packing heat

Mittelstand guns: Made in Germany, fired in America

german guns industry
From Germany, with love. Source: Bloomberg

Mowing down school kids, concertgoers and other innocent people is a quintessentially American homicidal tradition that annually devours more lives than terrorism. For many of the sick, angry assailants, the weapon of choice is a military-style, semi-automatic assault rifle, purchased over the counter and made in Germany, where such assault-type weapons are banned for civilian use.

German gunmakers Heckler & Koch and Sig Sauer are major suppliers of semi-automatic assault rifles designed to rapidly fire ammunition that can kill or maim people. While their primary customers for these guns are armies, the firms have also tapped into lucrative markets in the civilian sector, especially in gun-obsessed America.

“It’s a masterpiece,” said Miguel Conforto, holding an assault rifle manufactured by Heckler & Koch, which is based in Oberndorf in southwestern Germany. “It’s one of the best.” The US Army veteran took off two days of work to attend a recent gun show in San Antonia, Texas. He is one of many Americans fascinated by the semi-automatic “sporting rifles,” as they’re euphemistically called. Big in demand are those made in Germany. “Folks love German engineering ingenuity,” Tom Millay, a gun dealer in Inwood, West Virginia, told public broadcaster ARD.

“Folks love German engineering ingenuity.”

Tom Millay, gun dealer

Heckler & Koch is building a $23-million gun factory in Columbus, Georgia, to be closer to the US market and under the wing of Donald Trump’s “America First” protectionist program. But its gun sales, paradoxically, have dipped since Mr. Trump moved into the White House. The reason: Because the president is a self-professed friend of the gun lobby and opposed to harsh European-style controls, gun enthusiasts don’t see an urgency to hoard firearms for fear of restrictions.

That, however, could change with a new administration, and then Heckler & Koch’s new factory could pay off generously. As it has for German rival Sig Sauer, owned by the Lüke and Ortmeier Holding Group. The company has been manufacturing guns profitably in Newington, New Hampshire, for decades.

Both firms sell a variety of sporting guns in America. Increasingly popular are their assault weapons, which have drawn national attention not only because of their craftsmanship but also their use in mass shootings. From his hotel room in Las Vegas, Craig Paddock, a retiree, sprayed a crowd of some 22,000 concertgoers with bullets last year. By the time he was finished, 59 people were dead and more than 500 injured. Among his arsenal of assault rifles: a Sig Sauer MCX.

It was also the model used in the June 2016 mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 people dead. At the time, it was the worst massacre in US history. The same model was used in the December 2012 massacre in a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school that left 28 people dead. It remains the worst school shooting in modern-day America.

nazi guns, sturmgewehr
The Sturmgewehr combined the best features of the infantry rifle and the submachine gun. Source: picture alliance

That German companies excel at making assault rifles should come as no surprise. The weapon was born in Nazi Germany toward the end of World War II. Its name Sturmgewehr (storm or assault rifle) is believed to have been coined by Adolf Hitler. He supposedly rejected the technical name Machinenpistole (submachine gun) for one better suited to his offensive propaganda campaign. The gun married the light weight and rapid fire of a submachine gun to the power and accuracy of a rifle. It proved a deadly asset to Nazis mowing down waves of Russian conscripts on the Eastern Front.

Unsurprisingly, Heckler & Koch and Sig Sauer are members of America’s National Rifle Association, the world’s most powerful lobby. NRA membership is the entry ticket for every gunmaker into the lucrative US gun market, and big donations are welcome. The same applies to the lobby group’s smaller but no less influential cousin, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. In the last federal election, Sig Sauer donated $100,000 to its “#gunvote” initiative to support limited gun controls and a pro-gun president.

Business is good for German gunmakers exporting to the US. Exports doubled in 2016 over the previous year to nearly 500,000, according The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms. The US accounts for 40 percent of Heckler & Koch’s sales, and Sig Sauer has grown into the country’s fifth-largest gunmaker.

For German gunmakers facing increasingly restrictive export policies at home, there’s another advantage to making guns in the US: “It’s a lot easier to sell firearms to the world from the US,” said Aaron Karp, a political scientist at the Old Dominion University in Virginia.

But the deals still have to be legal. Six former employees of gunmaker Heckler & Koch have gone on trial in Germany on charges of illegally exporting assault rifles to strife-torn regions of Mexico. The guns are held responsible for numerous civilian deaths, including the 43 high school students in Iguala who were kidnaped in 2014 and presumably murdered by drug gangs.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Tim Rahmann from our sister publication WirtschaftsWoche contributed to this story. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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