Politics & Government

Kansas on the hunt for firearm makers

Wichita Eagle photo illustration

Kansas lawmakers look poised to loosen the state’s gun rules yet again.

After already broadening rules about locations where Kansans can go with a firearm in their belt or purse – and challenging local authorities wanting to ban guns in certain places – legislators now want to waive training requirements for the concealed-carry crowd.

It’s but the latest in a mounting series of gains against gun control in the state.

Gov. Sam Brownback hopes that an increasingly firearm-friendly environment helps draw gun makers and jobs to the state.

During the last 18 months, the Brownback administration has been trying to lure gun makers to Kansas, urged on by conservative lawmakers who think that easing gun restrictions could make the state more attractive to manufacturers under legislative assault elsewhere.

“We wouldn’t be in the game if it weren’t for our openness to guns and the Second Amendment,” said Pat George, Kansas commerce secretary.

But while gun makers say they’re fleeing states that passed tougher firearms laws, they have yet to choose Kansas as a haven.

At stake is a piece of an industry that churns through billions of dollars each year and employs tens of thousands of manufacturing workers across the country.

In the last two years, the conservative-dominated Kansas Legislature has aggressively gone after regulations that many lawmakers believe step on their constituents’ constitutional right to carry guns.

Lawmakers lifted restrictions on carrying concealed weapons into public buildings and empowered gun owners to tote firearms openly. And they passed a law, derided by critics as constitutionally questionable, shielding guns made in the state from federal regulation.

The gun issue is heating up in Topeka again this year with a new proposal to allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. A majority of senators already support the bill, enhancing its chances of approval from the full Legislature this year.

Wooing ‘Gun Valley’

The Legislature’s actions send a strong message to gun makers in other parts of the country, especially New England’s manufacturing-rich “Gun Valley,” that Kansas won’t regulate manufacturers out of business.

“It establishes Kansas as a very gun-friendly state,” said Kris Kobach, secretary of state and a gun enthusiast who owns a stake in a startup gun manufacturer in north Overland Park.

So far, Kansas hasn’t landed any big-name manufacturers, which probably has as much or more to do with the companies’ bottom line as it does with Second Amendment politics.

Gun and ammunition manufacturing is a $13 billion business in the United States, employing about 46,000 people. It reaped $1.4 billion in profits last year, according to market research company IBISWorld.

Like other manufacturers, gun makers look for affordable places with a skilled and educated workforce. States that deal out incentives may also have an edge in the recruiting game.

“Some of the states were willing to pay quite a bit,” George said. “When it comes down to dollars, there are some states that just have a bigger bank account than us.”

Critics say the Brownback administration’s efforts to attract gun makers are a desperate attempt to create jobs and demonstrate that his income tax cuts promote growth when the state is facing a massive budget deficit.

“As a matter of principle, why would you want to be known as the gun capital of the country when your economy is in the tank?” asked Susan Blaney, a founder of the northeast Kansas chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

But the Brownback administration sees gun making as a new source of jobs that could strengthen the Kansas economy.

Across the country, gun manufacturers have grown restless as a handful of state legislatures enacted tougher firearms restrictions in the aftermath of mass shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

Consider these examples:

▪ Last summer, gun maker Beretta USA decided to move its manufacturing operations out of Maryland after lawmakers there passed a law banning 45 military-style assault weapons and gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds. The company broke ground on a new $45 million plant in Gallatin, Tenn. It will employ 200 workers, a company official said. Meanwhile, the Maryland law is facing a challenge in federal court.

Rifle manufacturer PTR Industries moved 20 jobs to South Carolina from Bristol, Conn., after the state expanded its ban on assault weapons, including the type used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012. Connecticut also banned the sale and purchase of ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds. Connecticut “literally legislated the company out of business,” PTR spokesman Bob Grabowski said.

Kahr Firearms Group last spring broke ground on a new headquarters and a research unit in northeastern Pennsylvania after deciding to move out of New York after that state banned high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault weapons. Eventually, Kahr will add manufacturing facilities at its new Pennsylvania site.

“The atmosphere in New York state was getting toxic,” said engineer Doug Williams. “It was obvious that trying to maintain a long-term relationship in New York state was not a good idea.”

Kansas and Missouri are among states across the country watching what’s unfolding in the Northeast, thinking they might be able to capitalize on the opportunity to attract jobs and investment.

The most high-profile move came in Texas. It was led by Rick Perry, a political ally and friend of Brownback who at that time was Texas governor.

In September 2013, Perry visited Beretta USA to meet with company officials.

“I’m a pro-Second Amendment guy,” Perry told reporters. “Texas is a pro-Second Amendment state.”

Perry’s efforts paid dividends. O.F. Mossberg & Sons, one of the largest manufacturers of pump-action shotguns, announced last year that it was expanding its Texas operations.

The company, headquartered in Connecticut, is adding 116,000 square feet to its Eagle Pass, Texas, facility. The $3.4 million investment will mean 50 new Texas jobs. Ninety percent of the company’s operations will be based in Texas.

“Investing in Texas was an easy decision,” the company’s chief executive, Iver Mossberg, said in a statement. “It’s a state that is not only committed to economic growth but also honors and respects the Second Amendment.”

The fact that gun companies are looking for more sympathetic political venues should not be surprising, said Mike Bazinet, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group for the firearms and ammunition industries.

“While some states have acted to demonize gun makers and hurt their brand equity in the marketplace, many others see the economic value in the well-paying manufacturing jobs that our industry provides,” Bazinet said.

Looking south

Kansas business recruiters had been working off a list of more than 40 manufacturers in its recruiting efforts, officials said.

“We haven’t scored a victory,” George said, “but we’re still actively pursuing.”

Brownback said the competition for gun makers is intense. He estimates there are 25 states recruiting gun manufacturers.

“It’s an area where that a lot of people are recruiting,” Brownback said. “It’s been a hard one to get.”

Many of the firearms manufacturers are moving south — to Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina — where they get financial incentives and labor is cheaper, said Brian Ruttenbur, analyst with CRT Capital Group in Stamford, Conn, which tracks the gun industry.

“It’s a lot cheaper to manufacture in the South,” Ruttenbur said, “which is primarily where they are moving.”

Additionally, some Southern cities and states have been handing out millions in tax incentives to attract gun manufacturers.

Firearms manufacturer Remington received nearly $70 million in financial incentives to open a plant in Huntsville, Ala., that would employ 2,000 over the next 10 years, according to published reports.

The incentives included $38 million from the state to upgrade a former Chrysler plant and $10.5 million from local governments to buy the plant.

While Remington’s chief executive told Alabama reporters that he was disappointed with new gun regulations in New York, where it has a plant, he said that was not driving the company’s decision to move south. He also reportedly said that the quality of the workforce and tax incentives were factors.

Beretta USA received an estimated $4 million in local financial incentives plus free land to set up shop in Gallatin, Tenn., northeast of Nashville, according to published reports.

“Tennessee was one of the states we identified for a new facility based first and foremost for its tradition of respect for Second Amendment rights,” Beretta general counsel Jeff Reh said in an e-mail.

“Financial incentives only played a role in choosing Tennessee as compared to other finalist states under consideration.”

Some Kansas lawmakers – even staunch supporters of gun rights – recognize that money trumps politics in the economic development game. They acknowledge that companies will go where states make it worthwhile.

“It’s going to be a business decision. It’s not going to be a philosophical decision,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, who has pushed for laws lifting restrictions on guns. “They’re in business to make money, and that’s the way they are going to make their decisions.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send e-mail to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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