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Europe's big role in our gun culture

Americans mourn the victims in Aurora, Colo. In Europe, too, there is grief — mingled with incomprehension. The media chorus: How many more massacres before the United States adopts European-style gun control?

Christoph Prantner of Austria's Der Standard bemoans American insistence on Second Amendment rights, "even when this freedom occasionally has a very high price and, in a bloody perversion, fatally impairs the freedom of others."

I can't disagree. I just wish Prantner had pointed out that James Holmes was allegedly wielding Austrian weaponry when he barged into that darkened theater: specifically, a .40-caliber semiautomatic Glock pistol.

For all the tut-tutting across the pond, America's gun culture exists in symbiosis with Europe's own culture of precision manufacturing — of which the Glock is a notable expression.

Thirty years ago, Gaston Glock designed this lightweight, rapid-fire killing machine and sold 20,000 to Austria's army.

Now his state-supported invention is one of Austria's most successful exports. The tiny Alpine nation exported 431,118 handguns to the United States in 2010, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Only giant Brazil sold more.

The majority of the Austrian guns were Glocks. And while Glocks have replaced revolvers and U.S.-model pistols in police holsters across the land, most Glock imports are destined for the civilian market, according to journalist Paul M. Barrett, author of a fascinating book, Glock: The Rise of America's Gun. (Some Glocks are assembled in the United States from Austrian-made kits.) Though privately held European gunmakers do not report sales figures, Barrett estimates that Glock's U.S. sales are worth $100 million per year.

Glock's customers have apparently included not only Holmes but also Jared Lee Loughner, charged in the January 2011 Tucson massacre that left six dead and then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords among the severely injured — as well as the shooters in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre (32 murdered), a 1999 Honolulu shooting (seven murdered), a 1998 Oregon high school shooting (four murdered), a 1998 Connecticut shooting (four murdered) and the 1991 Killeen, Texas, massacre (23 murdered).

You might call Glock the favorite weapon of America's Amoklaeufer, as those who run amok with guns are known in German.

But that wouldn't be fair to the makers of the Walther P22 that Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho also carried, or the Sig Sauer P232 that Steven Kazmierczak bore while killing five people at Northern Illinois University in 2008. Both of those are German products. With 230,447 handguns exported to the United States in 2010, Germany is the American gun junkie's No. 2 European dealer, the ATF reports; Italy, with nearly 130,000, is third.

All told, European Union members shipped just under a million handguns to the United States in 2010. Their domestic markets may be limited by gun control, but Europe's small-arms makers can still get rich, and create jobs, thanks to the Second Amendment. Who knew?

The question is what, if anything, to do about the influx of European-made semiautomatic pistols that have transformed the U.S. market — while their manufacturers pay only a modest tariff.

Ordinarily, there's a strong case for free trade; consumers get the best goods at the best price. But we're talking about a product that can kill people — so I'm not sure the usual considerations apply. Death is a pretty serious "negative externality," as the economists say.

A prohibitive tariff on weapons from Europe wouldn't end U.S. gun violence, but it might reduce risks at the margin. I sort of like the idea of protectionists and gun-control advocates teaming up against the Second Amendment lobby.

Europe's battered economy might suffer, but at least it wouldn't be the first time companies over there gave up U.S. market share so as not to encourage America's evil ways.

Last December, the European Union restricted sales to the United States of sodium thiopental, an occasionally life-saving anesthetic. The drug was also being used in death penalty lethal injections — which Europe abhors.

As it happens, Holmes could face capital punishment in Colorado, which uses lethal injection. Thank goodness his blood wouldn't be on Europe's hands.

Charles Lane is a member of the Washington Post's editorial board.

© 2012 Washington Post

Europe's big role in our gun culture 07/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 10:04pm]

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