WASHINGTON — Glorified by rappers, institutionalized by law enforcement and vilified by gun-control advocates, Glock semi-automatic pistols are the just latest iconic firearm to strike blows for good and for evil in the U.S.
The .45-caliber Colt pistol that helped lawmen tame the west was also the gun of choice for many outlaws a century ago.
Prohibition-era gangsters, and the G-men that chased them, both preferred Thompson submachine guns, or "Tommy Guns." And after violent drug smugglers began using UZI submachine guns in the 1980s, narcotics officers followed suit to increase their firepower.
Glock pistols may not have a similar niche in U.S. criminal justice lore, but they've built a strong reputation with the military and police worldwide.
In fact, the manufacturer of the Glock claims 65 percent of U.S. law enforcement agencies carry its weapons.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently inked a 10-year $40 million deal to make two Glock .40-caliber pistols standard issue for the department's 2,500 sworn ATF agents.
"Glock is proud to have been competitively selected by the ATF for this contract," company vice president Josh Dorsey said in a statement. "Glock's focus remains on providing safe, simple and fast pistols to those that go in harm's way to protect the freedom that we all currently enjoy."
But that street cred with police hasn't gone unnoticed by criminals, who've helped make the Austria-based Glock a notorious brand among serial killers.
Police say that accused Arizona gunman Jared Lee Loughner used a Glock 19 to kill six and wound numerous others in the Tucson shooting spree that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded.
"Obviously our prayers go out to all the people who were hurt and their families," Dorsey said Wednesday.
Seung-Hui Cho also used a Glock 9mm pistol to kill 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech in 2007, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Steven Kazmierczak had a Glock and two other weapons when he opened fire on a crowded lecture hall at Northern Illinois University in 2008, killing six people, including himself.
And in 1991 George Jo Hennard used a Glock and Ruger to kill 23 people and wound 20 others at a restaurant in Killeen, Texas, before he shot himself to death.
Kevin Michalowski, the senior editor of Gun Digest Magazine, said these and other incidents aren't an indictment of Glock.
"I would venture that a survey of guns recovered from criminals or at crime scenes would show no clear indications that criminals prefer one brand of weapon over another," Michalowski said in an e-mail. "Glocks are very expensive compared to some other brands on the market."
But Glock's role in infamous crimes and their seemingly constant presence in movies and on television have fueled a mystique about the weapons.
"Most times in movies and on television when people see an officer draw a weapon, it's a Glock. And life imitates art. So that makes it an attractive weapon to criminals who can get them," said Scott Knight, the chief of the Chaska, Minn., police department and the chairman of the firearms committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The 25 officers on the Chaska department have a choice of carrying a Glock, a Smith & Wesson, a SIG Sauer or a Beretta. All but three carry Glocks, Knight said.
A former firearms instructor, Knight said Glock's popularity with police could be summed up in three words: "Reliability, durability and simplicity."
"It's an amazing weapon," he said, emphasizing that he has no business ties to Glock. "It takes your average shooter and makes them a good shooter and it takes a good shooter and makes them excellent."
Michalowski said Glock's polymer construction makes them lighter and easier to carry than standard handguns.
"This is especially true for police officers, when every ounce on the duty belt at the start of a shift feels like 10 ounces at the end," Michalowski said.
Company promotional material says Glocks work in "salt water, sludge, sand, merciless heat or Arctic temperatures."
And releasing the trigger automatically activates the safety mechanism. Glock also has fewer moving pieces than most handguns, making them less prone to malfunctions.
"If it ever jams, it's because someone has chosen inferior ammunition or there's an operator error. But it's not the fault of the weapon," Knight said.
One shortcoming for the Glock is the faint spiral grooves carved into the interior of their barrels. This so-called "rifling" is designed to make bullets spin, which makes them more accurate.
"Unlike other gun makers, the rifling on a Glock is very shallow, leaving not much of a fingerprint on the round," Knight said. That makes it hard for ballistic experts to match a bullet to a specific weapon.
In the first quarter of its' 2010 fiscal year, Glock saw a 71 percent increase in pistol sales over the same period in fiscal year 2009. And new pistol orders were increasing at a record pace moving into the second quarter of fiscal year 2010.
Earlier this week, the FBI reported that applications for gun purchases had increased in Arizona and other states after the Tucson shooting. Anecdotally, some gun shops are reporting stronger sales of Glock pistols.
The spike in interest speaks to the success of gun lobbyists in convincing the public that tighter gun restrictions follow horrendous acts, said Daniel Vice, the senior attorney at The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Several members of Congress have in fact proposed such bills in recent days, including one to ban extended-capacity ammunition magazines — the kind used by Loughner.
Vice said that's the real goal of the Brady campaign in the wake of the Arizona killings.
"We're not talking about banning Glock guns." Vice said. "We're talking about restricting military-style, high-capacity ammunition magazines that turn the Glock into a weapon of war."
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