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.
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.
In private, Remington managers advanced an argument common to US gun owners: Events such as Newtown or the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this year, however tragic, are primarily a failure of mental health care.
At least half of the perpetrators in 100 rampages studied by the New York Times were found to have signs of serious mental health issues, and it was reported last week that Adam Lanza’s mother was in the process of having him committed when he embarked on the Newtown rampage.
On Friday, National Rifle Association (NRA) chief executive Wayne LaPierre offered the lobbying group’s own prescription to tackle the problem of school shootings: The nation’s schools should be placed under a “cordon of protection” by armed officers.
LaPierre also criticized violent video games and spoke of the need to deal more effectively with the mentally ill. Gun-free school zones identified by signs. he said, “tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to effect maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”
LaPierre’s point of view is in step with some opinion in Ilion, where the media, with its power to grant instant notoriety, is viewed as an unwitting component in the decision-making of mentally ill teens to vent their anger through a public atrocity.
After an era when gun laws were more likely to be relaxed than strengthened — Michigan passed a law to allow concealed weapons in public schools and daycare centers — it remains moot whether Obama’s call for action can acquire enough political support. Despite signs of conversion from NRA-backed senators Joe Manchin and Mark Warner, legislation will have to reach further than previous efforts to control “modern sporting rifles” — military-style semi-automatics.
Gun enthusiasts point out that the Bushmaster weapon used by Adam Lanza in Newtown was legal even under a decade-long assault-rifle ban that was allowed to expire in 2004.
“It’s a horrible tragedy, but he stole it from his mother, killed her, and then went to the school and shot the children,” Crossways says. “That’s not the gun or the company’s fault.”
Still, the availability of assault-style weapons, with their ready customization and add-ons, plays straight into male fantasies of firepower. Comparing an ordinary rifle with a semi-automatic Bushmaster is like comparing tobacco with “cigarettes laced with addictive additives,” Crossways says.
However, at Remington there is a sense that its heritage as a riflemaker (with a single government contract for sniper rifles) may have been squandered under pressure from Cerberus and The Freedom Group (which acquired the loss-making firm in 2007) to win market share and lucrative military contracts for the AR-15 from Colt, the primary supplier of the Eugene Stoner-designed weapon to the US Army.
Cerberus’s Freedom Group is on track to record US$900 million in sales this year. Potential buyers include Heckler & Koch of Germany or Forjas Taurus of Brazil. Overall, more than 200,000 assault-style guns were sold last year, making it one of the best years ever for the recession-busting gun.
According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, attitudes on gun control have shifted only slightly over the last week, with 49 percent saying it is more important to control gun ownership, while 42 percent say it is more important to protect gun rights. Five months ago, opinion was almost evenly divided.