Glock, designed for Austrian army, taken up by police and criminals

April 10, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

VIENNA, Austria -- When fear stalks the streets of Vienna, Bernhard Lampl's little gun shop is there to calm frazzled nerves. His offerings include the Glock 17, the locally made semiautomatic handgun that is light, durable, easy to operate and fits nicely into just about any bedside table.

Mr. Lampl will gladly sell one to any Austrian adult. After a five-week wait, of course. Provided the customer doesn't have a criminal record. Limit: two per person. And unless the buyer already owns two handguns, in which case, he has to trade one in for every Glock.

"It is a problem for us," Mr. Lampl says of Austria's restrictions on buying handguns.

Another problem might be that fear hardly ever stalks the streets of Vienna. Although Austrians have grown anxious about foreigners who've moved here since the fall of the Iron Curtain ("Most of the crime is committed by foreigners," Mr. Lampl says), by U.S. standards violent crime is nonexistent.

There were 45 murders involving handguns in this country of 7.5 million people in 1992, and 138 armed robberies. Baltimore racks up similar numbers in about a month and a half.

With this weak market for personal gun sales in Austria, Glock does virtually no advertising in its home country. In fact, Glock does "almost zero advertising outside the United States," says company marketing director Peter Brock.

In the United States, publicity and notoriety have helped put the Glock 17 on the top 10 list of firearms most often traced after use in crimes, according to federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Glock, based just northeast of Vienna in Deutsch-Wagram, began in 1982 with a single mission -- to make a strong, lightweight handgun for the Austrian army. The resulting gun was the Glock 17, and it won so many rave reviews that other armies and police departments ordered thousands more.

Glock expanded, so that in the United States alone about 4,000 police departments are now armed by Glock. The company builds nine models of plastic semiautomatic handguns in Austria.

But Glock wouldn't have become one of the the world's three leading handgun manufacturers without branching into the lucrative consumer market in the United States. With U.S. gun laws far less restrictive than those in Austria and the rest of Europe, Glock's sales curve has risen as U.S. crime rates have climbed.

One can chart Glock's sales only in general terms, because the company won't release any numbers. Mr. Brock cites "competitive reasons" for the secrecy, but the company is also squeamish about publicity that demonstrates the popularity of Glock guns with criminals.

Mr. Brock asked an interviewer "to not bring us into connection with any bad things which we don't have anything to do with."

He added, "As long as you offer any gun to the commercial market, we as a manufacturer cannot have 100 percent control over who will use it."

One way would be to stop selling except to police departments and armies.

"We would like to do this," Mr. Brock says, "but it is not commercially possible. . . . If you sell to the Dutch army, that's it for 30 years for that customer.

"People always look at what the police carry," he says. "They reason, 'If the gun is good enough for the sheriff, then it is good enough for me.' "

Free publicity also helps. Mr. Brock has two thick green binders filled with recent stories in international gun magazines about various Glock products. A British magazine, Guns and Shooting, offered a cover story about the Glock 20, headlined, "Plastic Fantastic!"

Glock also advertises in these magazines, almost exclusively in the United States. The only way to find a Glock ad in Mr. Lampl's Vienna gun shop is to look into some of the U.S. gun magazines for sale by the cash register. Five of the eight magazines offered, including Guns and Ammo, are American.

Movies also boost Glock sales, especially when a Glock gun has a prominent supporting role. Mr. Brock saw a Glock when he went to see "The Fugitive," and he knew sales would benefit.

"Of course I am glad when I see this," he says. "But they have chosen it freely themselves. Glock has never paid. And again, it is out of our control whether they use it for the good guy or the bad guy."

Mr. Brock doesn't believe his country's lower crime rates are related to lower gun sales. The statistical relationship is similar in the rest of Europe, where tighter gun control laws have resulted in few people owning handguns, and murders by handgun are almost unheard of.

But Mr. Brock says it would be absurd to blame rising gun sales for rising crime rates in the United States. "The crime wouldn't be going down if we were selling fewer guns," he says. "The criminals will always have guns, and it is not right to take them away from good people."

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