The normalization of rule breaking. Sig Sauer’s illegal pistol exports to Colombia


Author:
Dominik Dauner
dominik.dauner@mwi.uni-heidelberg.de
Max-Weber-Institute of Sociology
Heidelberg University

Rule deviations by and in organizations are regularly explained with individual enrichment tendencies of the employees involved. Empirical analyses show, however, that such an explanation often falls short. Likewise, the case of the illegal pistol deliveries from Sig Sauer to Colombia reveals that personal enrichment did not play a role in the realization of these exports. Rather, the Kiel District Court’s verdict provides evidence that the illegal arms exports result from Sig Sauer’s managing directors and export control supervisors following institutionalized unwritten rules.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to employees of the German arms manufacturing company Heckler & Koch (see the blog post ‘The power of informal rules: Heckler & Koch’s arms exports to Mexico’ (https://heigos.hypotheses.org/13081)), employees of Sig Sauer were on trial in 2019 for illegal arms exports. Back in 2014, whistleblowers revealed that the arms manufacturer had illegally exported pistols to Colombia via the U.S. between 2009 and 2011. Although German authorities had granted export licenses for the pistols exported to the U.S., the re-exports to Colombia had not been approved. Were German licensing authorities “deliberately” (Kabisch et al. 2014, own translation) deceived, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung suspects?

A reconstruction of the case

In 2009, the U.S. military ordered SIG SP 2022 pistols from the American company Sig Sauer Inc. to equip the Colombian National Police. The pistols ordered were produced by the German company Sig Sauer GmbH and subsequently delivered to Sig Sauer Inc. As this delivery required an export license from the German authorities, a Sig Sauer export control officer submitted an export application for 30,000 pistols in March 2009. This application was subsequently approved. Both the application and the corresponding export license stated that the end use was the distribution of the pistols in the U.S. In March 2010, another export control officer submitted a second export application regarding the shipment of additional pistols. Again, the end use was the distribution of the pistols in the U.S. and an export license was granted from the German authorities. Based on both export licenses, Sig Sauer GmbH exported approximately 47,000 pistols to Sig Sauer Inc. between 2009 and 2011, of which approximately 38,000 pistols were re-exported to Colombia (Kiel District Court 2019).

Picture source: Wikimedia Commons

The lawfulness of these re-exports was the subject of a trial at Kiel District Court. Although the German authorities had granted export licenses for the pistols, these licenses were only valid for the remaining of the pistols in the U.S. In its verdict, Kiel District Court therefore concluded that the re-exports were not covered by the licenses granted (Kiel District Court 2019). These re-exports thus constitute a violation of the Foreign Trade and Payments Act. A total of three managing directors of Sig Sauer GmbH were prosecuted.

At trial, it was revealed that export control officers were unaware of the planned re-export of the pistols from the U.S. to Colombia at the time they submitted the export applications. In contrast, Michael L. and Robert L., the managing directors and export control supervisors, knew that the pistols were not to remain in the U.S. but were destined for Colombia. Nevertheless, they did not verify the export applications, contrary to internal regulations (Kiel District Court 2019).

But why did the managing directors and export control supervisors Michael L. and Robert L. deviate from the company’s internal export control regulations?

Picture source: Pixabay

No evidence of illegal personal benefits

From a rational choice theory perspective, it seems reasonable to explain the managing directors’ omission to verify the export applications by possible unlawful personal enrichment. However, no evidence of unlawful individual benefit was found during the trial at Kiel District Court (Kiel District Court 2019). Some theoreticians even fundamentally questioned the explanation of deviant behavior by rational cost-benefit calculations. Following Weick’s (1979) considerations, rational justifications for or against individual actions are often formulated in retrospect to justify one’s decisions. In contrast to the rational choice approach, Vaughan (1998) assumes that rule deviations by and in organizations can be explained more profitably by the normalization of deviance. Rule deviations then do not represent decisions based on rational calculation but are the result of thoughtless executions of institutionalized deviant practices.

The normalization of deviance

The trial at Kiel District Court revealed that the managing directors and export control supervisors omitted to verify the export applications submitted by the export control officers in March 2009 and March 2010. The export control officers stated that they never discussed export law issues with Michael L. and Robert L., the managing directors responsible for exports (Kiel District Court 2019). Despite their function as export control supervisors, Michael L. and Robert L. admitted that they had never been directly involved in export transactions (Kiel District Court 2019). Although there was an internal regulation at Sig Sauer GmbH that export applications must be verified by the managing directors and export control supervisors, this instruction was not practiced in the company (Kiel District Court 2019).

But how can the institutionalization of this deviant practice be explained? From a normalization of deviance perspective, it is assumed that rule deviance can become institutionalized through the mechanisms of hierarchical pressure, rationalization, and socialization.

The involvement of the management via hierarchical pressure often plays a decisive role in the collective legitimation and reproduction of deviant practices. On the one hand, hierarchical pressure can occur through direct instructions to deviate from the rules. On the other hand, such pressure can also manifest itself in the toleration of rule deviations. The verdict of Kiel District Court does not indicate that the managing directors and export control supervisors were ordered to omit the verification of export applications. However, they regularly tolerated that export applications were not forwarded to them for verification, even though this violated Sig Sauer GmbH’s internal regulations (Kiel District Court 2019). This may have favored the institutionalization of the deviant practice.

Rationalization processes grant legitimacy to rule deviations, allowing deviant practices to become institutionalized. The managing directors and export control supervisors rationalized their omission to verify export applications by denying their own responsibility. Although Sig Sauer’s internal regulations stated that almost all export applications had to be verified by the managing directors and export control supervisors, Michael L. argued that he had relied on “an comprehensive export control system and quality management accompanied by external consultants” (Kiel District Court 2019, p. 20, own translation). In addition, Michael L. blamed the export control officers for the false information in the export applications: “The incorrect export applications had occurred because the export control officers had not been informed about the re-export to Colombia” (Kiel District Court 2019, p. 20, own translation). Robert L. had adopted both statements in his admission.

Rule deviations may be internalized by socialization processes among employees. The Sig Sauer Inc. did not manufacture its own weapons until 2005. Instead, it purchased weapons from the German Sig Sauer GmbH. According to Michael L., this arrangement is responsible for the practice of not verifying export applications: “Since there had been deliveries from Sig Sauer GmbH to Sig Sauer Inc. for years and exports to the U.S. had always been approved without any problems the sensitivity among those involved was probably rather low” (Kiel District Court 2019, p. 20, own translation). Thus, according to Kiel District Court, Michael L. based on his previous experience expected that he would not have to worry about the verification of export applications (Kiel District Court 2019). Robert L. became export control supervisor in 2009 and stated that he had “adopted and continued the existing export control procedures without checking them and relied on their functioning” (Kiel District Court 2019, p. 21, own translation).

In summary, the rule deviations of the managing directors and export control supervisors cannot be explained by rational calculation and illegal personal benefits. Rather, the Kiel District Court’s verdict suggests that the rule deviations resulted from a normalization of deviance. The normalization of the rule deviations is likely to have been favored by the toleration of the deviant practices as well as their rationalization. For the managing directors and export control supervisors, the deviations may have been internalized through their repetition.

 References

Ashforth, Blake & Anand, Vikas (2003). The Normalization of Corruption in Organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 25(1), 1-52.

Bauer, Sibylle & Bromley, Mark (2019). Detecting, Investigating and Prosecuting Export Control Violations: European Perspectives on Key Challenges and Good Practices. Solna: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Besio, Cristina (2018). Organisationale Devianz. Schleichende Veränderungen durch Wiederholung in Organisationen. In O. Eke & P. Hohlweck (Hrsg.), Zersetzung. Automatismen und Strukturauflösung, 123-138, Paderborn: Verlag Wilhelm Fink.

Campbell, Jamie-Lee & Göritz, Anja (2014). Culture Corrupts! A Qualitative Study of Organizational Culture in Corrupt Organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, 120(3), 291-311.

FAZ (2014). Illegale Exporte. Deutscher Waffenhersteller unter Verdacht. www.faz.net/aktu-ell/politik/illegale-waffenexporte-sig-sauer-unter-verdacht-13024505.html (Accessed: 10/02/2023).

Federal Court of Justice (2021) Urteil vom 01.07.2021 – 3 StR 518/19. http://juris.bundesgerichtshof.de/cgi-bin/rechtsprechung/document.py?Gericht=bgh&Art=en&nr=122197&pos=0&anz=1 (Accessed: 10/02/2023).

Hegmann, Gerhard (2020). Deutschlands ältester Waffenhersteller SIG Sauer geht in die USA. www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article209033709/SIG-Sauer-Waffenhersteller-geht-in-die-USA.html (Accessed: 10/02/2023).

Kabisch, Volkmar, Obermaier, Frederik & Obermayer, Bastian (2014). Scharfschützengewehre fürs Bürgerkriegsland. www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/waffenlieferungen-von-sig-sauer-nach-suedamerika-scharfschuetzengewehre-fuers-buergerkriegsland-1.2082732 (Accessed: 10/02/2023).

Kabisch, Volkmar, Obermaier, Frederik & Obermayer, Bastian (2015). Wichtige Beweismittel im Verfahren gegen Sig Sauer gestohlen. www.sueddeutsche.de/wirtschaft/waffenherstel-ler-wichtige-beweismittel-im-verfahren-gegen-sig-sauer-gestohlen-1.2380112 (Accessed: 10/02/2023).

Kiel District Court (2019). Urteil vom 03.04.2019 – 3 KLs 3/18. https://openjur.de/u/2203626.html (Accessed: 10/02/2023).

Kiel public prosecutor’s office (2019). Urteil im Verfahren Sig Sauer. www.schleswig-holstein.de/DE/landesregierung/ministerien-behoerden/STA/Staatsanwaltschaften/Kiel/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/_documents/2019-04-03_Urteil_Sig_Sauer.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=2 (Accessed: 10/02/2023).

Palmer, Donald (2012). Normal Organizational Wrongdoing. A Critical Analysis of Theories of Misconduct in and by Organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pinto, Jonathan et al. (2008). Corrupt Organizations or Organizations of Corrupt Individuals? Two Types of Organization-Level Corruption. Academy of Management Review, 33(3), 685-709.

Vaughan, Diane (1998). Rational Choice, Situated Action, and the Social Control of Organizations. Law & Society Review, 32, 23-61.

Weick, Karl E. (21979). The Social Psychology of Organizing. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sources and further literature

SWR-Dokumentation (2015): Tödliche Exporte – Wie das G36 nach Mexiko kam (www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhlC0FbAXhs&t=1s). Zugegriffen am 05.01.2022.

 



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Markus Pohlmann (2023, 28. Juli). The normalization of rule breaking. Sig Sauer’s illegal pistol exports to Colombia. Organizational Crime Stories. Abgerufen am 19. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/phfl

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