Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun"

By Robert VerBruggen - Special to The Washington Times
January 23, 2012

By Paul M. Barrett
Crown, $26, 291 pages

It must be hard to write a corporate history that makes for gripping reading, but Paul M. Barrett has done just that with “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.” Of course, he’s aided by the fact that Glock is no ordinary company; it makes a fascinating and deadly product, and its story features everything from come-from-behind victories to strippers to an assassination attempt. But with a readable prose style, a strong sense of narrative and a knack for brevity - “Glock” weighs in at fewer than 300 pages, index and all - Mr. Barrett offers a penetrating look at a company that revolutionized the firearms industry.

The underdog tale of how Gaston Glock - a 50-year-old radiator manufacturer who’d never made a gun before - won the right to make guns for the Austrian army in the early 1980s and brought the weapon to America with the help of a man who traveled the country selling guns from a recreational vehicle, will warm the heart of anyone who has one. And the engineering particulars will have gun nuts drooling: Mr. Barrett explains, in layman’s terms but with plenty of detail, what makes Glock guns so special.

Glocks are lighter than most other pistols because they are made largely of plastic rather than metal. They have far fewer parts, which means fewer opportunities for malfunction. They are designed to feel more natural in the hand. They have a light, steady trigger pull, and the safety is built into the trigger itself - the mechanism keeps the gun from firing by accident, but a police officer or a citizen faced with an armed attacker won’t forget whether his safety is on or fumble while trying to disengage it.

It’s hardly surprising that Americans went crazy for the product. Police departments began feeling outgunned after a high-profile 1986 Miami shootout left several FBI agents - who had wielded old-school revolvers - dead. They placed large orders, and Glock was happy to give steep discounts to law enforcement. Hollywood featured the guns in countless movies.

Political controversy only helped the fledgling company. Some activists were concerned that Glocks, being mostly plastic, would be difficult to detect via airport security. In arguing for a Glock ban, they touted one experiment in which a man managed to get a disassembled Glock past screeners. Of course, they never bothered to mention that a standard metal weapon made it through in the same experiment - indicating that lazy screeners, not the plastic material of the Glock, had created the problem. American firearms enthusiasts rally to the defense of any gun maker who is threatened with needless legislation, so the uproar was a boon to Glock.

Mr. Barrett lays out all of this - which is one reason the book is such a worthwhile effort. Mr. Barrett is no gun nut, but unlike many journalists who write about firearms, he bothers to nail his facts down before committing words to paper. You won’t catch him implying that the “assault weapons” ban was needed to keep criminals away from fully automatic machine guns. He can sound condescending from time to time - he seems baffled that a law-abiding citizen would want to carry a firearm despite the “small chance of being the unlucky customer paying for a Slurpee when a bad guy attacks” - but these missteps are entirely forgivable given the overall high quality of his reporting.

This is no love letter to Glock, of course. There are sordid elements in the company’s history. Once Gaston Glock hit the big time, he adopted a bizarre lifestyle that blended the personality of a corporate titan (mistresses, expensive meals) with elements of his frugal, humble former self. (He once chewed out a secretary for buying a headset to answer the phone more efficiently.) The company itself developed a reputation for bringing important customers to the Gold Club, an Atlanta strip joint; it even hired one of the dancers to draw attention at gun shows. (When the woman went through Glock’s training course, the company refused to tell her classmates - mostly from law enforcement - who she was. They figured she was CIA.)

Mr. Glock had a shady acquaintance set up shell corporations to avoid taxes; when Mr. Glock discovered that the man was embezzling money, the man hired an assassin, who made a bizarre and unsuccessful attempt on Mr. Glock’s life. Other employees stole as well.

One of the company’s most cynical moves - but also one of its funniest to a gun rights supporter - was its response to a law that forbade companies to sell ammunition magazines that held more than 10 rounds. The law didn’t apply to magazines manufactured before the ban went into effect, which therefore became extremely valuable. So, Glock offered its customer police departments - which also were exempt from the legislation - brand-new pistols to replace their current ones (which often were not more than a few years old). Those old guns and their magazines could be sold legally, and for a significant markup, thanks to the fact that they had been manufactured pre-ban.

It’s rare for a nonfiction book to read like a thriller, but that’s what happens with “Glock.” The book covers an intriguing and important topic, and it does so with panache and accuracy. Anyone interested in guns or gun control should read it.

- Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor of National Review.

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