Glock Pistols, Ethics and CSR

It’s been a week now since the Tuscon, Arizona killings in which Jared Lee Loughner apparently emptied the high-capacity magazine of his 9 mm pistol.

Plenty has already been written about the awful killing. Inevitably, some of it has focused on the weapon he carried, namely the Glock. According to Wikipedia’s Glock page,

The Glock is a series of semi-automatic pistols designed and produced by Glock Ges.m.b.H., located in Deutsch-Wagram, Austria.

Despite initial resistance from the market to accept a “plastic gun” due to concerns about their durability and reliability, Glock pistols have become the company’s most profitable line of products, commanding 65% of the market share of handguns for United States law enforcement agencies[5] as well as supplying numerous national armed forces and security agencies worldwide….

If you want to learn more about the company that made the pistol Loughner used, see this article, by Paul M. Barrett for Bloomberg Businessweek, Glock: America’s Gun

…Headquartered in Deutsch-Wagram, Austria, the company says it now commands 65 percent of the American law enforcement market, including the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration. It also controls a healthy share of the overall $1 billion U.S. handgun market, according to analysis of production and excise tax data. (Precise figures aren’t available because Glock and several large rivals, including Beretta and Sig Sauer, are privately held.) ….

Barrett’s article provides a fascinating account of the invention of the Glock pistol and how it came to its current dominant market position through a combination of excellent engineering, good marketing and cagey lobbying.

The sale of semi-automatic pistols with high-capacity magazines is a good example of an issue where the term “corporate social responsibility” provides a useful analytic lens. I’ve argued here before that the term “CSR” is over-used — we shouldn’t try to stuff every single ethical issue into the relatively narrow notion of corporate social responsibility. But like the BP oil spill, the current case raises issues that are genuinely social in nature. As difficult as it may be, set aside for a moment the tragic events of January 8th, and look at the marketing of the Glock pistol (and its accessories) from a social point of view.

Do Americans as individuals have the right to buy certain kinds of weapons? As a matter of constitutional law, yes. And there’s arguably no direct line to be drawn between the sale of an individual gun and a particular wrongful death (because there’s always the complicating factor of the decision made by the individual who bought the gun and then pulled the trigger). So let us take as given (even if just for the sake of argument) that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making and selling guns to the public. Let us assume that individual customers have a legitimate interest in owning semi-automatic pistols, and there’s nothing unethical about a company seeking to make money from satisfying the demand for this entirely-legal product.

That still leaves as an open question, I think, the question of social impact. The best rationale for public acceptance of the kind of zealous, profit-seeking behaviour seen in the world of business lies in the social benefits that arise from a vigorous competitive marketplace. This implies that the moral limits on business are also to be found in a business’s net social impact.

There is a raging debate, in the US, over the net social impact of the sale of handguns. And where a product is contentious, you can argue that “the tie goes to the runner,” and that the “runner” in this case is freedom. When in doubt, opt for freedom of sale and choice. So let’s say (again, if only for sake of argument) that there’s nothing wrong with selling handguns to the public. So Glock (the company) is justified in existing and in carrying out its business. That still leaves open the question of the particular ways in which handguns and their accessories are marketed. The social benefits of selling handguns may be fundamentally contentious; in other words, reasonable people can agree to disagree. But I doubt that the same can really be said for marketing moves designed, for example, to foster the sale of high-capacity magazines (ones that hold 33 bullets instead of the usual 17).

I’m not presuming to answer that question here; I’m merely pointing out the significance, and appropriateness, of a specifically social lens.

——
(See also Andrew Potter’s characteristically sane piece on the politics of gun control: ‘You can’t outsmart crazy’—or can you?)

3 comments so far

  1. […] You can read the whole article here. […]

  2. […] It's been a week now since the Tuscon, Arizona killings in which Jared Lee Loughner apparently emptied the high-capacity magazine of his 9 mm pistol. Plenty has already been written about the awful killing. Inevitably, some of it has focused on the weapon he carried, namely the Glock. According to Wikipedia's Glock page, The Glock is a series of semi-automatic pistols designed and produced by Glock Ges.m.b.H., located in Deutsch-Wagram, Austria. … Read More […]

  3. Dan Wheeler on

    As usual, great posting.


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