From 1966 through the 1990s, high-profile crimes committed with powerful weapons left U.S. law enforcement feeling outgunned, spurring a surge in police militarization that taxpayers often funded.
In the fifth episode of The Gun Machine, we explore how gun companies like Glock courted police departments across the country — and how those departments became some of the biggest customers of private gun manufacturers.
Alain Stephens: This is a flashbang.
Alain Stephens: Having worked in the military and law enforcement, it’s a sound I’ve heard before. I’m at a training facility in Southern California, shadowing some of the most elite SWAT operators in the state. Instructors are going over how to use what is known as an NFDD, or Noise Flash Diversionary Device. It’s a stun grenade — a combination of a deafening crack and an explosive flash, designed to create a distraction to give a tactical team a few seconds’ edge in a fight.
[Trainer: The main thing about that is just getting the timing down and understanding that it’s .75 to 1.5 seconds for this thing to initiate.]
Alain Stephens: The real effect is something called overpressure: The sheer expansion of air that occurs in a closed room when one of these goes off cannot be replicated on air. It shakes your chest. Vibrates your spine.
Alain Stephens: The aftermath should take suspects by surprise, knock them off guard, throw them off just enough that a boatload of police officers can enter the room and neutralize a target. But they’re also incredibly dangerous.
[Trainer: Personnel protective equipment — a ballistic vest, helmet, ear protection, eye protection, and gloves — are mandatory in any live diversionary device training. Everyone here is responsible for safety. If you observe an unsafe situation, call an immediate “cease fire.”]
Alain Stephens: In the last decade, the devices have also been known to cause catastrophic burns, fragmentation injuries, and even bodily dismemberment — officers included. The California Association of Tactical Officers is running the training. The officers today will go back to their respective departments as instructors in how to use these diversionary devices. And it’s essential training. Because while the flashbang was once relegated to selective military and specialized police units, it’s now one of the standard tools filling patrol bags in departments big and small across the country.
Alain Stephens: And it’s not just diversionary devices. Rifle-resistant body armor, bags filled with spare magazines, tourniquets, wound-sealing powder are all becoming the norm for America’s nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies. And above all — guns. In the last four decades, American police departments have increased their arsenals astronomically, justifying it as a way to stay ahead of the weapons available to criminals on the streets. Streams of local, state, and federal tax money have filled police war chests, turning law enforcement into one of the gun industry’s largest customers. In fact, for the gun industry the police aren’t just customers — they’ve become their guiding inspiration, their linchpin for success in building gun empires. I’m Alain Stephens, and you’re listening to The Gun Machine, a podcast by WBUR and The Trace. Chapter 5: The Client.
Alain Stephens: It’s July 7, 1984.
[Ronald Reagan: My fellow Americans, I’d like to talk with you today about a subject that’s been a priority since this administration’s first day in office: fighting crime in America.]
Alain Stephens: The Reagan administration is in the height of its war on drugs.
[Ronald Reagan: Too many Americans have had to suffer the effects of crime, while too many of our leaders have stuck to the old, discredited liberal illusions about crime — illusions that refuse to hold criminals responsible for their actions.]
Alain Stephens: And the frontline of that war? South Florida. A once-gilded tourist destination, Miami has turned into the number-one hub of narcotics trafficking. Police have new tools to tackle narcotics — civil asset forfeiture, allowing police to redirect seized property into financing its counter-narcotics operations. With Miami-Dade County averaging over 450 homicides a year in the early ‘80s, authorities claim that drug addiction is leading to more shootings, burglaries, and an epidemic of bank robberies. Between 1985 and 1986 there is at least one armored truck or bank robbery every day in Miami, and as many as five a day.
[Newsreel: Two men pulled up to a Loomis armored car in the (inaudible) parking lot on Southwest 97th Avenue. They fired on the car with machine guns, trying to blast the doors off, but to no avail.]
[Newsreel: The Miami bank, a daring standoff between a robber and a police officer, the suspect’s sub-machine gun misfires, no serious injuries.]
[Newsreel: The ‘80s are bringing a return to bank robberies, up 25 percent this year in south Florida. But the gangsters of the past aren’t back. These crooks are different.]
Alain Stephens: The number of robberies prompts the federal government to create a special unit: The FBI’S C-1 Bank Robbery Squad. Out of all the daily heists, the squad becomes laser-focused on one particularly violent duo: Michael Lee Platt and William Russell Matix.
[Captain Arnold DeLuca: They’ve used shotguns. They’ve used machine guns. They show that they are professional and very dangerous.]
Alain Stephens: The men are military veterans — well armed, extremely aggressive, and persistent. When it comes to heists, they simply won’t take no for an answer. Months prior, they had darted around the city taking wild and violent runs on armored cars and banks. In October of the previous year, the two attempted to take over a Wells Fargo truck. They ordered the guard to freeze before fatally shooting him. Then, they fled in the ensuing gunfight with the remaining guards.
[Newsreel: A Wells Fargo truck picking up cash was raked by machine gunfire. The truck’s guards unloaded…]
Alain Stephens: Soon after, they pull a small bank job before taking yet another stab at an armored car. This time they target a Brinks truck parked behind a bank, sneaking up on the guard and shooting him in the back with a shotgun. Then, the two stand over the wounded guard to finish him off with their assault rifles.
[Newsreel: Either another robber or that same robber shot the courier two more times with what is described as an automatic weapon.]
Alain Stephens: Somehow, the guard survives. Matix and Platt would brazenly return to that very same parking lot months later, only to rob the bank. Law enforcement starts throwing out dragnets and investigations into DMV records. But while local police wait on new leads, the FBI decides to act on a hunch.
[Dispatcher: Attention area two units: The FBI is staking out the banks along the highway from 183 Street to 112 Street, 920.]
Alain Stephens: On the morning of April 11, 1986, the eight agents of the C-1 Squad set up a traffic stop in a neighborhood where Matix and Platt had been spotted.
[Agent on radio: We believe that it’s the black Chevy we’ve been looking for. We believe it may be planned to be used in an armed 29 in the next few minutes.]
[Dispatcher: Now en route behind a black Chevrolet northbound on the highway from 120 Street…]
Alain Stephens: They attempt to stop them, there’s a chase, and the pair lose control of their vehicle, ramming into a tree.
[Agent on radio: I believe they’re stopping.]
[Dispatcher: The unit stopping the vehicle?]
Alain Stephens: And that’s it. The outlaws are pinned in, outnumbered, and quickly surrounded by multiple agents of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency. And for that, Matix and Platt have one response, that sounded something like this…
[Dispatcher: County Police and Fire, do you have an emergency?]
[Caller: We have some people shooting each other on 82nd Avenue and about… close to 120th Street.]
[Dispatcher: They’re shooting at each other?]
[Police radio: Attention all units for information: Shots fired with machine gun at 120 Street and 82 Avenue…]
[Caller: Multiple rounds of gunfire being fired out in the street. Two cars are parked. There are people screaming.]
[Dispatcher: How many shots have you heard?]
[Caller: A lot.]
[Dispatcher: OK, is anyone, is anyone injured?]
[Caller: No, but they’re right outside my front door. They’re still blowing somebody away. There’s one guy laying down in the middle of the street. You better get some help out here in a hurry.]
[Dispatcher: They’re on the way, I assure you, they’re on the way. I need more information from you if you can supply it…]
Alain Stephens: William Matix is shot six times throughout the gun battle before going down. Michael Lee Platt, 12 times.
[Dispatcher: Officers down at 939..]
Alain Stephens: But they take law enforcement with them.
[Dispatcher: 5521, attention all units, reference the 3 30 officers down.
[Dispatcher: Five rescues are en route at this time, two suspects are in custody…]
[Dispatcher: Rescues are en route already, 939]
Alain Stephens: It is the bloodiest day in FBI history, leaving two agents dead, and five more wounded.
[Newsreel: The two dead agents are identified as 53-year-old Benjamin Grogan, a 25-year veteran and 30-year-old Jerry Dove, an agent for just four years…]
[Interview: You couldn’t really find a better guy if you lived a million years…]
[Interview: And thank God we have men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line for each of us every day.]
Alain Stephens: This shootout shocks the law enforcement community, the president, and everyday Americans, who are overwhelmed by a growing fear of violent crime. Even one of the robbers’ own mother is shaken by the violence.
[Yvonne Emerick: What happened? I think his mind snapped. And I said, I felt so sorry for the people down there, the FBI, their families. They was doing their job and I know they had to do it. Somebody had to stop him. Bill was a Christian. And God only lets you go so far and then if you don’t stop, he’s gonna bring you down.
Alain Stephens: Former FBI Agent Ed Mireles was shot twice during the incident, and is considered a hero for taking down the gunmen. He says the FBI was simply outgunned.
[Ed Mireles: We were armed with six shots, which was a standard-issued law enforcement weapon, and standard-issued shotguns. We came up against a couple of guys who, they were carrying revolvers. One individual was carrying a shotgun. But his partner was carrying an assault rifle with 30-round magazines. I’m telling you, the individual who has a 30-round magazine has an advantage over an individual who has a six-shot revolver. We learned that lesson the hard way.]
Alain Stephens: This sends cops nationwide scrambling. If the FBI could be outgunned, so could they. Just like the feds, many of them are carrying 5- and 6-shot revolvers. Months after the shooting, the Miami-Dade Police Department sends out a call to the gun industry: We need better guns. Other departments would soon follow.
[Ed Mireles: I believe the word is a watershed event. That event broke the dam, as far as law enforcement equipment, law enforcement training, I mean, it just, it changed law enforcement, and it changed it for the better.
Alain Stephens: But this time, they wouldn’t be the traditional American gunmakers. Instead, a plucky Austrian pistol-maker would step up.
[Paul Barrett: The pitch was: Our guns have a larger capacity so you can keep firing for a longer period of time and fire more rounds before you have to reload.]
Alain Stephens: And the name would become synonymous with American gun culture.
[Paul Barrett: And this was Glock.]
Alain Stephens: Back in a minute.
Alain Stephens: This is a Glock 19. It is an odd, black specimen of a gun. A 9 mm, semi-automatic pistol. A brutal, utilitarian weapon that promises to do nothing but its job. I’ve owned multiple for years. And while other weapons are finicky or temperamental, the Glock — clean or dirty, rain or sleet — just works. Paul Barrett is a journalist who’s covered the gun industry. He’s reported extensively on how Glock first broke into the American market.
[Paul Barrett: The guns are easy to use in that they have essentially no real safety that you have to think about turning on or off. So it was new from top to bottom, and it was sort of pitched as the gun of the future.]
Alain Stephens: But outfitting police with the gun of the future would cost money. Luckily for police, ever since Nixon first declared the war on drugs in 1971, they had been able to tap into a new source of revenue: civil asset forfeiture. It allows them to seize cash, cars, boats, and anything related to drugs to finance their fight on crime. Miami PD orders 1,100 Glocks. Soon police in Dallas, San Francisco, St. Paul, and Minneapolis follow suit. Police everywhere want a semi-auto-upgrade — and that’s what the Glock delivers. It doesn’t take long for this Austrian pistol to find its way into the holsters of American police officers nationwide. Police see it as the best way to fight back.
[Paul Barrett: The perception was that they had been outgunned. That became the term of the moment: The police were outgunned. And into this environment came the Glock, this very different, foreign handgun alternative.]
Alain Stephens: Gaston Glock — the man behind the gun bearing his name — first founded the company to sell curtain rods and knives. Then, in the early 1980s, he got word that the Austrian military was looking for its next pistol.
[Paul Barrett: And he said, well, I’ll volunteer, I’ll design a new pistol, which made no sense to anybody since he had no background in designing firearms.]
Alain Stephens: Just like Samuel Colt and Eli Whitney, Glock joins a long line of gunmakers who don’t know how to make guns. But he is a master delegator, and assembles a crack team to make his dream pistol a reality. And the end product is a half-plastic, mean little brick of a gun. It’s ugly, but very reliable. And stupidly simple to use. Austria buys thousands. But when he first tries to break into the United States, Glock faces an uphill battle.
[U.S. Representative Ted Weiss: Plastic guns that can escape detection by current security devices can be used by terrorists to threaten innocent victims here in the United States and around the globe.]
Alain Stephens: Members of Congress claim Libyan terrorists are buying Glocks by the thousands. Political cartoons label the pistol “the Hijacker Special.” NYPD even bans issuing any Glock permits. Eventually, Congress passes a law targeting the Glock that would ban “undetectable guns.” The thing is — there’s no such thing. All guns are detectable by metal detectors and x-rays, including Glocks. So it stays on the market. But it’s a tough market. Glock hysteria has already swept the nation. So the gunmaker needs a new strategy: Gaston Glock realizes he doesn’t have to win over the law, just law enforcement. And let’s just say he has a way with cops.
[Paul Barrett: The company had a reputation in terms of entertaining police procurement near their facility in Smyrna, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, where a local strip club had a weekly sort of Glock-themed event.]
Alain Stephens: Barrett says reps from Glock, shuffle law enforcement officials to the Gold Club, plying them with liquor and strippers. It isn’t just big departments with deep budgets they put under their spell. Glock officials target smaller, cash-strapped departments too, allowing those cops to trade in their old guns for newer, faster-to-shoot, and quicker-to-reload Glocks.
[Paul Barrett: Glock became an overnight millionaire, and then ultimately a billionaire with private jets and, you know, homes in different places, and all the rest.]
Alain Stephens: Suddenly, Americans wake up and find Glocks everywhere: On TV shows. In movies.
[Clip from Die Hard: That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me. You know what that is? It costs more than you make in a month. // You’d be surprised what I make in a month.]
Alain Stephens: And music.
[Clip from “Ready to Die” by The Notorious B.I.G.: As I grab the Glock, put it to your headpiece…]
Alain Stephens: I don’t know if any Libyan terrorists ever used Glocks, but I can assure you: There is probably one in every criminal evidence locker in every jurisdiction in America. But the idea of the gun being synonymous with the cop wasn’t always that way. In fact before the 1900s, officers didn’t necessarily have a gun. They carried whatever they had — clubs, and sometimes pistols or a shotgun. And it was all personal property. It wasn’t until the 20th century that cops decided to get serious, and made weapons standard issue — at the behest of the NRA I might add. But for decades police armament stayed at revolvers and shotguns. That was until 1966 —
[ KTBC newsreel: The sniper was well-armed and apparently planned a long siege. He had two large jugs of water and a footlocker containing food and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.]
Alain Stephens: — when Charles Whitman, ex-Marine, climbs the University of Texas clock tower, and armed with an arsenal of weapons, proceeds to rain down gunfire. It takes police, deputizing local bystanders, an hour and a half before they stop Whitman. The public massacre comes at a time when law enforcement are under increasing pressure, responding to political assassinations, civil rights uprisings, and now mass shootings. From then on, mass shootings give police a license to stockpile their armories with new weapons and gear. In the ‘70s, the UT Tower shooting would speed up the spread of SWAT teams.
[Radley Balko: We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of SWAT teams across the country, in how frequently SWAT teams are used across the country, and why they’re used.]
Alain Stephens: Radley Balko is a journalist and author who covers police militarization and civil liberties. He says to pay for those special units, the federal government starts setting aside money for them. In ‘86, the Miami bank robbery shootout becomes the bloodiest day for the FBI and prompts cops to convert to semi-automatics. And then, in 1997, the LAPD fights it out with armor-clad, machine-gun-toting bank robbers.
[Newsreel: He’s firing at police who are across the street in a parking lot. Now, this is what makes me think he had body armor on because this is a guy who is almost nonchalant in the way he’s walking around in that parking lot.]
Alain Stephens: Major city cops ask for military rifles. In an early show of support, the Pentagon sends 600 surplus M16s to the LAPD. Then, in 1999, what was previously thought unthinkable happens —
[Newsreel: At least two gunmen are inside that school right now…]
Alain Stephens: Columbine. The school mass shooting solidifies the idea that every officer, everywhere needs a rifle in his trunk. The active shooter threat is now born. And just when you thought the already established and deep pockets of the police couldn’t get deeper.
[Former President George W. Bush: I do not believe anyone could have prevented the horror of September the 11th. Yet we now know that thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us. And this terrible knowledge requires us to act differently.]
Alain Stephens: Balko says funding for law enforcement balloons to never-before-seen levels.
[Radley Balko: Particularly after September 11th, the September 11th attacks in 2001, you get the Department of Homeland Security a couple of years later, and they start giving out grants to police departments across the country to buy, you know, militarized or military sort of grade equipment, ostensibly the name of fighting terrorism.]
Alain Stephens: The new source of funding gives arms companies a golden incentive to advertise to police, urging them to keep up with the threat of an ever-increasingly-armed populace — a populace that these same gun companies simultaneously arm. The largest police departments start hiring full-time grant writers to help them tap into federal funding.
[Radley Balko: So these grants basically give rise to a cottage industry that exists to make this equipment for police departments in exchange for DHS money.]
Alain Stephens: But small departments don’t have the resources to go after those grants. Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, says the gun companies stepped in to help out.
[Alex Vitale: Service providers, the weapons manufacturers, et cetera, figured out a way to work around that, which is that they provide grant writing assistance directly to police departments, so that if you’re, you know, a small town police department and you are searching the web, looking for material for your SWAT team, you’ll find often on the website of the provider, uh, grant assistance on the website, and you go there and they’ll help write the federal grant for you because it means that you’ll get money to buy their products.]
Alain Stephens: These grants and other outside funding sources come with very little oversight. So police are able to increase their firepower more or less under the radar.
[Alex Vitale: We’ve had situations where city council members have no idea what weaponry the city is buying. They find out from activists or they find out because they see this stuff being used and they’re like: No one ever, you know, ran this by us. We didn’t sign off on this. It’s either buried in the budget or it’s coming through one of these independent funding sources.]
Alain Stephens: Wherever the money comes from — for cops, the armament isn’t negotiable. They say it’s necessary.
[Brent Stratton: You have to be able to stop the killing and you have to be able to stop the dying and you need to be able to do those together in as timely a manner as possible.]
Alain Stephens: Brent Stratton is a cop and president of the California Association of Tactical Officers, the group that set up the SWAT training I went on. To their organization, it’s not if the cops need this type of equipment, it’s trying to put some rails on it: Making sure officers act like a scalpel, and less like a hammer.
[Brent Stratton: There are things that the military has that law enforcement doesn’t have any business in being able to possess. But I don’t see that with rifles. I don’t see that with armored vehicles. These are things that are life-saving pieces of equipment that are used to help be able to serve and to save the people that we serve, as well as the lives of officers.]
Alain Stephens: But Balko says if that’s the goal, all these weapons aren’t helping police meet it.
[Radley Balko: I don’t think that is safer for police. I think it’s more dangerous for everyone. I think it creates a lot of volatility and a very thin margin for error…]
Alain Stephens: From the 1970s to 2014, the use of SWAT teams across the country increased by 15,000%. And while these teams were created to respond to rare and extremely violent incidents, the bulk of daily SWAT team work has turned to search warrants and high-profile arrests. And the decades of police militarization has been a boon for the arms industry, with some of the most influential gun companies making their fortunes on the backs of police. Kimber Manufacturing rode the wave, becoming the official pistol of LAPD SWAT, the OG tactical team. Rock River Arms climbed to prominence as the selected rifle maker for the DEA. And LaRue Tactical would make an AR-15 so beloved, the Texas Rangers now keep it in their hall of fame. And with the most well-armed police force ever, we’re all a lot safer, right? Right?… I want to make something starkly clear as a journalist, of what I believe makes America a unique global outlier: It is our painful and unresolved history regarding race. It is the fact that we imprison more people than anyone in the world, besides China. And, it is our love affair and access to guns. In the midst of these things, arms companies sold police something more lasting, and more powerful, and perhaps more dangerous than a gun: Fear.
[Police shooting recording: He just shot his arm off. We got pulled over on Larpenteur. // I told him not to reach for it, I told him to get his hand off it.]
Alain Stephens: As a former cop, I can tell you: We are trained to be afraid, to approach every door knock, every traffic stop as a life-threatening encounter.
[Newsreel: Arvada Police admit that they killed the Good Samaritan who stopped Monday’s Old Town shooting.]
Alain Stephens: To always think that someone is out to kill you. And that can only lead to more… and continued violence. It now means we live in a country with nearly 1,100 police killings a year.
[Newsreel: Police in California are investigating why two Sacramento police officers shot an unarmed Black man 20 times and killed him.]
Alain Stephens: Killings, which also, don’t hit all Americans equally — with Black and Brown people being disproportionately killed by police.
[Newsreel: Tonight, a rookie police officer has been fired after opening fire on an unarmed teenager who was eating a burger in his car at a McDonald’s.]
[Newsreel: The officers told the man to drop the pipe, but neighbors yelled that he was deaf. One officer shot Sanchez multiple times, killing him.]
Alain Stephens: Black people in particular, are twice as likely as whites to be shot by the cops, And now, one in a thousand Black men can expect to be killed by law enforcement.
[Audio clip from protests in Denver: I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe…]
Alain Stephens: Despite the years of protest and the bipartisan efforts to take even a glancing squint at how to police this nation with a little less death, things have only gotten worse. According to Washington Post data, police shootings on civilians have increased for the last 7 years. And the end effects on crime, of the most expensive, aggressive, and readily armed police force in the history of our country? While it may be true that non-violent crimes have fallen over the decades, homicides and shootings have not. In 2021, gun homicide rates weren’t just the same as they were at their peak in the late ‘80s, they were higher. And officers aren’t safer either. According to a 2018 Princeton study, the use of SWAT teams doesn’t increase officer safety, or reduce crime. It only drives a wedge in community trust. Nearly every study points to aggressive policing as a failure in providing public safety. Even if you’re not on the front lines of gun violence, it’s costing you — and all Americans. In 2022, American taxpayers spent $215 billion on policing and corrections. $215 billion includes a prison system where nearly half the people in it are considered non-violent offenders. $215 billion also includes the cost of police misconduct, with taxpayers paying $3.2 billion in settlements over the last decade. You see, We’re having a national conversation about our police, and most people see three stakeholders: The police. The Politicians. And us. But, I need to remind you, as a journalist who covers this system, there is another player: The police-industrial complex. It’s the arms developers. It’s gun companies. It’s accessory makers. It is their business to maintain the status quo. And right now, business is good. Next time on The Gun Machine, we meet the Second Amendment’s biggest preacher, one of the political establishment’s greatest influencers, and the industry’s biggest protector.
[Scott King: The number of guns coming in, far outpaced any logical, even industry based protocols for how many guns are you gonna ship to a particular market.]
Alain Stephens: Let me introduce you to the NRA — that’s next episode.
Alain Stephens: The Gun Machine is a production of WBUR in partnership with The Trace. I’m your host, Alain Stephens. If you want more on this, or any of our other episodes, you should visit the TheTrace.org/GunMachine or WBUR.org/GunMachine.
If you feel like we are telling an important story, review the show on your podcast app and fill out The Gun Machine survey at WBUR.org/survey. You can sign up for The Trace’s newsletter to find more on this reporting at TheTrace.org.
Our producer, who always has my six, is WBUR’s Grace Tatter. Our editing fellow from The Trace is Agya Aning. Orchestrating our beat drops is sound designer Emily Jankowski. Our production manager is Paul Vaitkus. Our editors are Kevin Sullivan and WBUR Podcasts executive producer Ben Brock Johnson. Additional editing from Miles Kohrman. Our WBUR managing producer is Samata Joshi. And our engagement editor at The Trace is Gracie McKenzie. Audio engineering from Tim Felten and our artwork is by Diego Mallo.
Special thanks to WBUR executive editor of news Dan Mauzy; The Trace’s executive editor Craig Hunter, WBUR chief content officer Victor Hernandez, associate director of institutional giving Nicole Leonard, director of marketing Kristen Holgerson and Jessica Coughlin of Onward and Upward media; Tali Woodward, editor-in-chief at The Trace; and Margaret Low, CEO of WBUR.
Support for the Gun Machine comes from The Joyce Foundation, a nonpartisan philanthropy that invests in racial equity and economic mobility in the Great Lakes region. For more than 25 years, Joyce has supported research, education, and policy solutions to reduce gun violence and make communities safer. To learn more, go to joycefdn.org. Additional funding provided by the Kendeda Fund.