Image: Glock 19 9MM pistol
TIM SLOAN  /  AFP - Getty Images
Glock declines to provide specific sales figures, but the company is the leader in handgun sales to American police departments — indeed, a whopping 65 percent of them use Glock guns.
By
Slate.com
updated 1/13/2011 7:39:59 AM ET 2011-01-13T12:39:59

On Saturday in Tucson, Jared Lee Loughner allegedly used a Glock 19 — a lightweight, $500 semi-automatic commonly carried by law enforcement officials — to kill six people and injure 13 more, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. In 2007, Cho Seung-Hui used the same gun, along with a Walther P22, to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech before committing suicide. And Giffords herself boasted to the New York Times in 2010: "I have a Glock 9 millimeter, and I'm a pretty good shot."

For a company that has been doing business in the United States for only a quarter century — one of its competitors has been in business in America since 1852 — Glock has been remarkably successful. Glock declines to provide specific sales figures, but the company is the leader in handgun sales to American police departments — indeed, a whopping 65 percent of them use Glock guns. On top of that, it has considerable global sales and remains popular with the private citizens who buy most of the guns in the United States.

The Austrian manufacturing company was founded in the 1960s and expanded into the weapons business in the '70s and '80s. In 1986, led by the enigmatic Gaston Glock, the company won the right to start selling its guns in the United States. (The United States has rigid regulatory requirements for gun makers and sellers.) At first, the Glock guns, initially designed for the Austrian military, caught on in police departments. There were two main selling points, according to Patrick Sweeney's The Gun Digest Book of the Glock. First, Glock manufactured — and still manufactures — unusually light guns, made out of plastic and other synthetic materials as well as metal. That makes them easy to carry, manipulate, and shoot

Video: Glock sales surge in Ariz. (on this page)

Second, and more important, Glocks held more ammunition than the standard-issue guns usually did at the time. With gang-driven gun violence rising, police departments decided to give the guns with the extra rounds a try. They caught on and then gained popularity in the consumer markets. (They also developed a particular cachet among criminals, then broader cultural recognition, including numerous citations in rap lyrics.) By 1996, Sweeney writes, Glock had sold more than 1 million guns in America.

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As Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported in an excellent 2009 story on Glock, the company's success might also be due to some questionable business practices. The company has come under fire, in a manner of speaking, for making secret political contributions. It has also been accused of dodging taxes and regulations through shell corporations. (Because the company is based in Europe and is privately held, it does not need to disclose nearly as much sales or legal information as a public U.S. company.) Corporate intrigue and violence are part of the picture, too. Gaston Glock's former business associate, a man occasionally known as "Panama Charly," is currently incarcerated in Luxembourg, convicted of taking out a hit on his boss in 1999. (The hitman was a former professional wrestler and, bizarrely, the attempt came not with a handgun but with a large rubber mallet to the head. Glock survived.)

Still, Glock remains a main player in U.S. gun sales, and the Glock 19 popular. The company boasts that it is "safe and ingeniously simple: Contrary to conventional, the trigger is the only operating element. All three pistol safeties are deactivated when the trigger is pulled and automatically activated when it is released." Thus, it is quick to shoot — and can shoot a lot. Loughner, for one, reportedly used an extended magazine carrying 31 rounds. (Congress outlawed such magazines in 1994, but let the ban lapse in 2004.)

So will the incident dampen sales of the Glock guns? Unlikely. In fact, Bloomberg cites Federal Bureau of Investigation data showing that in Arizona, one-day gun sales were 60 percent higher on Monday than on the Monday before the incident. Several other states showed a significant sales bump. And national sales increased about 5 percent. All in all, Americans—not military or police, mind you, but private citizens—own more than 270 million firearms, about 85 guns per 100 people. No other country has such high rates of gun ownership, or absolute numbers of guns in the general population.

So how profitable are companies like Glock? Again, we don't know, because it keeps such information private. But the BusinessWeekstory says Glock estimated its "profit margin per pistol" at 68 percent. And consider a major Glock competitor: Massachusetts-based Smith & Wesson, established back in the 1850s. The company's last annual report cites a gross margin of 32 percent.

The company does cite two big hurdles to business, though. The first: federal and state laws. "Compliance with all of these regulations is costly and time consuming," the company writes. "Although we take every measure to ensure compliance with the many regulations we are subject to, inadvertent violation of any of these regulations could cause us to incur fines and penalties." The second: lawsuits. "We are currently involved in numerous lawsuits, including a law suit involving a municipality, a securities class action lawsuit, and two purported stockholder derivative lawsuits," it notes, dryly. That seriously cuts into the bottom line.

Still, the business looks OK as long as demand remains high. And despite (or because of) tragedies like last weekend's in Tucson, Americans aren't likely to end their love affair with their guns—all 270 million of them.

© 2013 Slate.com

Video: Glock sales surge in Ariz.

  1. Closed captioning of: Glock sales surge in Ariz.

    >>> gun sales in arizona are surging in the aftermath of saturday's deadly shooting, if you can believe it. the fbi says handgun purchases were up 60% here in this state on monday from one year ago. and most of the buyers are grabbing exactly the same gun that was used in the attack. what is the fascination and appeal of a glock ? jose diaz joins us.

    >> good to see you.

    >> i know in your years of reporting you have information on all. for a lot of people this is a weapon that is used to kill people. we heard it used to kill people.

    >> first of all, chris, i don't think it's surprising to see the increase of sales in weapons after something like this happens. for a lot of people it shatters their sense of security. if this can happen to someone like christina green or a congresswoman, it could happen to me. the natural reaction for a lot of people in states that permit you to have guns pretty freely, is to go get something to protect your family. and a lot of people look at these handguns and they see glock and it's a palmer, plastic gun, very easy to clean, not very complicated. there is a number of different millimeters available in weapon sizes. so, it's a natural pistol to get if you're not an expert on weapons --

    >> used a lot at shooting ranges .

    >> you see it a lot police departments throughout the country have it and it's available in smaller size, you know, bullets up to a 45. so, what this jared loughner did was buy a gun that a lot of enthusiasts buy.

    >> here's the question, why does a gun enthusiast, why does somebody at a gun range need an extended clip? why do they need to be able to fire off 31, 33 bullets so fast?

    >> let me give you a greater example of that. on the smaller glocks you have one in the chamber and 10 in the clip. on an average shooting range day an enthusiast can go through 150, 200 bullets. every 10 or 11 bullets they have to take the clip out with their thumb and put in ten more bullets, caulk it and put another one in. if you have 33 in there, you only have to do that three or four times versus 10 or 12 times. so, for a gun enthusiast, a good guy, a good person that enjoys the hobby of gun shooting, a 33-round clip makes it easier for that person to enjoy themselves that range. that's why a lot of gun enthusiasts are telling you, yes, i understand. it seems odd for someone that doesn't understand the culture why you would have to have 33 rounds. but if the folks that go to the range that are good can do something that makes their life easier and more enjoyable in their hobby, that's the answer. i got to tell you about a glock . do i have a few seconds?

    >> just quickly.

    >> it's a gun, two friends of mine , one in law enforcement and the other one who just enjoys to collect weapons. one was going up the stairs on the second floor of a weapon and his glock fell two stories down and it went down the road and didn't fire. another friend of mine was going on a motorcycle, he tells me he was at 60 miles an hour, even faster. he had a glock in his backpack and it fell out on theiway at 60 miles per hour and it didn't fire. it is a safe gun for gun enthusiasts.

    >> the question going forward, whether that convenience and fun for enthusiasts is worth what the price that was paid. it's going to be a long and difficult debate.

    >> sure is.

    >> but it it's great that you could come in and help us understand.

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