After being targeted for regulation by lawmakers in liberal states, the country’s premier gunmakers are making quiet but bold calculations to move some of their operations out of New England’s “Gun Valley” and into states they believe will appreciate them more.
Colt, Smith & Wesson, and Remington all built their guns and brands out of New England traditions that go back to the musket-makers that helped George Washington win the Revolutionary War. Second- and third-generation employees dominate the machining halls at sites like Remington’s rifle shop in Ilion, N.Y.
But even as companies like Remington have seen their workforces nearly double amid a gun-buying boom, the positive economic aspects of gunsmithing have clashed with liberal lawmakers who have philosophical problems with the role of gunmakers in America’s significant gun violence, leading to gun restrictions that directly impact production lines in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and Colorado.
That clash between gunmakers and lawmakers undergirds a massive recalibration of arms manufacturing in the US, with companies like Beretta, Ruger, Remington, Mossberg, Stag Arms, and Magpul making plans to downsize their presence in states that are perceived as unfriendly, while building state-of-the art plants in regions and states with lower labor costs, bigger tax incentives, and, critically, fewer uncertainties about gun-control regulations.
A case in point: Remington is planning to consolidate much of its operations at a new plant near Huntsville, Ala., while trimming as many as 150 jobs at its Ilion plant.
The backdrop is dramatic: Even as America endures what seems like a ceaseless tide of mass shootings, the gun business is booming – a rare bright spot in American manufacturing. In that light, states taking a stand against gun proliferation are starting to realize that vilifying gunmakers may come at a heavy economic cost.
“By relocating to these states [gunmakers] are moving closer to their largest customer base, lowering transportation costs and increasing flexibility,” says IBISWorld gun industry analyst Maksim Soshkin, in an e-mail. Moreover, “these regions’ gun-friendly regulations and environment also reduces manufacturers’ anxiety about future regulatory burdens and increases the range of products they can sell locally.”
“Gun Valley” has long put anti-gun politicians in a tough spot. Gunmakers pump millions into local communities and millions more into tax coffers. Many of the old plants are community anchors, and union wages (around $17 per hour) are enough for at least some workers to buy a new car every few years. The industry is credited with helping create New England’s middle class as other industries came into Gun Valley – basically a precursor to Silicon Valley – to take advantage of a labor pool rich in talent and innovation.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, Conn., stated in a 2013 report that Connecticut could lose 1,768 jobs and $463 million in economic activity and business tax revenues if the major gunmakers – Colt, Mossberg, and Stag Arms – were to leave.
Those figures underscore how gunmakers’ emerging plans to expand outside of Gun Valley come at a critical time for New England manufacturing.
A year ago, Neil Swidey wrote in The Boston Globe that Smith & Wesson’s $40 million investment in its Springfield, Mass., plant “has very real economic implications for a struggling region. There’s even a chance that the current boom could see guns reprise their role from two centuries ago, powering the growth of other high skill manufacturing throughout” New England.
At the same time, Mr. Swidey wrote, many people in that same region “have a hard time reconciling their dislike of guns with their support for what guns can provide, namely a good living for blue-collar workers.”
That unease accompanies growing evidence that heavy investments by gunmakers in gun-cautious states may fade. One of the most potent and unspoken motivators for gun companies is their passionate consumer base. Gun owners are loathe to pay state taxes that could help fund the cost of more gun regulation.
“The fact is, these companies are in a position where they have to make choices [about relocating] or they’ll be punished by their consumers,” says Frank Miniter, author of the upcoming book “The Future of the Gun.”
That situation has ensnared politicians such as US Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, who is often on the front lines of the gun-control movement, praising companies like Remington for creating jobs while rallying to ban products that Remington makes.
He’s not alone. Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick (D), an ardent gun-control advocate, smoothed the way for a $6 million tax break to sweeten a pitch for Smith & Wesson to relocate 225 jobs from New Hampshire to Massachusetts. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, a member of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, was successful in carving out $600,000 in local incentives for Smith & Wesson.
Other New England leaders aren’t as concerned about the well-being of gunmakers.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said last year that “public safety trumps” concerns about arms-makers leaving the state. “I hope they stay and manufacture products that can legally be sold,” he said. “But if they leave, that will be a decision they make. We’re not making them leave.”
Some gunmakers disagree. A new gun-control law in Maryland in theory will allow Beretta to continue operating in the state, but in reality the law creates a “hot mess” for the firm, notes the company’s general counsel, Jeff Reh, in an interview with Cam Edwards of NRA News.
Since the law bans certain kinds of rifles and accessories, Mr. Reh said it creates for the company “the metaphysical rarity of making and shipping something but not having [parts or products] in inventory or storage.”
To be sure, Remington’s move is the biggest one so far. It’s consolidation near Huntsville will impact not only Ilion, N.Y., but Remington shops in Minnesota, North Carolina, and Utah.
Gun-accessory maker Magpul showed that its threats to leave Colorado after the state passed gun-control laws haven’t been idle. The company is moving its operations to Texas and Wyoming.
Beretta is opening a state-of-the-art gun factory in Tennessee later this year, and Kahr Arms is moving its headquarters from New York to Pennsylvania. Southport, Conn.-based Ruger never considered Connecticut for an expansion, deciding instead to put a 450-job plant in Mayodan, N.C.
Stag Arms scrapped a plan to build a fourth factory in New Britain, Conn. and is instead searching for a location out of state.
Many Americans say it’s a price worth paying if clashing with gun-makers can save lives. Reh, the Ruger counsel, takes a different view of the company’s situation.
“We’ve generated $30 million in Maryland taxes over a decade,” he says. “We’ve planned huge investments, and this is what we get.”