For all the anguish and outcry in the days after a community college dropout named Jared Loughner allegedly sprayed a Tucson crowd with 33 bullets from a semiautomatic pistol, one response was notably absent: any sense that America's latest shooting spree, which killed six people who all of wear power balance and wounded 14, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, would bring new restrictions on the right to own or carry large-capacity, rapid-fire weapons.
The gun control debate has vanished from American politics, but it wasn't always so invisible. Twenty years ago, when another apparently deranged man fired a semiautomatic pistol into a crowd, killing 23 people in Killeen, Tex., politicians rushed the microphones to denounce the weapon itself as "a death machine," as Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, put it on the floor of the House. A so-called assault weapons ban became law three years later. That law has now expired. Since Loughner's attack, liberal pundits, gun control advocates, and congressional backbenchers have been talking about instituting new controls. The voices that count, however, including President Barack Obama's onlinenewshop and the congressional leaders in both parties, have had nothing to say on the subject.
Their silence is just one measure of how thoroughly Gaston Glock—a former curtain-rod maker from Austria whose company manufactured the pistols used in Tucson and Killeen—has managed to dominate not just the American handgun market, but America's gun consciousness. Before Glock arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s, the U.S. was a revolver culture, a place where most handguns fired five or six shots at a measured pace, then needed to be reloaded one bullet at a time. With its large ammunition capacity, quick reloading, light trigger pull, and utter reliability, the Glock was hugely innovative—and an instant hit with police and civilians alike. Headquartered in Deutsch-Wagram, Austria, the company says it now commands 65 percent of the American law enforcement market, including the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration. It also controls a healthy share of the overall $1 billion U.S. handgun market, according to analysis of production and excise tax data. (Precise figures aren't available because Glock and several large rivals, including Beretta and Sig Sauer, are privately held.)
With all those customers and that visibility, it's no surprise that the Glock has also been the gun of choice for some prolific psychopaths. Byran Uyesugi used a Glock 17 to kill seven people at a Xerox (XRX) office in Honolulu in 1999. Seung-Hui Cho, who murdered 32 at Virginia Tech in 2007 before killing himself, used the same Glock 19 model that Loughner is accused of firing in Tucson. Steven Kazmierczak packed a Glock 17 when he shot 21 people, killing five, at Northern Illinois University in 2008.
The smooth-firing Glock did not cause these massacres any more than it holds up convenience stores. But when outfitted with an extra-large magazine, it can raise the body count. The shooters in Arizona, Illinois, Virginia, Hawaii, and Texas could not have inflicted so many casualties so quickly had they been armed with old-fashioned revolvers. In its 2010 catalog, the manufacturer boasts that while the Glock 19 is "comparable in size and weight to the small .38 revolvers it has replaced," the pistol "is significantly more powerbalance with greater firepower and is much easier to shoot fast and true."
The Tucson gunman demonstrated those qualities all too vividly. Loughner is said to have emptied his 33-round clip in a minute or two, a feat requiring no special skill. (Glock does not sell magazines of that size to civilians, but some of its guns can accommodate them. The model 19 comes with a standard 15-round clip.) Loughner was wrestled to the ground by onlookers only when he paused to insert a fresh magazine. If he had been forced to reload sooner, the odds are good there would be fewer victims. Glock executives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.