Light Triggers, Hefty Profits

The Glock handgun has a storied history of going off unexpectedly, sometimes killing innocent bystanders. So why does US law enforcement love it so? And how has that adoration helped a flood of old police sidearms and confiscated weapons end up in the hands of criminals?


(This is a corrected version of this article.)

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Handguns made by Glock Inc. have a nasty reputation for accidental firing and “overfiring.” The gun has figured in many of the recent mass shootings in the US, and the company itself, along with 14 other gun manufacturers, is being sued by several US cities that hope to recoup losses from gun violence.

Yet for such a troubled gun, it remains enormously popular among “peace officers”: The Glock 9mm and .40- and .45-caliber pistols are the guns of choice among America’s law enforcement agencies; 65 percent of US law enforcement officers have Glocks in their holsters. That is by design: The company’s CEO told Advertising Age in 1995 that targeting US police first was part of an orchestrated plan to gradually move into the civilian market. The Violence Policy Center has called Glock’s marketing to US police “hyperagressive” and “excessive,” especially because of the dubious trade-in deals the company offers: Cops can often trade in their old sidearms and any guns they’ve seized from criminals in exchange for new Glocks. Glock, in turn, sells the trade-ins on the civilian market.


Trigger finger

In 1988, the FBI predicted that the Glock’s sensitive trigger and lack of external safeties would “inevitably … lead to an unintentional shot at the worst moment.” Indeed, 11 years later, the Washington DC Police Department alone had had 120 accidental firings, 19 officers had wounded themselves or others with Glocks, and the district had paid $1.4 million in damages from resulting lawsuits related to Glock accidents. In one case, an officer shot and killed an unarmed teen at a DC roadblock. Another officer accidentally shot and killed an unarmed motorist during a routine traffic stop. One DC cop accidentally shot his own roommate.

The Louisville, Ky. Police Department adopted the Glock just last year. Within six months, five Louisville police guns fired accidentally. One bullet hit a truck. Another officer’s gun fired while he was leaning over to tie his shoe laces. After the third misfire, Louisville police rushed to defend their new Glocks, declaring the gun not guilty in the third incident — the officer’s gun went off accidentally as he was attacked by a man who had fled a routine traffic stop. Rather than bagging the gun, the department implemented new training in gun safety. Several more accidents followed almost immediately, the fifth an errant bullet accidentally wounding an officer’s son.

In New York City, where 70 percent of the police force uses Glocks, the problem is not so much accidental shootings (although eight officers have accidentally wounded themselves), but overkill. According to a study in one New Zealand newspaper, New York City police officers armed with Glocks fired an average of 4.8 rounds in gunfights while those with revolvers fired 2.4 in 1994.

After 100 bullets were fired in stopping a robbery in the Bronx in 1995, New York City police officials briefly investigated “overfiring” of the Glock but decided to keep it anyway.

Even the FBI, despite its earlier dark forecasts on the Glock, adopted it as a standard-issue pistol in 1998. The MoJo Wire confronted the agency about the 1988 report panning the Glock. In response, FBI Firearms Training Unit Chief Wade Jackson, Jr. (from whose division the 1988 report originated) wrote in impeccable bureaucratese: “What may have been mentioned at one point in time, given a lapse of more than 10 years, may no longer be accurate in statements or conclusions drawn which are not supported by empirical facts as exist presently.”

He continued, “The Glock pistol, in the FBI’s experience, has demonstrated safe and effective performance when accompanied by proper training, correct usage, care, and maintenance habits.”

While police departments hasten to defend the gun after every misspent bullet, Josh Horwitz of the Firearms Litigation Clearinghouse says the Glock has been the subject of more lawsuits for accidental deaths than any other gun he’s tracked in the past 10 years.

Horwitz cites the absence of an external safety, the gun’s “light and short trigger pull” and the fact that it will fire even with the magazine removed as the combination that makes the Glock an unnecessarily hazardous gun.

“The Glock is always on,” says Horwitz, referring to the absence of an external safety. “It increases the already great risk that someone is going to be injured when there’s a gun around.”

So why the police loyalty to such a seemingly flawed, unpredictable, and embattled sidearm?


A gun is born

Glock’s success with US law enforcement began with the invention of the Glock 9mm. Its inventor, Gaston Glock, began his professional life as an engineer. Firme Glock, based in the sleepy town of Deutsch-Wagram, Austria, began by making door knobs and hinges, then expanded into military and police hardware, including grenades.

In 1980, the Austrian Army held a contest, inviting entrepreneurs to design a new weapon, appropriate for standard issue in the military. Glock, who had never before made a gun, won the competition, and a contract, with the first of the Glock 9mms.

The design of the Glock 9mm was and remains revolutionary. Its plastic frame makes it much lighter on the hip than a traditional revolver. It has minimal recoil, and a gentle pull on the trigger cocks the gun and disengages the safeties. In other words, the gun cocks and arms itself as you pull the trigger to fire. That enables the shooter to fire multiple rounds in a much shorter time.

These virtues have made the Glock 9mm the handgun of choice for many law enforcers, especially in urban areas where crime is rife and criminals often well-armed.

According to former Washington DC police weapons instruction supervisor Lt. Jeffrey Herold, the main reason the department switched to the Glock was that it “put us on a par with what the bad guys were using.”

When the bad guys are packing semiautomatic and automatic weapons, cops want a lightweight, accurate sidearm that shoots a lot of bullets in short order. They don’t have time to manually cock and uncock their weapons, and the Glock saves them that effort. The 9mm carries as many as 18 rounds, which means that, for all practical purposes, police officers will never have to pause in the midst of a gun fight to reload. If they do, reloading the Glock is fast and easy. And the Glock rarely jams.

But skeptics wonder whether, outside big, urban crime centers like New York City, police are all that likely to engage in all-out gun battles. By one estimate, only one in 170 police officers nationwide has been involved in a shooting.

Glock National Sales Representative Jim Pledger says the gun’s simplicity “makes sense for the time.” It’s simple to shoot and low-maintenance. The Glock’s polymer frame won’t crack, corrode, or rust, Pledger says. And it’s relatively inexpensive, which is a boon to most police department budgets.

It’s also an adaptable weapon. The Glock’s trigger weight and magazine capacity can be modified. When a police department negotiates a deal with Glock, it can specify the weight of its trigger pull. According to Pledger, the NYPD’s Glocks have a relatively heavy trigger pull similar to that of a revolver. (We asked the FBI if it had modified its Glocks in a similar manner, but received no response.) A heavier trigger requires more pressure to cause the gun to fire. Glock also offers law enforcement an array of magazine sizes, which vary depending on the model. For a .45-caliber Glock, for example, a 10-bullet magazine is available to consumers, while a larger 13-bullet magazine is available only to law-enforcement. The law enforcement 9mm magazine, by contrast, can carry as many as 18 bullets.

Former New York police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had the NYPD Glock .45 magazines reconfigured to hold only 10 bullets, long before the slaying of Amadou Diallo. When he left the department in 1993, the restriction was lifted, he says in a recent New York Times editorial in response to Diallo’s killing.

There are ample opportunities for private gun enthusiasts to modify the Glock for an especially sensitive trigger. GlockMania.com aggressively markets many customizing devices to private buyers. The site offers, for example, a “Trigger Tuning Kit,” which consumers can use to customize the trigger weight on their guns. (Glock Inc., itself, doesn’t distribute any wholesale accessories that allow civilians to modify their Glocks’ trigger pulls.)


Back on the streets

Most police departments have a warehouse full of decomissioned police guns and weapons confiscated during criminal arrests, which, at least most of us probably assume, are on their way to be destroyed. Well, Glock has other plans for them.

“Glock is notorious for pushing its high-powered, high-capacity pistols on law enforcement agencies,” said Tom Diaz, a senior policy analyst with the Violence Policy Center, in a press release last August, after the Furrow tragedy. “Unfortunately, some police departments dump their old guns on the civilian market …. The tragedy is that many of Glock’s police sales are unnecessary, really intended to stimulate buyers in the bigger civilian market.”

Gaston Glock himself is on the record confirming essentially that; in 1995, he told Advertising Age that “it was a conscious decision to go after the law enforcement market first — In marketing terms, we assumed that, by pursuing the law enforcement market, we would then receive the benefits of ‘after sales’ in the commercial market.”

Glock has struck some especially sweet trade deals with a number of law enforcement agencies all over the country: Give us your stash of old confiscated guns, Glock says, and we’ll outfit your department with some sleek new Glocks. The New Orleans police, for example, traded 7,200 confiscated weapons — some with their serial numbers filed off — and their own old 9mm pistols to Glock for 1,700 new, more powerful Glock .40-caliber pistols.

The terms of many of these trade agreements allow Glock to resell the confiscated weapons to civilians, sometimes flooding the market with low-quality guns at rock-bottom prices. Some quickly end up back in the hands of criminals.

  • The 9mm Glock Buford Furrow (who fired into a Jewish Community Center filled with children in Los Angeles in August) used to kill postal worker Joseph Ileto had been a Cosmopolis, Wash. police officer’s gun, and was traded to a local gun shop in 1996.

  • One of the confiscated guns the New Orleans police traded in for its new Glocks turned out to be a key piece of evidence in a string of murders in the city. Only parts of that gun have been recovered.

  • The Washington Post recently reported that a number of former DC police weapons — mostly Colts and Smith & Wessons which had been traded for new 9mm Glocks — had been used in 107 different crimes in the past decade, including at least eight murders, three robberies, and 12 assault cases.

The Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans has been perhaps the most vocal citizen group to protest the gun swaps. The group’s president, Rafael Goyeneche, explains that the commission spearheaded a Guns Hotline in conjunction with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) several years ago. The hotline encourages the public to report illegal firearms in the New Orleans area. They are reported to the ATF, which works with local police to confiscate the weapons.

Over a five-year period, the program helped get nearly 600 guns off the streets. Yet among the weapons traded to Glock by the police were some of the guns confiscated by the Guns Hotline. Some of the New Orleans guns Glock resold have been banned from import since 1994, but are still legal to sell domestically.

A city investigation into the Glock trades resulted in the accusation that New Orleans Police Chief Richard Pennington had violated federal firearms laws by trading guns with filed-off serial numbers. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, however, says the city investigators misinterpreted the federal law.

Goyeneche says that the commission had never stipulated that the confiscated weapons be destroyed, but that was certainly the citizen group’s expectation.

“The long standing history was to destroy all firearms,” says Goyeneche. “Many of the weapons reintroduced by the trade are illegal to import and are dangerous. We felt it was a betrayal of the trust we put in the police department.”

Goyeneche was hardly placated by the caveat in the swap that the trade-ins were not to be resold in Louisiana, especially when some of the confiscated weapons found their way back into the state’s gun shops within the month anyway.

Ironically, New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, who has defended the swaps, has spearheaded a countrywide trend in which cities are suing gun manufacturers seeking to recoup the cost of treating gunshot victims and investigating gun crimes.

Another notorious trade deal was the one Glock made with the Law Enforcement Division (LED) of New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. In 1990, the LED traded in its standard-issue Smith & Wesson revolvers for Glock 9mms, pistols which can easily last a lifetime. (Rangers who enforce hunting and fishing ordinances and occasionally shoot wildlife had been deemed to need state-of-the-art weaponry.) Only three years later, the LED upgraded to the Glock .40-caliber pistol. A 1996 article in The Buffalo News revealed that Glock’s contract with the LED allowed the officers to buy back their traded in weapons at prices far below retail. A number of officers turned around and sold these guns on the private market for a personal profit.

The New York State Inspector General called the sales “premature,” “dubious,” and “highly questionable,” and slammed the Glock salesman who engineered the deal for calling the guns “the new toys.”

In New York, as elsewhere, it can be difficult to quantify the scope of the back-to-criminals phenomenon. “There is no way to know how many of these bootleg guns ended up in the hands of criminals, but a New York State Assemblyman traced down three that were confiscated in connection with criminal activity,” writes Tom Diaz in the book “Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America.”


The verdict

The Glock also has figured large in some recent mass shootings, beyond the Buford Furrow incident in Los Angeles. Kip Kinkel of Springfield, Ore. used a Glock handgun among others in his high-school rampage last May. A Glock was among the guns Mark Barton packed in his duffel as he prepared for his attack on day-trading firms in Atlanta in July.

Of course, any gun can kill. Glock is but one of 15 gun manufacturers that several US cities (Atlanta, New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati among them) are suing for crime deaths and injury involving handgun use.

Brooke Shelby Biggs contributed to this report.