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Ernst Mauch: The man making guns smarter

He is a legendary figure in the gun world, having worked on the weapon that killed Osama Bin Laden. But now he has become a pariah. Why? Because his deep faith has led to him to assuage his nagging guilt by making firearms as safe as possible

In nearly 30 years at Heckler & Koch, a legendary German gunsmith, Ernst Mauch designed some of the world’s most lethal weapons, including the one that reportedly killed Osama bin Laden. A state regulator once called him a “rock star” in the industry.

Now the gun world sees him a different way: as a traitor. The target of their fury is the smart gun Mr Mauch designed at Armatix, a start-up near Munich. The very concept of the weapon has been attacked by US gun rights advocates even as it has helped Mr Mauch resolve a sense of guilt that has haunted him his entire career. He knows children have killed each other with his guns.

“It hurts my heart,” the 58-year-old gun designer said. “It’s life. It’s the lives of people who never thought they’d get killed by a gun. You have a nice family at home, and then you get killed. It’s crazy.”

Mr Mauch’s solution, the iP1, can be personalized so it only fires if the gun’s rightful owner is wearing a special watch connected wirelessly to the weapon. It has not been the hit he imagined for the multibillion-dollar US market. Second Amendment advocates, fearing the technology will be mandated, launched angry protests this year against stores in Maryland and California that tried to sell it. The industry that once revered him now looks at him with suspicion.

“I love Ernst, and his contributions to firearms are incredible,” said Jim Schatz, a gun industry consultant who worked for Mr Mauch at Heckler & Koch. “But he doesn’t understand that the anti-gunners will use this to infringe on a constitutional right. They don’t have a Second Amendment in Germany.”

Mr Mauch realises that many people in the gun world oppose what he’s doing. But he sees himself as a Steve Jobs-like figure, someone with the know-how and stubbornness – “no compromises” is a phrase he uses repeatedly – to bring “dumb guns,” as he calls them, into the digital age.

“This is the beginning of a new generation of weapons, which makes people think I am crazy,” he said. “Anyone can make a gun or a pistol. But if the potential is here to make it safer, we have to do it. We absolutely must.”

Mr Mauch quickly rose up the corporate ladder at Heckler and Koch after joining after university in 1978, earning a reputation for designing inventive weapons systems and cracking complicated problems, often walking down to assembly lines to examine issues and offer solutions.

His assault rifles and grenade launchers became coveted by armed forces around the world. He was the first foreign-born winner of the Chinn Award, an annual prize from the National Defence Industrial Association honouring achievement in small-arms weaponry. He still consults regularly with the US Army Research Laboratory.

“He understood where the end-user was coming from and how to meet those needs on the engineering side,” said Larry Vickers, a former collaborator. “He had a grasp on the issues that was very unique and remains so this day.”

One of the weapons they worked on together was the HK416, a powerful assault rifle with a special gas system that took on the M4 Carbine in the early 1990s. The rifle is used by US special forces, and it was apparently the weapon of choice for those killed bin Laden in 2011.

“I was happy for your soldiers that they could do this without getting injured,” Mr Mauch said. “I don’t think about this a lot, though. I really have no feelings about this.”

But Mr Mauch is not a gun designer without a conscience. Early in his career, working on a new sniper rifle, he lay awake one night thinking, “Is it right to develop these kinds of products?” His life was being defined by killing, at odds with his deep faith in God.

He found a justification in his head: this rifle will one day be used by a sniper trying to kill a kidnapper holding a child in his arms. “This weapon must do its job,” Mr Mauch said. He has found comfort in that rationale throughout his career. He thinks God is on his side. “My best partner is our Lord,” he said. “More or less, I think He is supporting my life.”

One day in the 1990s, Mr Mauch was questioned for four hours by authorities after a boy accidentally killed a friend with a Heckler & Koch’s handguns. “Why did the boy not know the gun was loaded?” Mr Mauch was asked. “Why did the boy not know there was a round in the chamber?”He told his wife, “My dear, I will never forget these last four hours.”

The questions were good ones. “It was a good gun,” he said. “A good gun, but a dumb gun.” The idea of making guns smarter took hold.

In 2005, Mr Mauch left Heckler & Koch in a dispute with the investment firms behind the company, a painful moment in his life. He received lucrative job offers from many of his competitors, but he wanted to pursue smart guns.

In 2006, Mr Mauch joined Armatix, a spin-out from the lock firm, investing his own money and leading the development of the .22-calibre iP1, targeted specifically for the US market, where interest in the technology has increased in recent years.

He recruited electrical  engineers, gunsmiths and a few old contacts in the industry who didn’t think he was certifiable.

“I wanted to make sure that smart guns are the next  generation of weapons,” Mr Mauch said. The question that torments him now: does anyone agree?

In Mr Mauch’s office, hanging on a wall by his desk, there is an article from a German newspaper with a headline that translates to “Fire among friends.” The story is about Andy Raymond, the owner of Engage Armament, a Maryland gun store, who faced death threats from gun rights activists after announcing plans to carry the iP1.

The National Rifle Association and other gun groups fiercely oppose smart guns, in part because of a New Jersey law mandating that all firearms sold in the state be smart guns within three years of such weapons being sold in the US. Mr Mauch said that he does not support the law, but he’s puzzled that gun advocates are opposed to more guns, especially safer ones.

“I would ask them to give us a chance to tell them about the potential for a modern gun,” Mr Mauch said. “I don’t know why they are scared of this.”

He is not anti-gun, he wants them to know. Told that there were more than 300 million guns in the US, Mr Mauch smiled and said: “I like that.”

Gun rights advocates have raised questions about the reliability of any smart gun, noting that smartphones often need to be rebooted. Mr Mauch said they should look at who made the weapon. The man who made the HK416. The man who has spent his adult life making guns with the mantra, “No compromises.”

Gun safety groups think Mr Mauch’s acclaimed career can convince skeptics. Mr Mauch hopes to meet with US police officials in September. Under no circumstances, he said, will he back away from the technology, even though he acknowledges the backlash has sometimes led him to ponder quitting. “You are responsible for all the lives you could save,” his wife tells him.

“That motivates me back,” he said. “When it comes to the end, you are responsible for what you did. There will be one question asked of you: what did you do to help others? I cannot sit still. There are tragedies that could be eliminated. Bingo. End of story.”

© Washington Post