Tue, Dec 25, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The town that made weapons for a massacre

Ilion is home to Remington Arms, which made the Bushmaster rifle used in the Newtown massacre. It now finds itself at the center of the US gun control debate

By Ed Helmore  /  The Guardian, ILION, New York

The Christmas lights were up in the Remington Arms Co and throughout the Mohawk Valley town of Ilion last week. However, the sign proclaiming “Happy Holidays” over the entrance to the gunmakers had come down, the company museum was shuttered and the custom gun shop was closed “for stock-taking.”

Since the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, Remington Arms, a name synonymous with rifle making for almost two centuries, has found itself in the crosshairs of the debate over gun violence. When the Washington Post reports a boom in bulletproof backpacks for children, it is not a good time to be a resident of a place colloquially known as “The Arms.”

Two years ago the private equity giant Cerberus Capital Management (the father of its deer-hunting chief executive officer, Steve Feinberg, lives in Newtown) moved production of the Bushmaster assault-style semi-automatic rifle used in the Connecticut slaughter to Remington’s grand, 19th century factory in upstate New York.

Cerberus was looking at implementing efficiency measures from the six gunmakers it acquired to create an industry powerhouse to rival Colt Manufacturing. The firm’s skilled gunsmiths are left with a feeling close to dread.

“Nobody wants to think they had a hand in making the Newtown gun,” one worker remarked as he passed through the factory gates on Friday.

As US President Barack Obama prepares to expend political capital in backing new curbs on military-style firepower before the horror of Newtown dims, the people of Ilion — named after the Greek spelling of the historic city of Troy — were preparing for the worst: that Remington, one of the few large employers in an area once prosperous with manufacturing, could itself become a victim of the political storm raging over guns.

Bad reputation

Draconian new laws, they fear, could prompt Remington’s owners to move production again to a more gun-friendly state with the loss of hundreds of Ilion’s only manufacturing jobs.

“If they did that, you could just roll up the sidewalks and shut Ilion down,” local business owner Jim Crossways said. “It would be devastating.”

Last week Remington and Bushmaster’s parent company, The Freedom Group, were put up for sale by Cerberus after CalSTRS, the California teacher’s pension fund, concluded it had no business investing in a company that made a gun used to shoot students. Then former Wall Street prosecutor Eliot Spitzer called it: “The weapon that brought evil to Newtown.”

Beyond the sign at the gate — “Be Sure Your Gun is Unloaded and the Action Open before Proceeding” — and amid the pervasive smell of gun oil, workers and managers, many of whose forefathers worked at the factory, were holding crisis meetings about a situation that could be the most severe since the firm was founded in 1816 by Eliphalet Remington, a gunsmith from the Mohawk Valley who acquired a reputation for making a weapon that shot straight.

The firm not only produced rifles for the US Civil War and wars of independence in Latin America (a Remington is on the Guatemalan flag), it also helped meet demand for British Enfield rifles in World War I and, by one estimate, is the oldest company in the US which still makes its original product as well as the oldest continuously operating manufacturer.

However, that proud heritage is under threat. After previous shootings, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to force manufacturers to introduce “micro-stamping” to make bullets traceable to individual guns — a manufacturing process that Remington’s corporate bosses in North Carolina warn could force the firm to “reconsider its commitment” to New York.

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