Nazi Roots, EU Violations, and Mass Shootings

Meet the shady gun manufacturer whose rifle killed 49 people in Orlando.

Sig Sauer
Dave Perkins, left, shows off Sig Sauer rifles at the NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits on May 21 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Following the mass shooting at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, progressives directed much of their ire for the lack of federal action on gun control toward the often-vilified National Rifle Association. On one hand, this makes some sense: The NRA, after all, has spent millions lobbying to loosen gun laws to the point that an FBI-investigated domestic abuser can easily purchase a high-powered firearm and use it to murder 49 people. On the other hand, this reaction is exactly what the NRA wants. The group, after all, now serves in large part to absorb public criticism about America’s epidemic of gun violence, taking blows that would otherwise land on gun manufacturers themselves—then taking money from those manufacturers for the trouble.

Oddly enough, these manufacturers are rarely the subject of political criticism or investigation; from the advocacy of the Brady Campaign to speechifying on the Senate floor, we mostly hear critiques directed at the NRA. But it was not the NRA that produced the rifle that killed 49 people and injured 53 at Pulse, nor the NRA that continues to profit directly from the rifle’s sale to civilians. It was Sig Sauer. My colleague Rachael Larimore recently noted that the media’s reportage on firearms is often shallow and sloppy. I agree. And in the spirit of more comprehensive reporting, let’s look into the past and present operations of the company whose MCX rifle fired the bullets that killed 49 people at Pulse on June 12. It is a history of Nazi collaboration and alleged illegality that seriously undermines Sig Sauer’s carefully crafted image as a noble company of wholesome roots.

Sig Sauer’s website correctly notes that one parent of the company, Sig, was founded in Switzerland in the 1850s and broke into the arms business by developing a state-of-the-art rifle for the Swiss Army. “Fast-forward to the 20th century,” the company’s history continues, jumping ahead to 1949—with no suggestion as to what occurred in the interim. This elision is understandable: Sig spent World War II aggressively courting the Nazi government, eager to sell its firearms to the Nazi army. Unfortunately for Sig, Nazi officials had established foreign exchange controls that limited the government’s ability to purchase Swiss goods, and German firearms manufacturers held a monopoly on the market. So Sig had to sit out the war, unable to sell weapons to Nazis despite its best efforts.

Sauer, Sig Sauer’s other parent, suffered no such misfortune. A German company based in the Rhine, Sauer did robust business with the Third Reich, supplying nearly 295,000 Sauer 38H guns to equip the military, police, and Nazi party officials. (Sauer’s Nazi-era guns remain quite popular among a certain subset of firearm enthusiasts.) After the war, demand for firearms in Germany plummeted, and Sauer’s future appeared grim.

But where Sauer saw a gloomy future, Sig saw an opportunity. In the 1970s, Switzerland enacted laws limiting Swiss companies’ ability to manufacture firearms within the country. But companies could work around this restriction by partnering with a foreign manufacturer. Sig chose Sauer, and both companies benefited from the partnership. In 1985, Sig opened an American branch called Sigarms; in 2000, a German holding company purchased Sig, Sauer, and several sister companies, creating the modern Sig Sauer.

Today, Sig Sauer is the fifth-largest producer of firearms in the United States, churning out some 678,000 guns for America alone in 2014. However, the company has not fared so well in Europe. Two years ago, German authorities launched an investigation into the company’s possible violation of EU laws restricting the export of arms to conflict zones. Sig Sauer was allegedly shipping German-made guns through America, then onto conflict zones in Iraq, Colombia, and Kazakhstan to work around the EU law. Documents seized from the company suggested that Sig Sauer was shipping weapons to the U.S. with the knowledge that they would be sent along to Colombia. The investigation was hampered, however, when the laptop of Sig Sauer’s former managing director—a key piece of evidence—was stolen from the prosecutors’ office. Ron Cohen, the U.S.-based president and CEO of Sig Sauer canceled a visit to Germany, purportedly out of fear that he would face arrest or interrogation upon stepping foot into the country.

Sig Sauer has received decidedly more favorable treatment by U.S. politicians. In December, then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz attended a shooting demonstration with Sig Sauer representatives; more recently, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s sons visited the company’s New Hampshire factory to tout their father’s pro-gun bona fides. Sig Sauer clearly sees a brighter future stateside than in Europe: The company abruptly slashed jobs in Germany the same year German authorities began their investigation and is still languishing under an export ban following its alleged illegal trades. It also faces criminal charges in Germany for illegal weapons export after one of its guns was used to murder 12 people, including a human rights worker, in Mexico.

Here in the United States, Sig Sauer need not worry much about legal liability. In 2005, Congress—at the behest of the NRA—passed a law, called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, shielding gun sellers and manufacturers from many forms of liability that virtually all other industries are subject to. Among other things, the PLCAA blocks lawsuits against firearm manufacturers for making unreasonably dangerous weapons that lack basic safety features and for selling those weapons to civilians.

In any other industry, manufacturing irresponsibly dangerous products then negligently introducing them into the stream of commerce would open up immense liability. Thanks to Congress, the gun industry can easily quash the lawsuits that would otherwise require firearm manufacturers to reform their production and sale of weapons. European countries don’t rely on liability suits to enforce gun safety; they simply impose direct restrictions on manufacturers and sellers that would be politically impossible stateside. As Sig Sauer’s legal issues abroad demonstrate, the company suffers when governments actually monitor its practices; under America’s lax gun safety laws, protective liability shields, and minimal government oversight, the company has been able to thrive. The PLCAA, then, is just one more reason why Sig Sauer has found the United States to be such a welcoming home—and why a Sig Sauer MCX rifle legally made its way into the hands of Omar Mateen.

Read more Slate coverage of the Orlando nightclub shooting.