Happiness Is A Warm Glock: Paul Barrett on America’s Gun

By Shaun RandolSeptember 21, 2012

    Happiness Is A Warm Glock: Paul Barrett on America’s Gun

    PAUL BARRETT WILL MAKE YOU THINK twice about gun control in this country. He may even get you to change your position, or at least better understand the other side’s point of view.

    Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun works on two levels: In terms of business, Glock is a fascinating story about a foreign upstart overtaking a domestic heavyweight, à la Toyota upending Ford in the 1980s. The book is also a microcosm of the gun debate in the United States, covering gun violence, policing, lobbying and legislation.

    Leading up to my interview with Barrett, I carried a copy of Glock around with me, using his words as a weapon, so to speak, to challenge preconceived notions on gun control issues. After our interview, I found myself playing devil’s advocate in at least one conversation, vigorously defending gun ownership, a position I had never before taken seriously.

    Paul Barrett and I met in August in the world headquarters of Bloomberg, LP, parent company of Bloomberg Businessweek, where he serves as assistant managing editor and senior writer. Over a couple of hours the conversation touched on his experiences reporting on the gun industry, the notion of conceal and carry, the unique influence of guns in American culture, the sway of the National Rifle Association in politics, the difficulty of preventing mass shooting incidents and more. The interview below is adapted from that longer conversation.


    Shaun Randol: Unfortunately the timing is just right for this interview, considering the recent shootings in Aurora, CO and Oak Creek, WI.

    Paul Barrett: Yes, the timing is almost always right for it because we’re a gun culture, and the Glock is by any measure the most influential handgun of the modern era. One of its distinctive characteristics is it actually tends to show up in these mass shooting incidents.

    SR: You open Glock with a discussion on the 1986 shootout in Miami between two bank robbers and FBI agents, in which the criminals and two FBI agents were killed, and five other agents were wounded. You record a police lieutenant’s response to the shootout, which was not a plea for better gun control laws or economic empowerment of the poor. Instead, he called for the police to get better guns.

    PB: The lieutenant, later Sheriff, Rutherford in Jacksonville was looking at the shootout in Miami and his attitude was that American law enforcement was outgunned on the increasingly violent streets of American cities. And this was a very common perception on behalf of law enforcement in the mid/late eighties. The shootout in Miami was notorious because it involved the FBI, which is the country’s premier law enforcement agency, and the FBI suffered the worst set of casualties that it had ever suffered in a gunfight on that day. Its agents were met with superior firepower on the part of two homicidal bank robbers.

    The police came to the conclusion — rightly or wrongly, and there’s actually an interesting debate you can have over the discrepancy between perception and reality — whether magazine capacity was the answer to the problem they faced. Nevertheless, the bottom line conclusion on behalf of police departments all across the country, as embodied by that fellow in Jacksonville who I used as a character, was that our cops need to be able to fire more rounds before reloading because they’re facing tougher and tougher bad guys on the street. That made the Glock, this strange looking plastic rather than metal and wood, Austrian-designed weapon, something that got attention, something that it might not otherwise have gotten because of the environment.

    SR: You mention in Glock that police are trend setters when it comes to weaponry: When the police get better guns, the public wants better guns. Does this not beget an arms race between the police and the public?

    PB: I don’t know about an arms race. The modeling that you’re talking about is very important in that the adoption by police of — as a general category — the nine millimeter, semi-automatic, large capacity pistol and Glock as the premier brand of that pistol, was very influential in the much larger civilian gun market. The police in that sense lend credibility to a new and, in this case, foreign firearm.

    I think there’s a whole separate question about what influences the choice of criminals — people who are acquiring and using guns illegally. It remained the case all through the eighties and nineties and even remains the case today that, despite the perception the police were being “outgunned” on the street, criminals have tended to use basically the same weapons throughout. Which is to say cheap, throwaway guns. There is no evidence that I’m aware of that the adoption of police departments of semi-automatic, large capacity pistols led to an arms race with street thugs.

    SR: The irony is that when police forces were adopting the Glock en masse they were flooding the market with their secondary pistols, right?

    PB: That’s another phenomenon that absolutely kicked in by the nineties, which is another way that Glock influenced the gun market, buying habits, and the prevalence of semi-automatic pistols. One of the ways Glock cleverly marketed its product was by saying, “Well Mr. Police Chief, we can give you a great deal. This is not going to hurt you at budget time because we’ll give you a huge credit for trading in your used guns, and acquiring what we’re telling you is a better, more effective weapon, won’t cost you very much, maybe won’t cost you anything at all.”

    SR: Some Glocks were given away for free?

    PB: Well not for free, but as a trade in. A side effect of that commercial transaction, which was designed for commercial purposes, was that Glock would get these used guns and then would sell them on the very, very robust used guns market. This had the effect — again I don’t think this was anyone’s intention — of basically putting more guns on the market.

    In particular a lot of American gun owners enjoy buying and owning former police department guns, just as kind of a novelty, the same way someone might enjoy buying a former police department cruiser. Glock was able to make this work for the company from a financial point of view.

    SR: You quote the nineteenth century saying, “God may have created all men, but Sam Colt made them equal.” Do you think that Sam Colt has actually made Americans unequal? If someone like me, who has a visceral reaction toward guns, has no interest in participating in any sort of conceal and carry program, am I all of a sudden on a different playing field than someone across the table who may be carrying?

    PB: I think that’s an interesting and defensible perspective. If you took that concern seriously enough, if it was deeply held, it might even deter you from going to certain places. That would not be something new in American society. One of the very basic aspects — at least of modern American society — is that it’s a big country and a country with varied cultures from place to place, and this applies in all kinds of ways. Some of the tensions that played into the formulation of our type of society had to do with the fact that, right at the beginning, this was a marriage of rural societies with urban societies: In the seventeenth and eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century; slave owning societies with societies that abhorred slave owning, and so forth.

    SR: Federalism versus anti-federalism.

    PB: Federalism incorporates the ability to have variety in political and social attitudes with the idea of having a centralized society and government as well, but there’s always going to be that friction.

    The friction you’re describing, of going to a jurisdiction where people might have very radically different ideas about firearms and carrying firearm, is, I would argue, a modern manifestation of this same tension that is essential to this country. I think it’s interesting. It’s worthy of debate. If it’s important enough to you, it might even affect your conduct.

    Of course there’s a mirror image of the tension which is that there are people who come from a [laxer area in regards to] gun control who are uncomfortable in jurisdictions where they can’t carry a gun. I’m acquainted with and even friendly with people who have said to me: “I will never visit you in New York, because I can’t legally carry my gun.”

    SR: You write in your book that “Glock, then, is not a particular villain within the fraternity of firearms, but nor is it a hero.” If it wasn’t the Glock it would be another gun, correct? This level of violence isn’t necessarily tied to a particular to a brand. Is there something special about the Glock that makes committing gun violence easier?

    PB: Step one is that the United States would still be a gun culture with or without the Glock. Step two is that nine-millimeter, semi-automatic, large capacity firearms probably would have become quite popular in the eighties and nineties with or without the Glock. As an illustration of that, the United States Army in 1984, before Glock managed to make its way to these shores, had adopted the nine-millimeter Beretta as the standard sidearm for those soldiers who carry a handgun. This was a big step and an indication of the growing popularity of the nine-millimeter round and semi-automatic pistol.

    In any event, Glock didn’t bring guns to this country. Glock didn’t popularize guns in this country. Glock shaped the gun market, attitudes toward guns, the nature of the technology, the marketing, and so forth. That’s what you can attribute to Glock.

    SR: Is that the real success story of Glock?

    PB: Yes. Glock represents a number of things. One of the things it represents is commercial success: that commercial success was built on technological innovation, it was built on savvy marketing, it was built on clever responses to efforts to restrict the Glock, and it also benefited from good old fashion serendipity.

    SR: Talk about how Glock was able to benefit from legislation and public outcry against the Glock pistol itself.

    PB: Again this helps explain the perplexing fact that we have ongoing gun crime and these mass shootings, and nothing happens. Why is that? One part of the answer is that the gun control movement, in a very bad pun, shot itself in the foot over and over again. The experience of Glock is one of the best illustrations because there have been efforts to restrict Glock by name, by brand, and those have backfired.

    As soon as Glock showed up [in the United States], there were anti-gun activists who saw that it was more effective as a firearm because you could fire more rounds without reloading. They also understood that it looked different and might catch on and be more popular because it had a futuristic, distinct appearance.

    I tell these stories in the book: There were people within the government and left-leaning activists who suggested what we ought to do is ban the Glock. They made some headway in this regard. In 1986, ‘87, and ‘88, major media outlets like The New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, carried multiple articles that suggested, because of its design, that the Glock was uniquely dangerous and would become a favorite of terrorists. It was in fact branded “the hijacker’s special.”

    One of the notions that fed into “the hijacker’s special” was that it would somehow defy airport security because, by surface area, it’s mostly plastic. There were Congressional hearings held about the plastic pistol controversy with Glock held up as exhibit A of what the danger was. Gaston Glock, the inventor, was brought over to this country to testify before Congress. This is a big deal; it doesn’t happen every day.

    Some jurisdictions banned the Glock by name, including New York, our biggest city with the biggest police department, and the most individuals. They didn’t ban semi-automatic pistols: they banned the Glock brand. That’s a big deal.

    The attempt to brand Glock as uniquely dangerous was undercut by the fact that gun control advocates had based a big part of their case on a fallacy: this idea that the gun could uniquely defy airport security. It just turned out to be factually wrong. The FTAA, ATF, and other people who were responsible for regulating guns and protecting airports testified to Congress: “No Congressman, that’s just wrong.”

    That turned out to be a huge embarrassment resulting in Glock getting all this attention. Glock was vindicated and enjoyed what amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars in free advertising that both branded the gun super effective, but also not dangerous in the way that at least its antagonists claimed it was.

    And in New York, there was publicity surrounding the fact that the police commissioner was himself carrying a Glock. So everyone was banned from carrying Glock except for the city’s top cop who chose — of all the guns in the world — to carry a Glock under his suit coat. The headline in the New York Post was: “Top Cop Carries Super Gun.” You can’t buy publicity like that. People who were favorably inclined toward owning guns learned a new super gun was available; they’re going to want to buy the super gun.

    That’s a dramatic illustration of ill-conceived, regulatory efforts having the opposite effect of what they were intending, bringing attention to the disfavored product, but ending up boosting its reputation rather than inhibiting its dissemination. That happened over and over again.

    SR: In talking about the gun control debate, you say “Gun skeptics who want to push measures that actually might slow a crazed killer should focus on ammunition capacity, not the superficial appearance of firearms.” It’s not the Glock, per se, that should be the target of a gun control advocate, but rather extended ammunition capacity? Or semi-automatics?

    PB: Perhaps. Let’s clarify what we’re talking about here. That comment you’ve drawn from the book pertains to a very particular phenomenon of the crazed, mass killer. I’m not talking about ordinary street crime. I’m talking about mass shootings, which is the context — for better or for worse — in which we frequently debate gun control. I would argue for worse because it’s a special problem, not a generic problem, and we tend to get those things confused. Not only [the] emotions, but the factual setting of the particular criminal you’re talking about. Someone who goes to a crowded public space not with the purpose of stealing anything, not with the purpose of gaining revenge on a hated ex spouse or business rival or rival gang leader, but of shooting as many people as possible most of whom he has no connection to. That’s a very particular phenomenon that sadly we have in our country.

    The type of weapon, the mechanics of the weapon are much less important than ammunition capacity, because what makes that person more deadly in that situation is the ability to spray more rounds of ammunition from whatever type of gun he has into the crowd, without pausing.

    That’s a very different situation from a guy walking into a 7-11 saying “Stick ‘em up, give me all the money.” That guy probably doesn’t want to kill anybody. He wants the money. So stopping him is something different. In all likelihood he’s not going to fire 10 rounds. He’d prefer if the guy just gave him the money and he left.

    If you want to start arguing the ways you might deny the mass killer the tools necessary to kill lots of people, my position is — I’m not saying this is the only possible position — you ought to talk about ammunition capacity and not get distracted by branding certain guns. As a factual matter, it’s hard to argue with the contention that it’s mass ammunition capacity that makes that situation a massacre rather than a murder of one person.

    The comeback that restricting the sale of new, large capacity magazines wouldn’t have much effect is true. The problem is that we already have them in the private market. This is the huge weakness of any approach that focuses on the sale of new equipment, whether it’s guns, bullets, magazines, and so forth.

    SR: What was the effect of the Assault Weapons Ban?

    PB: The Assault Weapons Ban that was enacted in 1994 banned semi-automatic rifles, which is to say a rifle that uses a magazine, but is not an automatic rifle; it’s not a machine gun. It banned guns that had any two characteristics from a list basically of cosmetic, military-style characteristics — things like a pistol grip on a rifle, a flash suppressor, a bayonet mount — all of which are completely irrelevant to how deadly the gun is or isn’t. You can have it, you cannot have it; it just doesn’t matter. That same law also pointlessly banned 19 brands of semi-automatic rifles, a completely stupid thing to do because there are more than 19 brands. Or, why not just invent the 20th brand the day after it is enacted?

    The one potentially sensible provision in the Assault Weapons Ban was the imposition of a ten-round magazine capacity, which affected both semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic pistols, including the Glock. You can begin to understand that at least this [limitation] might inhibit the mass shooter because, under that regime, he would at least have to think ahead enough to carry multiple ten-round magazines.

    The problem with the Ban was several fold. One, it takes years to enact legislation, so during those years clever people who might be affected commercially by the restriction can circumvent it by pumping out product and warehousing it and selling it. And two, whatever’s already out there in the marketplace will remain in the marketplace unless you ban possession of those things, not just manufacture and sale.

    Human nature being what it is, it was almost a signal to those who disagreed with the ban to run out and buy more of the targeted product. When it comes to guns, that instinct to buy whatever they want to ban is a powerful one. It’s something that the gun control movement either ignores or underestimates, and you have to make your own judgment whether they ignore it cynically or innocently. I would argue cynically. They know it’s not going to have the effect but they just want to pass legislation, because they feel like they’re doing something, to raise money, and so forth. Let’s just assume the best and say that they’re just naïve.

    SR: The same sort of phenomenon happens after a mass shooting incident. Shortly after, gun sales and ammo sales go up because there’s an inclination that legislators are going to jump on the event and ban something.

    PB: Yes, that’s become sort of a bizarre, irrational cycle. That’s one illustration or symptom of how the debate over guns has tilted so far in favor of those who favor guns and favor the wide ownership of guns.

    Everything that happens now favors the pro-gun side. The anti-gun side — through its own actions and through changing circumstances — has got itself backed into an extraordinary corner where it can’t do anything. If it does nothing, then it loses. If it does something, then it loses. If bad things happen, they lose. If good things happen, they lose.

    A key factor we have to put into the mix here is overall crime rates. There was no gun control movement in the 1920s. There was no gun control movement as we popularly understand it in the 1950s. It only coalesced in the late 1960s, and really it took form and shape in the early 1980s, and was in large part a response to the perception that America was in the grip of rising violent crime rates that were perpetual and that guns were the driving force behind those rising rates of crime.

    The first part of that equation is indisputable: beginning in the early 1960s violent crime in this country began rising and continued to rise throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties. What caused the rise in overall violent crime is actually a matter of debate, not certainty. But, the simple notion that more guns equals more crime was at least plausible to many people in an environment where year after year violent crime (not all of it) was related to guns. It just kept rising and rising. Cities were falling apart. The Bronx [was] burning. Civilization was coming to an end. There was an embattled feeling in that environment: “We’ve got to do something to control guns.” It was at least plausible. You could stand up and make a speech along those lines because it resonated with a lot of people.

    Then something changed. Crime started going down. That’s not a debate.

    SR: And gun ownership continued to rise.

    PB: Gun ownership certainly didn’t go down. The way to think about it is prevalence of guns, or guns per capita.

    SR: So there was confusion between correlation and causation, which doesn’t seem to have been shaken.

    PB: I would argue that.

    SR: Even by gun rights advocates?

    PB: No. Gun rights advocates have taken very good advantage of this statistical shift. I’ll quote Sarah Palin’s observation that crime is down, guns are up, so the old guns equal crime equation doesn’t make sense anymore.

    SR: That’s quite a paradox.

    PB: It’s not a paradox; it’s a complication. It simply shows that violent crime rates are not determined by the prevalence of guns. A lot of social phenomena are a lot more complex than they seem at first. Why are there disparities in academic performance based on race or membership in ethnic groups? The answer is not simple. The fact that it’s not simple doesn’t mean it’s a paradox: it means it’s not simple.

    The idea that you should make it legally harder to buy a gun and limit the type of gun that can be purchased or categories of people permitted to buy the guns, and that this will have a direct effect on crime has just become a very, very hard argument to make with a straight face. Something is causing crime to go down, and it’s not greater gun control because gun control is actually loosening.

    In other words, there’s more going on. The debate has been more complex and there are very few prominent Democratic politicians in this environment willing to take the political risk of the guaranteed backlash from pro-gun forces of proposing restrictions on lawful gun ownership.

    SR: President Obama is in a difficult position because if he comes out and says something against guns, then he risks that backlash.

    PB: He guarantees it.

    SR: But if he stays mute on the issue, like he mostly has regarding the recent events, or has not proposed any gun control measures, then he risks backlash from his own party.

    PB: Yes.

    SR: Is this why maybe Mitt Romney and Obama are quiet on the gun control debate?

    PB: Republicans are quiet because they don’t favor more gun control.

    Democrats, in part because of the shift in crime rates, in part because of the foolishness of the gun control movement and its mistakes, and in part just because of the evolution of American politics, are in a no win situation in relation to guns. They’ve had lessons at the polling booths where guns have tripped them up. Bill Clinton observed that one of the big reasons the control of Congress shifted for the first time in 50 years from Democrats to Republicans in 1994 was the enactment of the Assault Weapons Ban. It doesn’t mean or shouldn’t mean that enacting the A.W.B. was the wrong thing to do — which I happen to think was the wrong thing to do, on the merits — but there was just a huge political price for it.

    In 2000, it is quite plausible to argue George W. Bush was elected president over Al Gore not because of the quirks of election technology in Florida, but because of the Assault Weapons Ban.

    SR: Even Gore couldn’t carry his own state.

    PB: Gore couldn’t even carry his own border states. He’s from a gun state, but he lost Tennessee, he lost Arkansas (Bill Clinton’s state), and he lost West Virginia. If he had won those three states, and apart from guns he really ought to have won, Florida would have been irrelevant. Those lessons are very deeply felt. If you want to know why Obama is mute in the wake of mass shootings, why Obama — even though he’s made bland statements about reinstating the Assault Weapons Ban — did nothing about that once he got to office, it’s about those political lessons.

    Democrats can’t invoke rising crime rates. Anti-gun people can’t talk about rising crime rates and more murders, when in fact the big cities are actually safer. This tends to shift this attention, understandably, to mass shootings. The problem is: in some ways the mass shootings are a particularly difficult social issue to address via restrictions on marketing and sales of lawful firearms. Why? It’s not an economic situation. It is very hard to identify, in my view, legislative restrictions on lawful gun ownership that would have any real effect on the mass-shooting situation. Focused, competent evil is a very hard force to legislate against.

    SR: So the mass shooting incident becomes a red herring gun debate.

    PB: It’s a red herring if you acknowledge that we’re not talking about gun confiscation, if you acknowledge that there’s almost a gun for every adult citizen in this country, and if you acknowledge that it’s too late to do anything about that. If you don’t acknowledge these things, I would invite you to have the debate about gun confiscation. If you want to have that debate, then I think you really ought to stay out of those southern states. Try to talk about taking guns away from people in this country? Revolt. We’ll recede to a situation that we normally see in places like Afghanistan.

    SR: During the nineties and perhaps the eighties, citizens, companies, municipalities brought suit against Glock. It didn’t go very far.

    PB: Another illustration, by the way, of gun control efforts having the opposite effect. Those lawsuits are most helpfully understood as gun control by other means. They were based on legal theories which were questionable from the start and were, in that sense, a less extreme version of trying to ban Glock based on the assertion it would become the “hijacker’s special.”

    SR: With recent Supreme Court rulings about corporations being equivalent to people, it’s implausible, you would suggest, to bring a suit against Glock or other gun manufacturers for manslaughter or degrees of murder?

    PB: The short answer is yes. It’s implausible, off the table, out of the question. No one was ever accusing the gun industry of the actual crimes, manslaughter or murder, because in all of these cases you had criminals, you had triggermen; there was an intermediary. To prove murder you need to prove intent or to prove manslaughter you need to prove reckless indifference to human life. Those are hard things to prove against the manufacturer who is making an entirely lawful product and saying, “We follow all of the civil regulations that are imposed on us. We may not like all of them, but we follow them. “

    In the 1990s, the municipal litigation that you are referring to was brought on the theory that either there was something about the design of guns that was negligent, or the marketing of guns — the way they were sold — that was reckless, which should make the manufacturers libel for the misuse of guns. The main legal reason those lawsuits failed was the judiciary — state and federal judges — did not accept the theory that you could erase out of the equation the role of the people misusing guns. They found the chain of liability, the chain of culpability, broken by the misbehavior of the criminal, or in the case of suicide, the person pulling the trigger and killing themselves. Someone had to pull the trigger. The lawsuits failed on those grounds.

    And they failed on democratic grounds.

    SR: What do you mean?

    PB: We passed laws that banned the lawsuits, which are still in place. Many states passed laws that said in our state you cannot sue gun manufacturers. And then Congress passed such a law in 2005. So right now, that’s a lost battle.


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    LARB Contributor

    Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Books Critics Circle.


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