The big brick Remington gun factory pieces together military-style rifles in a state that has just banned their sale after a string of mass shootings led to a national outcry over civilian ownership of them.
Residents of Ilion see the issue differently: The gun factory is a major local employer and a source of pride for almost two centuries.
As Mayor John Stephens put it, “Remington is Ilion. Ilion is Remington.”
Little wonder that residents in this Mohawk Valley town are defending Remington after state lawmakers banned the sale of semi-automatic rifles like the Bushmaster weapon made there. The move came after the weapon was linked to gunmen in the deadly Connecticut school shooting and in the Christmas Eve slayings of two firefighters in western New York.
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Remington employee Tom Bradle said don’t blame the guns in mass shootings, blame the shooters.
“It’s the person that pulls the trigger. I don’t care what kind of gun it is,” Bradle said as he walked back to the factory from lunch break on a chilly, gray day recently.
Remington has been intertwined with Ilion since shortly after Eliphalet Remington crafted a flintlock rifle on his father’s forge in 1816. Even the elementary school shares the company’s name. Company officials did not respond to calls seeking comment, but locals say the factory employs about 1,200 people and produces Bushmaster, Marlin and H&R products.
Parts of the Remington Arms Co. factory, with its imposing four-story front of brick and old-style, multi-paned windows, date back to the days when upstate New York was a manufacturing powerhouse. But factory jobs have become rarer in the string of modest towns along the Mohawk River, and Ilion, with about 8,000 residents, depends heavily on Remington.
Stephens, the mayor, voiced a sentiment heard frequently in this largely conservative area: New York’s law and the sweeping gun regulation package proposed recently by President Obama are wrongheaded.
The New York law, starting when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it Jan. 15, defined as illegal assault weapons semi-automatic rifles that accept detachable magazines and have one additional military-style feature such as a pistol grip, flash suppressor or bayonet mount. The old law required two such features.
At the State Bowling Center next to the Remington factory, Rod Brown said the weapon that the Newtown gunman used could easily have been a Smith & Wesson or a Browning instead of a Bushmaster model.
Kelley Holmes-Morton in her salon, Heads-R-Turning, said she is a National Rifle Association member who believes gun makers are not to blame. And Betty Watkins said as she pumped gas that the Second Amendment, about people’s right to bear arms, is being “pushed around and misused.”
Bushmaster is owned by Freedom Group Inc., the largest firearms maker in the U.S., which has its headquarters in another state, outside the neighboring towns of Madison and Mayodan, N.C.
The company said last March it could move its plant out of New York if the state went ahead with a move to add unique identifying information on spent bullet casings. That proposal is off the table, but people in town wonder where things stand in the wake of the new state law, which does not affect Remington’s ability to manufacture military-style weapons.
“If I’m an executive at Remington, what’s my attitude going to be toward the state that bans one of the premier products that I produce?” local Assemblyman Marc Butler asked.
Obama’s gun control proposal added more uncertainty. Jamie Rudwall, who has worked at the plant since 1995 and is president of the United Mine Workers of America Local 717, said he expected the gun business to increase in the short term, but he worries about jobs in Ilion long term.
“We’ve been here almost 200 years,” he said. “I hope to be here another 200.”