Pocket Rockets – Introduction

“If someone carries weapons concealed, he must really be looking for or expecting trouble instead of avoiding it (whether they were carried legally or not).”– Jim Grover, “Don’t Be a Victim!,” Guns & Ammo1 (emphasis in original)

On August 10, 1999, self-proclaimed white supremacist Buford O. Furrow, Jr., walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California, and started shooting. He wounded three children, a teenage counselor, and a receptionist. Shortly thereafter, he happened upon and killed postal employee Joseph Santos Ileto. Furrow reportedly confessed that he killed Ileto, a Filipino-American, as a “target of opportunity.”2

The carnage that Furrow wreaked that day reflects many facets of America’s gun violence problem.a This report addresses one of those aspects: his use in the Ileto murder of a Glock Model 26 9mm semiautomatic pistol�the premier “pocket rocket.”3

Because pocket rockets are so easily hidden on the person, they are ideal tools for such criminal use against “targets of opportunity.” Their portability also increases the risk for indiscriminate use by previously law-abiding citizens thrust into moments of anger, depression, or other emotional instability.

Glock�whose guns are manufactured in Austria and imported into the United States through facilities in Smyrna, Georgia�coined the term “pocket rocket” in a 1995 press release introducing its Model 26.4 The gun press and at least one other manufacturer have since appropriated the term.5 It describes small semiautomatic pistols in higher calibers (9mm and above), of which the Glock pistol was among the first.b These easily concealed pistols have been a “hot” item in gun industry marketing ever since.

1996 Glock Catalog
Pocket rockets are a dangerous new ingredient in America’s firearms brew. Reports by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and others show that handguns move relatively quickly from the legal trade in firearms into the hands of criminals and youths. Predictably, crime gun tracing data show that as manufacturers have heavily marketed pocket rockets, these tiny but deadly pistols are moving into criminal use at a dramatically increasing rate. (See Figure One.)

The industry has heavily promoted pocket rockets in connection with a wave of new or revised state laws that permit licensed persons to carry concealed firearms.6 Pocket rockets are a prime example of how the firearms industry has exploited increased lethality�greater killing power�over the last several decades to boost sales in its saturated markets.7

In those same decades, firearms, especially handguns, have inflicted a torrent of death and injury on Americans. (See Figure Two.) In 1997 (the latest year for which complete data are available) 32,436 Americans died of firearm injuries.8 Suicides accounted for the majority of those deaths (17,566). Since 1978 suicide has been the largest category of firearms fatality. (The use of a firearm greatly increases the chance of success in a suicide attempt.) Homicides consistently rank second in firearm deaths and handguns consistently account for about 70 percent of firearm homicides in the United States.

This carnage inflicts incalculable human anguish and imposes a substantial burden on the nation’s health care system. On average, the medical cost of each gunshot injury is about $17,000 and taxpayers end up paying for 49 percent of the lifetime costs of those injuries.9
Figure One: “Pocket Rockets” Traced to Crime Scenes by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, 1995-1997

Manufacturer 1995 1996 1997 Total Traces
Bryco Arms 876 1,270 1,587 3,733
Hi-Point Firearms 701 1,036 1,689 3,426
Lorcin 363 819 1,309 2,491
Smith & Wesson 276 463 1,011 1,750
Glock 0 125 345 470
Colt’s Manufacturing Corp.c 124 170 269 563
Kel-Tec 0 51 185 236
Intratec 17 84 177 278
Espana Astra 53 108 129 290
Heckler & Koch 54 76 90 220
Arcadia Machine & Tool (AMT) 12 49 63 124
Sigarms 21 13 33 67
Kahr Arms 0 11 21 32
Heritage Manufacturing 0 0 1 1
Total 2,497 4,275 6,909 13,681

In spite of this carnage and the cost it inflicts on the majority of Americans who neither own nor use guns,d firearm manufacturers enjoy an almost uniquely privileged position in American commerce. Firearms and ammunition are the only products specifically excluded from the consumer’s basic defense against unreasonably dangerous products, the federal Consumer Product Safety Act.10 As a result, the gun industry is free to ignore clearly foreseeable dangers to public health and safety when it designs and markets guns like pocket rockets.

Sources: National Center for Health Statistics, Mortality Data Tapes, and CDC Wonder at wonder.cdc.gov. (For data table used to create this graph, see Appendix B).

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a) Furrow’s case illustrates several problems in addition to that addressed in this report. They include: indiscriminate licensing of gun dealers, unregulated sales at gun shows, the ineffective federal “assault weapons ban,” the inability of the current screening system to stop sales to mentally distressed persons, and the lack of restrictions on sales to persons convicted of violent misdemeanors (other than domestic violence cases).

b) Modern handguns are generally of two types: revolvers (often known as “six-shooters,” “six-guns,” or “wheel guns”) and semiautomatic pistols. Revolvers carry ammunition, usually six rounds, in a cylinder that is rotated by a lever through pressure the trigger finger exerts in firing the gun. This rotation positions a fresh round of ammunition. Semiautomatic pistols carry as many as 15 rounds of ammunition in a clip or “magazine” inserted in the base or “grip” of the gun. Spent rounds are ejected and fresh rounds loaded from the magazine through a system that uses recoil forces and springs. Semiautomatic pistols can generally be fired and reloaded faster and more easily than revolvers.

c) It is not clear when Colt introduced its line of higher caliber “pocket rockets” (i.e., 9mm and above). The .380 pistols are therefore included only for comparative purposes.

d) Only one quarter of adults own any kind of working firearm in the United States, and only about one in six owns a handgun. Guns in America: Results of a Comprehensive National Survey on Firearms Ownership and Use (Washington, DC: Police Foundation, 1996), pp. 32-33.