It’s been a momentous year for the gun industry in many ways, and for Connecticut’s gun makers more than for most. Events in Newtown changed the landscape for an industry which some people feel is implicated in the tragedy.
Mark Malkowski keeps a file box in his office filled with multiple offers from 42 different states asking him to move his business out of Connecticut. "We were solicited all over the country by thousands of different people," he said. "It was the mayor; it was the governor; it was state senate representatives; and in some cases, individuals: children, saying their dad needs a job."
Malkowski runs Stag Arms, based in New Britain, which employs 200 people making modern sporting rifles – a firearm similar to the one used by Adam Lanza at Newtown. He said that before the shooting, he’d never received a solicitation to move. "That all really started after everything that was going on in Hartford, with the governor, some of the statements that he made," Malkowski said. "Very quickly after that, a lot of the other states said, well, these are good businesses; these are people who employ a lot of people. If they don’t want them in Connecticut, we’d love to have them wherever we are."
The gun industry has a storied history in Connecticut, and while most manufacturing has now moved out of the state, it is still home to big names like Sturm Ruger and Colt. As the debate over new gun controls heated up, the gun companies organized by their lobbying arm, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, showed up at public hearings in Hartford.
But Malkowski said people weren't listening. "When the governor put together his task force," he said, "he put together a group of people -- experts that he wanted to help determine how to make the state safer. And on that board, there wasn’t even one person from the firearms industry, so it seems like we were locked out from the beginning."
At the same time, as they were fighting against tighter laws in the state, Connecticut's gun makers were seeing something extraordinary happening to their marketplace. Background checks for sales were up almost 60 percent last December, in the immediate days after the shooting, and gun makers themselves acknowledged the boost in sales was because of the prospect of tighter gun controls.
In the end, Connecticut enacted legislation that, among other things, banned assault weapons, and ended the sale of magazines that hold more than ten rounds. The law runs to more than 130 pages. "What they came up with is a very, very complex law," Malkowski said, "something that is extremely onerous, and so complex, that in fact, the state police took months to be able to interpret it. The majority of the products we sell here are not legal anymore for sale in Connecticut."
On the shop floor at PTR Industries in Bristol, another maker of sporting rifles, CEO Josh Fiorini said this is the last few weeks of production for the company here in Connecticut. On January 13, they will pack up shop and move to the town of Aynor in South Carolina. "It was definitely very sudden," Fiorini said. "You know, moving was the last thing from our mind last Thanksgiving."
PTR is, so far, the only gun maker to commit to leaving Connecticut. Fiorini said that’s partly because, for them, there were some urgent business reasons to move. "If you look out on the factory [floor], we can't fit another wrench in there, let alone another machine. We really needed to expand." Originally, they had looked at acquiring more land near their Bristol shop, but when the legislation passed, they started looking seriously elsewhere.
Fiorini said, “We asked ourselves, does it make sense to invest in additional real estate in a place where we're not sure it's totally legal for us to do business, and where the ground is sort of soft, in a metaphorical sense." Like Malkowski at Stag, Fiorini said Connecticut's gun legislation raised more questions than it answered for manufacturers whose products could no longer be sold or registered in the state. "For example, we were curious whether or not we were allowed to take a firearm to the range for testing," he said. "We would have been allowed that had they been registered, but we were unable to register them, and therefore: can we do that, can we not? We don't know."
Gun makers expected a legislative response to Newtown, but they wanted the focus to be on school security and mental health. "At some point," Fiorini said, "the discussion stopped being about how can we prevent the next tragedy, and started being about how do we take advantage of this to get rid of as many ugly guns as we can."
Governor Malloy remained unmoved, as he made clear in an emotional state of the state address, saying, "Freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher. And security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom. That's not who we are in Connecticut."
Back in New Britain , despite his thousand-plus offers, Malkowski said that although he seriously considered moving, visiting Texas and South Carolina to scout new locations, as his momentous year comes to a close, he’s staying put. "At the end of the day," he said, "our products do very well. The reason they sell very well is because they’re put together well, and that really has to do with the employees."
That decision is common, according to an analysis made this summer by economists at UConn. They found little relationship between local gun policy and the location of firearms manufacturers. While this has been a year of legislative upheaval, the sales boost which began after Newtown has been sustained. Malkowski said Stag Arms's sales are still 40 percent above the same time last year.