In New England's 'Gun Valley,' Democratic politicians have a complex relationship with the firearms industry – CT Insider
The Smith & Wesson firearms company is moving out of Deep River and relocating in Tennessee.
Smith & Wesson’s announcement this month that it would relocate its headquarters from Springfield, Mass. to Tennessee, and close its Connecticut plant, rekindled a debate over gun control measures the industry deeply abhors — and exposed an odd, long-simmering relationship.
Beneath that debate, emerging at events such as the Smith & Wesson move, lurks the tense and complex coexistence between the left-leaning politicians of New England’s “Gun Valley,” and a firearms industry that cemented Connecticut’s identity as a hub for defense and precision manufacturing.
Even former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a sharp critic of the gun industry following the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, showed a mixed relationship with the firearms business.
Connecticut’s iconic gun maker Colt’s Manufacturing Co., was teetering after years of mounting debts, the loss of military contracts, and a recent bankruptcy filing when the company received a lifeline in 2017 from the Malloy administration. Colt had made noises about exiting West Hartford after Malloy’s strict gun-control law in 2013, and Malloy, for his part, had left Colt — and all other gunmakers — off a task force when he crafted the law.
Now, Colt was seeking millions in taxpayer dollars to stay.
The $10 million loan that Malloy’s Department of Economic Community Development floated to Colt — with the agreement that the gunmaker remain in the state for at least six years while employing hundreds of workers — is emblematic of the on-again-off-again relationship between Democrats in power and the industry.
Just one week after Smith & Wesson’s announcement, Gov. Ned Lamont appeared with four other Democratic governors to announce an effort to better track the flow of guns into the Northeast.
When asked about the plant closure in Deep River, Lamont was circumspect, choosing to focus on individual jobs rather than the firearms industry at large.
“I hate to lose jobs,” Lamont said. “I’ll make a special effort for the folks that lost their job, to get them a good job. Get them a good job not making guns.”
Smith & Wesson officials blamed their head-office move from Springfield on new gun control measures proposed by Massachusetts lawmakers, including sa ban on firearms it defined as assault weapons. Local leaders in Connecticut quickly questioned the company’s motives for the move, which will also force the closure of Smith & Wesson’s facility in Deep River by 2023, affecting more than 100 workers.
Whatever the reason for the move, those weapons — military-style, semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15— accounted for more than 60 percent of the company’s revenues last year.
Smith & Wesson did not respond to repeated requests for comment this month.
In response to questions about the company’s current relationship with Connecticut leaders, a spokesperson for Colt’s new parent company, Czech gun-maker Česká zbrojovka Group, did not address gun control efforts by lawmakers and defended its acceptance of the DECD loan as a “business decision.”
“Colt is an important local employer and also makes a further significant contribution to the regional economy by purchasing the large majority of its parts locally,” said the spokesperson, Eva Svobodová. “Colt currently has no plans to relocate, but as a commercial organization, it is constantly evaluating what makes most sense for the business. Colt is now part of the CZ Group, which is a strategic investor with concrete plans to grow Colt for the long term.
While no such manufacturing ban exists in Connecticut, the centerpiece of the 2013 measure after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a ban on a wide array of military-style weapons and extended magazines.
Connecticut state is widely considered to have some of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation.
“The concerns that drove Smith & Wesson in Massachusetts are ever present in Connecticut,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group based in Newtown.
“I think it’s driven by the open hostility by state legislatures,” Keane said. “It’s clearly what motivated Smith & Wesson. We’ve seen that from other companies that have left the Northeast for more gun friendly situations.”
Proponents of gun control measures, however, say that they are merely a scapegoat for companies seeking the promise of tax incentives by moving the South or West, where they can also pay lower wages. A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Revenue declined to comment on any deal behind the company’s move, citing Tennessee law.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a strident supporter of tougher gun laws, said he was unconvinced that those restrictions were behind any company’s decision to invest millions of dollars in a move across the country.
“These companies often take political potshots on their way out of town,” Murphy said. “But they have underlying economic reasons for their move.”
But rattling off a list of gun manufacturers that have made similar moves to the South and West — Beretta leaving Maryland for Tennessee, Weatherby abandoning California for Wyoming and O.F. Mossberg & Sons choosing to expand in Texas rather than at its facilities in North Haven — Keane said that the state leaders’ approach to the gun industry have ranged from apathy to outright disdain.
At the firearms industry’s annual “Shot Show,” in Las Vegas, for example, Keane said that governors or other representatives from states such as South Dakota, Oklahoma, or Tennessee will often appear in hopes of wooing a manufacturer to relocate. In nearly 20 years, Connecticut has never sent a delegation, he said.
Jim Watson, a spokesman for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said the agency was more broadly focused on improving the state’s business environment and sectors of the economy such as aerospace and defense, finance and insurance.
“The department is always willing to work with companies, listen to their concerns and, if needed, connect them to resources to support new investment and growth in the state,” Watson said in an email. “That being said, we realize there may be some factors — like gun laws — that we may ultimately not be able to see eye-to-eye on or are beyond the department’s control.”
Aerospace and defense giants such as Pratt & Whitney and Sikorsky, backbone of Connecticut manufacturing, trace their roots to the industrial ecosystem built by 18th- and 19th-century gunmakers such as Eli Whitney, Oliver Winchester, Simeon North and Sam Colt. And the state supports those defense giants, but does not include gun manufacturing on the list of key Connecticut manufacturers.
“Do we care about these jobs and want those jobs in the state of Connecticut? Yes we do,” said David Lehman, the state economic and community development commissioner. “The line for us is providing a taxpayer incentive to what I feel could be divisive industries or sin industries like tobacco and firearms.”
Despite the losses of recent decades, several major manufacturers of firearms retain a presence in Connecticut. In addition to the Colt’s factory in West Hartford, Charter Arms and Mossberg each have a continued presence in the state and Sturm, Ruger & Co. has its corporate headquarters in Fairfield.
Just over 1,000 workers were employed in Connecticut last year making firearms and ammunition, representing less than 1 percent of the overall manufacturing workforce, DECD figures show. While the number of firearms produced in the country has surged in the last decade, production in Connecticut has plummeted.
Colt, which purchased the original design for the AR-15 as a military weapon in the 1950s,developed it into the M-16 and was the first company to sell a consumer version, stopped producing AR-15’s in 2019, citing an “adequate supply” produced by competitors. After emerging from bankruptcy and its purchase by CZG earlier this year, Colt repaid its loan from DECD in full on March 24, Watson said. That terminated the company’s agreement with the state to keep at least 615 jobs in the state until the end of this year.
When asked whether the DECD loan to Colt represented some willingness by state officials to work with the firearms industry, NSSF spokesman Mark Olivia dismissed the notion.
“The state is not friendly to the industry,” Olivia said. “I think those are business decisions.”
Murphy, who has an office in the former Colt Armory in Hartford and has pushed for the site to be designated a National Historical Park, said earlier this month that attempts to more heavily regulate the industry do not diminish its importance.
“I think there’s an important story to tell about how the firearms industry in Connecticut modernized manufacturing in this country, and how the weapons the firearms industry has produced have won a lot of wars and protected a lot of Americans,” Murphy said.
“I think that view is completely consistent with my view that there needs to be some common sense restrictions on the kind of weapons that are sold.”
John Moritz covers politics and local government in the shoreline region of Connecticut. A native of Norwalk, he spent five years reporting on news and politics in Arkansas, where he won awards for stories on an epidemic of gun violence and the state’s execution of four prisoners in 2017. He holds a degree in journalism and political science from Temple University.