Washington — While they’re keeping a low profile, representatives of Connecticut’s firearms industry are in the thick of the national gun control fight.
After the shooting deaths of 20 young children and six educators in Newtown in December, Connecticut’s gun makers must weigh the damage that opposing gun control would have on public opinion against the economic impact of a ban on some their most popular and expensive guns.
Not surprisingly, economic impact often wins out.
Michael Fifer, chief executive officer of Sturm, Ruger & Co., has a personal appeal on the company website to its customers; he asks them to send a prepared e-mail to members of Congress warning that “gun rights are under attack” and to have their friends do the same.
“Given the forces assembling against us, merely relying upon lobbying efforts is insufficient,” Fifer said. “Law-abiding firearm owners must stand up and be heard. This affects all of us, so we cannot stand idly by and rely upon others to fight on our behalf. Too much is at stake.”
Southport-based Sturm, Ruger & Co. isn’t dependent on a grass-roots defense of the industry, however. Gun manufacturers can count on the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups who are fighting their battle in Washington against any change in federal gun laws.
Last year, Sturm, Ruger & Co. donated nearly $1.3 million to the NRA, which makes most of its money from corporate donations, not member dues.
“It’s a big election year coming up, and we have to do everything we can to protect the Second Amendment right to bear arms,” said Fifer in a video announcing the gift to the NRA last year.
By becoming a lightning rod for criticism from gun-control advocates with its high-profile opposition to President Obama’s gun-control initiatives, the NRA is deflecting much of the heat from the nation’s gun manufacturers.
Congress is considering some of those initiatives, including universal background checks and bans on military-style assault rifles and high-capacity magazine cartridges. Connecticut’s firearms industry, some of which manufacture assault rifles, has joined the NRA in its absolutist stance, but it has adopted a lower profile.
“I don’t think gun bans are going to serve any purpose,” said Joseph Bartozzi, senior vice president and general counsel of Mossberg & Sons, a North Haven company established in 1919.
The NRA began its life in 1871 as an amateur rifle club. In the 1970s, however, the NRA changed its focus from hunting, conservation and marksmanship to one of Second Amendment advocacy and political mobilization. Spending millions of dollars in political cash and sending orange postcard “alerts” to its 4.5 million members on politicians’ record on gun control, the NRA has become a formidable force in Washington and state capitols.
Like Sturm, Ruger & Co., and many other American gun makers, Colt Manufacturing supports the NRA financially. Colt gave the NRA $20,000 last year to help it in its “Bianchi Cup” speed shooting competition, for example.
Colt Chief Financial Officer Joyce Rubino said she did not know the total amount of money her company gives to the NRA. But she said Colt is “involved in several NRA programs” like the Bianchi Cup.
According to a report by the Washington, D.C.- based Violence Policy Center, from 2005 to 2011 contributions from gun industry “corporate partners” to the NRA totaled between $14.7 million and $38.9 million.
“Despite the NRA’s historical claims that it is not financially allied with the gun industry… NRA ‘corporate partners’ include many of the world’s best known gun makers,” the report said.
Colt, which employs 670 people in its West Hartford manufacturing facility, also tries to influence federal lawmakers through campaign contributions.
In recent years, company Chief Executive Officer William Keys donated $6,800 to the 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, $5,000 to the party’s 2012 candidate Mitt Romney and $7,000 to national Republican Party organizations.
Keys also gave the campaign of Republican Justin Bernier, a strong Second Amendment advocate, $2,500 in 2009 when Bernier was running to represent the 5th Congressional District, which includes Newtown. But Democrat Chris Murphy, a gun-control advocate, was able to keep that seat and was elected to the Senate last year.
Colt has made guns in Connecticut for about 160 years and is one of many firearm manufacturers established in the state in the 19th and early 20th century. Some, like Marlin, have relocated, and others have closed.
Hartford gun hearing
But at a hearing in Hartford last month on proposed state gun regulations, weapons makers stressed the continued importance of the industry to the state, saying it generates $1.75 billion in revenue and creates thousands of jobs.
Perhaps out of respect for the pain felt in the state over the Newtown shootings, Connecticut’s gun manufacturers were muted in their criticism of proposed gun-control legislation.
“In the end, whatever changes are implemented must make our society saner and safer,” Dennis Veilleux, Colt’s chief executive officer, testified at the Hartford hearing.
Veilleux said he’d support a strengthening of gun safety measures in the home and improving the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System on gun purchasers at dealers.
Veilleux advocated placing more mental health records in the NICS system. But Connecticut gun manufacturers and the NRA strongly oppose Congress’ attempt to extend those background checks to buyers at gun shows and from individuals. Those sales account for up to 40 percent of gun purchases, and the president wants them subject to background checks.
“I don’t know where that would be helpful, or how that would help me hand down a firearm to my children,” Bartozzi, of Mossberg & Sons, told the Connecticut Mirror.
Mossberg & Sons was among several gun manufacturers that pulled out of a gun exhibition scheduled to begin Feb. 2 in Harrisburg, Pa., because the event’s founders, in deference to the Newtown tragedy, banned assault weapons from their show.
“Mossberg’s position on the Second Amendment is unwavering and steadfast; therefore the company will not support any organization or event that prohibits the display or sale of legal firearms,” a company statement said.
Mossberg & Sons and other gun manufacturers prefer to call assault weapons “modern sporting rifles,” and say they are increasingly popular in hunting and target shooting. Bartozzi said the guns are “a growing segment of our sales.”
The British organizer of the event, Reed Exhibitions, was forced to postpone its Pennsylvania show.
Bartozzi said Connecticut’s gun manufacturers are as upset as gun-control advocates about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“We all know people who live in Newtown,” he said.
But he said gun makers like Mossberg & Sons, which employs 270 people in the state, should not be “cast as the bad guys” in the tragedy.
“It’s very difficult to be vilified because we are a lawful job-creating business in Connecticut,” Bartozzi said.