Biting the Bullet — And Leaving Connecticut

Bye bye, CT.
Bye bye, CT. // Michael McHugh

Surrounded by a tobacco store and a deserted Thai restaurant in a strip mall off I-95, a white-haired man in a baseball cap and plaid flannel shirt took a midday smoke on the stoop of Connecticut Firearms and Tactical LLC. The only marking on the storefront was a large sign reading “GUNS.” Below the awning, someone at the Orange, Conn.,-based retailer had pasted advertisements for National Rifle Association pistol courses and a bumper sticker with another message: “God bless our troops … especially our snipers.”

The date was April 19. 15 days earlier, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy had signed historic, tough new gun legislation into law.

A customer entered the shop, surveying the walls lined with guns, ammunition and pistol cases.

“Do you have a round of .40?” the customer asked. CFT was the only retailer in the state he had called that had that particular kind of ammunition in stock.

“Get it while you can, before the prices go up,” the attendant replied ominously. With state legislators having cracked down on gun sales in all iterations, the going rate for ammunition might just be as volatile as prices at the gas pump.

CFT used to stock AR-15s and AK-47s — the kind of assault rifles demonized in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. But the retailer had to completely reevaluate its merchandise and change its business model after the reform package extended the state’s assault weapons ban, limited the size of magazines and instigated universal background checks. The state’s House voted 105-44 in favor, with the approval of Malloy.

Both gun retailers and gun manufacturers alike have been hit hard by the decision — and are in the process of reacting to it.

Last week, Bristol’s PTR industries, which employs a staff of 50, announced that it will consider invitations to relocate to other states.

In an April 9 press release, PTR indicated that it will choose a new location within the next six weeks and aim to complete its relocation out of Connecticut by the end of the year.

“We feel that our industry as a whole will continue to be threatened so long as it remains in a state where its elected leaders have no regard for the rights of those who produce and manufacture its wealth,” the PTR release read. “We encourage those in our industry to abandon this state as its leaders have abandoned the proud heritage that forged our freedom.”

PTR is one — and the smallest — of four Connecticut gun manufacturers; the others include Stag Arms in New Britain, O.F. Mossberg & Sons, Inc. in North Haven and Colt Manufacturing Company LLC in West Hartford. Together, they employ over 1000 Connecticut residents.

As PTR urges both gun manufacturers and retailers to leave the state, showing politicians what the company describes as the “true consequences of their hasty and uninformed actions,” the future looks bleak for Connecticut residents dependent on the gun industry’s role in the state economy. Lawmakers, then, are fighting not just the gun-rights backlash born of the recent legislation but also accusations that they have created a hostile working environment for the Nutmeg State’s gun industry, one gun-related businesses may just do well to abandon.

“They don’t know what they can sell legally to whom, or when, or how,” said Josh Fiorini, the CEO of PTR.

“Their world just got turned upside down.”

‘Talk to a manufacturer at least once’

The gun industry has long regarded Connecticut as its home. In the early 1800s, Connecticut manufacturers produced the first affordable high quality firearms, earning the state designation as “the arsenal of democracy.” Hartford-born Samuel Colt, Colt Manufacturing’s namesake, invented the revolver design in 1836 and made his company the first in the world to produce firearms with interchangeable parts.

But everything changed after Newtown. Connecticut Senators Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and Chris Murphy have been lobbying the Senate since December to pass their background checks amendment, which failed just this past Wednesday. Local efforts for gun control were more successful: Malloy scrambled to create a bipartisan task force on gun violence prevention in the Connecticut senate and then pass the state’s sweeping 139-page package of new laws. Gun manufacturers claim the Malloy-backed legislative process did not incorporate their input. Fiorini said that he met with all of the legislative leaders responsible for the bill — and added that none of them had any technical expertise with regard to guns.

“There was a 100 percent lack of consultation,” Fiorini said. “If you’re writing healthcare legislation, might want to talk to a doctor at least once.”

Mike Bazinet, the spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry, confirmed that several industry executives went to Connecticut’s General Assembly with every intention of participating fully in the debate over reform. But he added that he took issue with the fact that the final legislation passed never received a public hearing.

Both Fiorini and Bazinet claimed that as the package was sped through the Connecticut legislature, lawmakers failed to even read it in full. Instead, Fiorini suggested, they based their opinion on a 16-page pamphlet that was “floating around.”

Things look different to those who backed the stricter laws.

Rob Pinciaro, the spokesperson for advocacy group Connecticut Against Gun Violence, called the idea that gun industry figures were left out of the legislative process “patently untrue.” He added that manufacturers were specifically invited to pubic informational hearings.

“I don’t know how many hearings they want,” Pinciaro said.

Such verbal sparring has even surfaced in the national media, further straining relations between the two groups. In an April 7 interview with CNN anchor Candy Crowley, Malloy launched an attack on the gun industry for which multiple manufacturers are demanding an apology.

“What this is about is the ability of the gun industry to sell as many guns to as many people as possible, even if they’re deranged, even if they’re mentally ill, even if they have a criminal record,” Malloy said on-air. “They don’t care.”

Manufacturers have accused Malloy of targeting them and of muddying their brand name. Bazinet dubbed the governor’s comments “inaccurate, intemperate and unhelpful to having a civil dialogue” and Fiorini, arguing that the public would not tolerate such antagonistic treatment of any other group, said they were “blatantly offensive.”

Gun industry representatives believe they have played their part. Bazinet said that the governor should know that all sales handled by federally licensed retailers at stores and gun shows go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check system (NICS), which he sees as the creation of the firearms industry.

“No one in the industry wants any firearm to go to a prohibited person,” Bazinet added. “To say otherwise is an insult to everyone who works in our industry.”

No longer the ‘arsenal of democracy’

Facing hostility in the legislature, gun industry leaders are poised to strike back by moving their facilities — and the jobs they provide — away from Connecticut. PTR is the first to make the public leap towards relocation, but it is likely that the company will start a trend among Connecticut gun manufacturers.

The exodus of manufacturers could pose a potent threat to the state economy. Connecticut’s unemployment rate of 8 percent is higher than the national rate of 7.6 percent and Malloy’s budget has been criticized as unrealistic, given the state’s $1.2 billion deficit.

Bazinet pointed out that the firearms industry has an economic impact in the state of more than $1.7 billion. He added that manufacturers have clearly stated, both in testimony before the legislature and in the media, that they oppose the state’s new law for its potential effect on their companies’ brand equity and sales.

“Whether more manufacturers ultimately decide to move will be their individual decisions based on their due diligence of the costs and impacts involved, but such decisions are under very serious consideration,” Bazinet said.

Even Pinciaro conceded a concern for gun-related jobs, arguing that it is not in the best interest of the state for gun manufacturers to relocate.

“They can sell just as well from this state as any other,” Pinciaro added.

The stakes are higher for the governor. Andrew Doba, his press aide, emphasized that Malloy thinks about jobs and economic development “24 hours a day” but said protecting Connecticut’s public safety remains his top priority. The bill signed into law will improve security and make Connecticut’s communities and families safer, Doba added. He said Malloy hoped that the gun industry would join the state in that effort.

But while public safety improvements may trump the economic activity provided by gun manufacturers from a Connecticut perspective, politicians in other states welcome any economic boost. Texas Governor Rick Perry practically rolled out the red carpet for Connecticut gun manufacturers with a post on Twitter last Friday. “Hey, PTR. Texas is still wide open for business!! Come on down!” he chirped.

Manufacturers believe that states in the Southeast and Southwest boast cultures that would welcome their presence as an industry. Some 20 states have so far reached out to Connecticut-based gun manufacturers with invitations to move and offers of economic assistance.

But Texas, Fiorini said, is at the top of PTR’s list, thanks to its cultural support for gun ownership and individual rights.

“[Texas] is a business-friendly state government,” Fiorini said, identifying it as a “long-term safe haven” for gun manufacturers.

Such a haven stands in contrast to other states with liberal leanings. Were PTR to move to a state like Massachusetts, Fiorini said, its fate would remain uncertain.

In Texas, it is assured.

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