and all of that drew a tremendous amount of attention. Then it turned out that the main attack on the weapon was simply phony. The Glock was not able to defy X-ray machines at airports. Then there was another factor, which is the Glock looks different. It got an aura of sort of dark glamour that appealed to Hollywood and appealed to hip-hop musicians, who began referring to the Glock by name in their songs. This huge amount of free attention vastly accelerated familiarity with the Glock.

[Read more author Q&As in U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

What about the gun's capacity to store more bullets?

There was another very concerted effort to restrict the Glock based on magazine capacity. That effort resulted in the enactment of provisions in the assault weapons ban that was passed and signed into law in 1994 that restricted the sale of any magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds and the firearms that went with them. Many people saw that as a terrible blow to Glock. But in fact it had exactly the opposite effect from what its sponsors intended.

What happened?

The company had seen this legislation coming. Glock was able to stockpile huge amounts of large-capacity gear, magazines, and firearms. All the Glocks that were already manufactured and out there in the world on the day of enactment were legal. There was a huge run on these large-capacity magazines and guns, and it was a profit bonanza for Glock. They also came out with a new line of smaller new guns with 10-round magazines and smaller magazines. At every turn, Glock was kind of able to take advantage of efforts to restrict the sale of its wares and sell more.

Will gun control be a big issue in the 2012 presidential election?

I think it will be, as a kind of fake big issue or a symbolic big issue. I think whoever the Republican nominee is will attempt to scare gun owners and gun rights advocates into thinking that in a second Obama administration there would be a big crackdown on guns. The same thing was said in 2008. There were tremendous warnings that President Obama would be very aggressive in restricting gun ownership and he's done exactly nothing on that front. And I don't think it's likely he'd do very much of note in a second administration either.