In 30 years at Heckler & Koch, a legendary German gunmaker, 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 Mauch designed. The very concept of the weapon has been attacked by U.S. gun rights advocates even as it helps Mauch resolve a sense of guilt that has haunted him his entire career. He knows children have killed each other with his guns. Crimes have been committed with them.
"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."
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 U.S. 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.
Mauch realizes 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 to bring "dumb guns," as he calls them, into the digital age. "Anyone can make a gun or a pistol,'' he said. "But if the potential is here to make it safer, we have to do it."
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Mauch grew up a farmer's son in a small village at the edge of Germany's Black Forest. He tinkered. He fixed things. As a teenager, he took up watchmaking. He loved the intricate parts, the sequence of small movements that led to time.
In college, he studied mechanical engineering, and two of his required internships were at Heckler & Koch. He immediately took to the preciseness of the work, impressing his superiors with a design for an antitank weapon site system. The company asked Mauch to return after his graduation. He quickly rose up the corporate ladder, earning a reputation for designing inventive weapons systems and cracking complicated problems.
Mauch's assault rifles and grenade launchers become coveted by armed forces around the world, including the United States. He still consults regularly with the U.S. 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 Delta Force member who collaborated on weapons projects with Mauch.
One of the weapons they worked on together was the HK416, an assault rifle with a special gas system that took on the M4 Carbine in the early 1990s. The rifle is used by U.S. special forces, and it was apparently the weapon of choice for the SEALs who killed bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
But Mauch is not a gun designer without a conscience. Early in his career, working on a new sniper rifle, he laid awake one night thinking, "What are you doing? Is it right to develop these kinds of products?" His life, he knew, was being defined by killing, a career 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," Mauch said. He has found comfort in that rationale throughout his career. He thinks God is on his side: "More or less, I think he is supporting my life." The proof: "I am still alive, and he has blessed me with a beautiful wife and family."
Mauch came home to that family one day in the 1990s following four hours of questioning by authorities after a boy accidentally killed a friend with one of Heckler & Koch's handguns. "Why did the boy not know the gun was loaded?" Mauch was asked.
He told his wife, "My dear, I will never forget these last four hours."
The questions, Mauch said, were good ones. "It was a good gun," he said. "A good gun, but a dumb gun." The idea of making guns smarter and safer took hold.
In 2005, Mauch left Heckler & Koch in a dispute with the investment firms behind the company. He received job offers from many of his competitors, but he wanted to pursue smart guns. His wife told him: "Now you have to do this other mission."
In 2006, Mauch joined Armatix, a startup, investing his own money and leading the development of the .22-caliber iP1, targeted specifically for the U.S. market. "I wanted to make sure that smart guns are the next generation of weapons," Mauch said.
The question that torments him now: Does anyone agree?
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In 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 gun store in Rockville, Md., 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 United States. 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 don't know why they are scared of this," he said.
Gun rights advocates have raised questions about the reliability of any smart gun, noting that smartphones often need to be rebooted. 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."
His contacts at the Army Research Laboratory back him up. "He has come up with a design that's reliable, it provides safety, and it provides security," said Sam Wansack, a lab engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
The Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a group pushing manufacturers for better gun safety, hopes to bring Mauch to the United States to persuade police chiefs to buy his company's guns. The idea: If the technology is good enough for police officers, it should be good enough for consumers. Armatix is developing a 9mm smart gun targeted at the law enforcement market. The company hopes to offer other controls besides a watch, including a version that responds to voices.
Under no circumstances, Mauch 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."