Heckler & Koch’s pistols and submachine guns are among the most legendary firearms in the world.
While the Colt .45 Single Action Army, nicknamed the “peacemaker,” epitomized the American Old West and Mikhail Kalashnikov’s AK-47 grew into a visual shorthand for the 20th century’s Cold War hangover, Heckler & Koch’s products — sleek and black, a favorite of SWAT teams and Special Operations units — are recognizable across the globe.
Bruce Willis memorably brandished one in “Die Hard,” and SEAL Team Six members reportedly used a version to kill Osama bin Laden.
“We are the Porsche of weapons on that market,” Andreas Heeschen, the German company’s majority owner, said in an interview last year on the gun business.
So when anti-gun activists popped up in the German town of Sulz am Neckar this August for a Heckler & Koch shareholder meeting, they were not expecting a warm hello.
“I thought we’d get lynched in there,” Jürgen Grässlin, a schoolteacher and longtime company adversary, told the Guardian recently. “You have to remember we’ve been fighting hard against this firm for 30 years. We’ve blocked the plant several times, we’ve had the toughest legal rows.”
Rather than chasing the critics from the scene, to Grässlin’s surprise, the company offered “a friendly greeting, and none of the arrogance you normally encounter.” Most importantly, Heckler & Koch representatives at the Aug. 15 sitdown confirmed a new company policy that reorients the brand in what it considers a new ethical direction — a significant U-turn for a company whose weapons activists say are responsible for gunning someone down every 13 minutes.
The gun manufacturer plans to no longer sell weapons to corrupt and warring governments, a move first revealed in a yearly financial report in March.
According to Deutsche Welle International, the report stated “we are not seeking to take part in new tenders in non-green countries.” Under that criteria developed by the corporation, Heckler & Koch promises only to deal with NATO countries, NATO-equivalent nations — Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Switzerland — and countries with passing marks on Transparency International’s corruption index and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy test.
“Heckler & Koch chose a new strategy in spring 2016,” a company spokesperson told Deutsche Welle International. “As a consequence we have withdrawn from the crisis regions of the world.”
The firm will forgo business in major and emerging markets, including Israel, Mexico, Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and every nation on the African continent. The policy shift is a first for any major arms manufacturer, and a significant change for a company with a recent history of sketchy deals.
“This is a company that had one of the most terrible reputations,” Grässlin told the Guardian. “In all the podium discussions I’ve done in the last few years, the other arms companies used to say, ‘We’re not like Heckler & Koch, we’re morally better.’ Now Heckler & Koch has come along and said, ‘We’re not delivering to the Middle East anymore’. It’ll be interesting to see what happens now.”
As of 2014, the company enjoyed 11 percent of the global gun business, according to the Guardian. “If you made a map of where there are no Heckler & Koch guns, you’d have two white patches,” Grässlin told the paper. “One: the former Warsaw Pact countries — they’re all flooded with Kalashnikovs. Two … the Antarctic.”
But sales have also been hurt due to recent German regulations on arms transactions to Middle Eastern countries. Fortune reported in 2016 the company’s annual earnings dropped from 60 million euros in 2014 to 25 million the following year after sanctions went into place. The company also suffered a significant black eye in 2015 when prosecutors charged Heckler & Koch employees with illegally selling assault rifles to Mexico in violation of an export ban.
The company’s new policy seems to be an effort to expiate those past sins. In additional to the new ethical sales plan, Heckler & Koch is also reportedly considering a compensation fund for victim’s of its products.
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