#06: Gun History From Gunpowder to Glock to Gun Violence

Table of Contents:

Gun History From Gunpowder to Glock to Gun Violence
Samuel Colt & Richard Gatling
Austria and Glock
America’s Handgun
Gun Violence
The Media and Gun Violence—Two Peas In One Pod
Gun Safety
Can Gun Violence Be Stopped?

Gun History From Gunpowder to Glock to Gun Violence

Without a gun, there would be no gun violence. That’s true of the tragedies emanating from the Steven Jones shooting at Northern Arizona University in October 2015. That’s also true for the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., and thousands of other assassinations, gunfights, and gun violence.

If you drew a map to chart the etiology of gun deaths and gunshot wounds, it would start deep inside ancient China. Guns are as old as our country. Washington D.C. is a pivot point on the historical map. Plug in two world war trenches, a police action in Korea, and the Vietnam War. Shade in Gettysburg, Tombstone, Austria, and Dallas. Show specific cultural and political attitudes, the influence of gun rights movements like the NRA, political shifts, legislative preferences, and several million acts of personal violence. Use different colors for justification, necessity, self-defense, and racial disparities. Finally, draw a line from major gun violence in America’s cities straight to Washington, DC. You’ll have a hand-drawn map charting chart gun violence to gun solutions via Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court.


Perhaps as far back as 850 A.D., alchemists in China stumbled upon the explosive properties of gunpowder. It was then and is now a mixture of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal. “A Chinese Buddhist alchemist wrote the earliest known account of the substance, saying, ‘Some have heated together the saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon of charcoal with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house burnt down.’”[1]

Over the centuries, it morphed from mere fireworks to weapons, not yet guns, but killing weapons—cannons and grenades. History’s first crude firearms were cobbled out of hollow bamboo tubes and used projectiles emitted by gunpowder. These early projectiles eventually became bullets. Hand-to-hand gun combat was born. As early as 1492, and certainly by 1620, European colonists used firearms on our Atlantic coastline to kill natives. Their bows and arrows were no match for the magic of gunpowder blasting handmade bullets out of iron gun barrels. It was only a matter of time before hollow-point bullets blasted out of seventeen-round magazines.

Samuel Colt & Richard Gatling

In 1836, Samuel Colt received a U.S. patent for a handheld pistol that featured a multi-firing system based on a rotating barrel with multiple chambers that could fire bullets through a lock-and-spring design.[2] He built the Colt .45 revolver, known in history and comic books as “the gun that won the West.”[3]

Over time, the term “semi-automatic” referred to auto-loading guns that require a trigger pull for every shot fired. These hand-carried guns owe their inspiration to the rapid-fire firearm called the “Gatling gun,” invented by Richard Gatling and fielded by Union forces during the American Civil War in the 1860s.[4] Inevitably, countries, regimes, and militaries acquired the “service pistol,” a term for the sidearm issued to military personnel or law enforcement officers. They were revolvers or semi-automatic pistols issued to officers and non-commissioned officers for self-defense.[5]

In the early 1900’s the US Army selected Colt to manufacture its service pistols. The Colt 1911 Model was carried by officers and non-coms in World War I, World War II, the Korea War, and the Vietnam War. It was the government’s primary self-defense gun for seventy-four years.[6]

Austria and Glock

Austria, officially the Republic of Austria, is a small landlocked country in the southern part of central Europe. Vienna is Austria’s capital and its largest city. It is famous for its castles, palaces, classical music,[7] and Glock gun manufacturing. Glock manufactures guns in Austria and Smyrna, Georgia, USA. In 1980, the Austrian Armed Forces announced that it would seek tenders for a new, modern duty pistol to replace their World War II–era Walther P38 handguns. Glock won the contract.

In today’s America, Glock is small compared our natural born gun companies; Smith & Wesson, Remington, Strum, Ruger & Co., and Colt Defense, all of which sell more guns than Glock. But the Glock is very popular with law enforcement and civilians. Law enforcement likes Glock’s reliability and flexibility. Civilian gun enthusiasts love it for home defense and the excitement of concealed and open carry. Glock attracts gun lovers because it produces a quality handgun that will function in extreme conditions and with a wide range of ammunition. It’s very much a machismo[8] sidearm.

America’s Handgun

In 2012, Popular Mechanics explained why Glock became “America’s Handgun.”[9] The article referenced a recent book by Paul M. Barret with a similar title, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.[10] In the article, and the book, the explanation is the same story—Gaston Glock, the owner and inventor had “enormous good fortune. He designed this gun originally for the Austrian Army, and that timing was determined by a much deeper history. The pistols that the Austrian Army had been using since World War II were falling apart and they needed something new, so he put his hand up and, to everyone’s surprise in Austria, was able to get together with various experts and win this contract and introduce this very innovative pistol.”

The article connects Gaston Glock’s good fortune with events in the United States that chimed in perfectly. “Meanwhile, in the United States, American police officers were feeling that they were outgunned by criminals. A series of incidents including an FBI shootout with a couple of psychotic bank robbers in Miami in 1986 persuaded the American cops that the gun they had been using for 75 years, the classic Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver, was no longer potent enough. They needed something new. And here came Gaston Glock saying, ‘I have the pistol of the future, and it addresses exactly what you feel you are lacking.’”[11]

Glock had an edge of America’s traditional handguns. “Rather than six rounds in a revolving chamber, the Glock has 17 rounds in a magazine. Instead of a 12-pound trigger pull, like the traditional revolver, it has a trigger pull of slightly more than 5 pounds. That means that someone who is a mediocre shooter or a bad shooter as many police officers who don’t practice often enough will suddenly become more accurate and more effective. The Glock is also more durable and will function if it’s not cleaned properly or regularly. . . It’s very different from other pistols in that it has no external trigger safety. There’s the main trigger and then there’s what looks like a little baby trigger. The gun doesn’t work unless you depress them both. That was marketed as an innovation, but it was also a reason that the gun design has been heavily criticized by gun-control advocates because it is true that there is no way to put it on safety. The gun is always on.”[12]

As in most gun stories, there is an additional value-added proposition for American gun owners—price. Glocks are not cheap, nor are they particularly expensive. It’s not a Saturday night special. That makes it appealing to both working-class and middle-class men. “The United States is by far the biggest and richest civilian gun market in the world. No one knows exactly how many guns are privately owned in this country, because there is no gun census and there’s no [uniform] registration of guns, but reasonable estimates run somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 or 300 million guns privately held. That’s not the cops and that’s not the military. . . So we have almost a gun per citizen, and yet every year the gun industry sells more. This is an extraordinary marketplace.”

Gun Violence

The word “violence” is easily defined—using physical force to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy. The definition of the word “gun” is slightly more complicated: a gun is a weapon designed to pneumatically discharge solid projectiles. By design, a gun injures, abuses, damages, or destroys. When you combine the two words, reason faints. Gun enthusiasts say guns don’t kill people—people kill people. The rationale attempts to evade gun violence and support gun rights, nominally in self-defense. Put bluntly, it allows shooters, when the need arises, to kill whenever they feel the need. There’s a terrible old joke about two widows talking about a friend of theirs who shot and killed two husbands. One says, “Well, maybe they both needed killing.” Jokes like that are unfortunately a large part of America’s love affair with guns. Many Americans “need” guns in case they “need” to kill someone.

“Every day, more than 100 Americans are killed with guns and 200 more are shot and wounded. The effects of gun violence extend far beyond these casualties. Gun violence shapes the lives of millions of Americans who witness it, know someone who was shot, or live in fear of the next shooting.”[13]


EveryTownResearch.org is home to a substantial gun safety support fund. It “seeks to improve our understanding of the causes of gun violence and the means to reduce it—by conducting groundbreaking original research, developing evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge in the courts and the court of public opinion. In order to illustrate the magnitude of everyday gun violence, Everytown has gathered the most comprehensive, publicly available data. Still, significant data gaps remain—a result of underfunded, incomplete data collection at the state and federal level. Filling these gaps is necessary to truly understand the full impact of gun violence in the United States.”[14]

The Gun Violence Archive is an online archive of gun violence. It collects data “from over 7,500 law enforcement, media, government and commercial sources daily in an effort to provide near-real time data about the results of gun violence. GVA is an independent data collection and research group with no affiliation with any advocacy organization. . . . [It] is a not for profit corporation formed in 2013 to provide free online public access to accurate information about gun-related violence in the United States. GVA will collect and check for accuracy, comprehensive information about gun-related violence in the U.S.”[15]

Neither EveryTownResearch.org nor the Gun Violence Archive are advocacy groups. They exist to document incidents of gun violence and gun crime nationally to provide independent, verified data to those who need to use it in their research, advocacy, or writing. There are many other smaller, more localized entities who document gun violence. Hometown newspapers, television stations, local media outlets, and individual social media contributors aid in informing America how its love affair with guns in progressing. The data suggest early romance often quickly followed by widowhood.

Pro-gun groups never say they are pro-violence. The same is true for gun-control groups who insist they are not anti-gun. It defies comprehension that both groups “pretend” what they are for and “ignore” what they say does not involve them: guns don’t kill people—people kill people.

The Media and Gun Violence—Two Peas In One Pod

The Arizona Republic broached the subject, albeit not at length, in an editorial on February 19, 2016. It followed two pending cases in the Arizona judicial system.[16] The opening sentences are memorable. “We aren’t willing to change the nation’s gun culture. So we might as well stop pretending to be shocked at what it producers.” The editorial noted a murder-suicide of two Glendale girls at Independence High School, mentioned House Bill 2072 written to make it easier to carry guns on campus, and the shooting death of Colin Brough at NAU.

“The good guy with a gun argument is full of holes. Bullet holes. Teenagers often wallow in emotional doldrums. When a gun is handy, adolescent angst becomes fatal. . . There are lots of victims of the kind of violence America has come to accept. So many victims that there are differences of opinion on how to classify the carnage. A crowd-sourced database called MassShootingTracker.org says a mass shooting is four or more people killed or injured. EveryTown for Gun Safety defines it as at least four people dead. America is wallowing in a gun culture where weapons are as common as coffee shops. A high-school girl can borrow one with ease. A college student keeps one handy in the car. A bad day? An altercation? A family argument? Bang. Bang. It’s all over. The continuing debate about whether mass killings are the new normal is just for show. We’ve made our choice to do nothing.”[17]

Gun Safety

The reciprocal of gun violence is gun safety. But that does not make it a binary choice. That we cannot eliminate gun violence does not mean we cannot advance gun safety. We will continue to have gun violence if we resist gun regulation. We can improve gun safety by modest efforts to keep guns off campus at the college level, out of middle grade classrooms, and out of the hands of high school students, at least while they pretend to be studying for their college entrance examinations.

The specific question raised by the national debate is “Did Guns Make NAU Safer That Night in October?” The question was posed and answered by The Arizona Republic’s Pulitzer prize–winning columnist, Laurie Roberts.[18]

“The annual legislative drive to allow guns on college campuses is back, though with a bit of twist this time—a requirement that a co-ed actually be trained in how to use a gun before being allowed to carry it to class. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old Northern Arizona University student accused of shooting four intoxicated students—killing one of them—is asking that criminal charges be thrown out so that grand jurors can hear the whole story. . . ‘An individual should be able to defend themselves if the need arises,’ he told The Republic’s Alia Beard Rau. . . The shooting occurred at 1:20 a.m. Jones had no alcohol or drugs in his system. Meanwhile, all four of the 20-year-old students he’s accused of shooting were drunk—some extremely drunk—and several also had marijuana in their systems, according to court records. What they didn’t have that night were guns. Says [Arizona House of Representatives Republican Member] Borrelli: ‘You should go to school and not have to worry about somebody coming in, some nut, wanting to have a shooting on campus.’ Yeah, because how much better might it have been during that early October morning fraternity fight if everyone had been packing heat?”[19]

Can Gun Violence Be Stopped?

No. But Amnesty International is trying. “Governments have a legal obligation to protect the right to life, and accordingly a responsibility to protect people from firearms violence. We have to remind them of their duty by demanding gun reform. You can stand up and remind our leaders of their obligation to keep us safe. You can play a crucial role in campaigning and protesting against gun violence. By getting involved, you can make it clear to governments that poor regulation of the possession and use of guns leads to violence and that they must tackle this now through strict controls on guns and effective interventions in communities suffering high levels of gun violence. You have the power to tell governments that by using gun laws, we can all live safely and without fear – which is our right.”[20]

The Prevention Institute agrees. “Time and again, we are heartbroken by the news of another mass shooting. Part of our healing must be the conviction that we will do everything in our power to keep these tragedies from happening in a nation that continues to face a pandemic of gun violence. It’s not only the high-profile mass shootings that we must work to prevent, but also the daily death-by-guns that claims more than 30,000 lives every year. We know that these deaths are a predictable outcome of our country’s lack of political will to make a change and an underinvestment in prevention approaches that work. Through a public health approach that focuses on drawing from evidence and addressing the factors that increase or decrease the risk of gun violence.”[21]

[1]. https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/firearms.

[2]. https://www.thoughtco.com/colt-revolver-history-of-the-colt-revolver-1991479.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun, at Section 2-History.

[5]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_pistol.

[6]. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/history-of-u-s-military-sidearms.html#:~:text=Probably%20the%20most%20recognizable%20pistol,U.S.%20military%20for%2074%20years.

[7]. “ Composers of the 18th and 19th centuries were drawn to the city by the patronage of the Nobility, and made Vienna the European capital of classical music. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johann Strauss, Jr., among others, were associated with the city. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_Austria.

[8]. “ Machismo, from Spanish and Portuguese ‘macho,’ male. It is the sense of being ‘manly’ and self-reliant, the concept associated with ‘a strong sense of masculine pride: an exaggerated masculinity.’” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machismo.

[9]. Erin McCarthy, January 12, 2012. https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a7445/why-the-glock-became-americas-handgun/.

[10]. https://www.amazon.com/Glock-Americas-Paul-M-Barrett/dp/0307719936?linkCode=ogi&tag=popularmechanics_auto-append-20&ascsubtag=[artid|10060.a.7445[src|[ch|[lt|.

[11]. Erin McCarthy, January 12, 2012. https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a7445/why-the-glock-became-americas-handgun/.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Data acquired as of February 20, 2020. https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-america/.

[14]. https://everytownresearch.org/about/.

[15]. https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/about.

[16]. The Arizona Republic, “Pretending We Care About Gun Violence,” February 29, 2016, Monday, Final Chaser Edition, Front pg A10.

[17]. Ibid.

[18]. https://www.pulitzer.org/finalists/laurie-roberts.

[19]. Laurie Roberts, “Did Guns Make NAU Safer That Night in October?” The Arizona Republic, January 18, 2016, Monday Final Chaser Edition, p. A3.

[20] https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/arms-control/gun-violence/

[21] https://www.preventioninstitute.org/focus-areas/preventing-violence-and-reducing-injury/preventing-violence-advocacy

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