New England’s ‘gun valley’ roiled by Newtown massacre

Firearms have been manufactured in New England for hundreds of years, giving the region the nickname “gun valley.” But in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in December, tighter gun control laws are swiftly being enacted there. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)
February 27, 2013

Steve Sanetti goes to work every day as the president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the lobbying association for the firearms industry, based in a former bank building a few miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

On Dec. 14, Sanetti was at Kennedy airport in New York, about to fly to Germany, when he saw TV bulletins about the massacre. He raced back to Newtown and called his staff together.

What do you say when you’re the gun lobby based down the road from where a gunman has invaded a school and slaughtered 20 first-graders and six women? At first, just a brief statement of shock and sympathy, but no major pronouncements. “We figured it would just be exacerbating the suffering of people in the town,” Sanetti said.

Gradually, the NSSF has become more outspoken, as have some Connecticut gun companies. This is the nation's historic center of firearms manufacturing. People refer to the Connecticut River Valley as “gun valley.” If you own a revolver, it was probably made in New England. Most of the rifles made in the United States come from the Northeast. It’s no accident that the firearms lobby is based in Connecticut.

Sanetti, in a rare sit-down interview in his office, said the new push for bans on military-style weapons and large ammunition magazines smacks of political opportunism.

How the NRA exerts influence over Congress

“The horrors of 20 dead children, frankly, is being exploited,” he said.

New gun laws, he suggested, could be a product of an emotional reaction more than of a rational one.

“Anytime people act out of fear or act out of haste or act out of anger, they’re liable to make a bad decision,” Sanetti said.

But many people in Connecticut say that now is precisely the time to act. They say that if we can’t take action to curb gun violence after what happened in Newtown, when could we ever do it?

On Valentine’s Day, about 5,000 people from across the state gathered on the steps of the Capitol in Hartford, and on the plaza in front, and on top of snowbanks, to demand tighter restrictions on firearms. Many had never marched for anything or ever waved a placard. What happened in Newtown got them off the couch and onto buses and to Hartford, to stand in the cold and demand action.

“My sister went to school on December 14 to make gingerbread houses with her kids,” Jillian Soto told the crowd. Her older sister, Victoria Soto, was one of the teachers killed at Sandy Hook.

“Think about the five most important people in your life. What if one were murdered?” she said. “Someday, I’ll get married, and I won’t have her as my maid of honor as we’d always planned.”

Historically liberal New England produces a large proportion of guns made in the U.S.

Lawmakers here had hoped to come up with a bipartisan bill to curb gun violence, but Democrats are increasingly skeptical that Republicans will join the effort. Gov. Dan Malloy (D), unhappy that the legislature hasn’t taken action, produced his own proposals last week, including a stricter definition of assault weapons, tightening an existing ban. The governor’s plan also would prohibit ammunition magazines larger than 10 rounds. A vote in the legislature could come any day.

The leader of the Senate Republicans, John McKinney, who represents Newtown, spoke at the Valentine’s Day rally and said the massacre changed his life.

“I try to, as the saying goes in Newtown, choose love rather than a culture of violence,” he said.

But the people assembled, impatient with his tale of personal transformation, began chanting: “Pass the law! Pass the law! Pass the law!”

Traditional turf

The conflict over gun control in Connecticut goes back many years, in part because this is a state — and a region — with a deep tradition of firearms manufacturing. The six New England states produce 40 percent of the pistols and 80 percent of the revolvers in the United States. Those same states, plus New York and New Jersey, make 64 percent of the rifles, according to the NSSF.

Smith & Wesson, in business since before the Civil War, and Savage Arms are located in Springfield, Mass., just up the Connecticut River from Hartford. Springfield was also the home of the federal armory that President George Washington established in 1794. The armory produced hundreds of thousands of rifled muskets for the Union during the Civil War, and millions of semiautomatic M1 rifles for G.I.s in World War II, before closing in 1968.

Colt, another fabled company dating to the 19th century, has a factory in West Hartford, Conn. If you go to Colt Park, near the old Colt weapons factory along the Connecticut River, you’ll see a statue of Samuel Colt (1814-1862).

Other gun companies in the region include Remington, Sig Sauer, Marlin, Ruger and Mossberg.

But the politics of New England haven’t been gun-friendly, and since the Newtown massacre, almost every legislature in the region is pushing for tighter regulations on guns and ammunition. One option for firearms companies here is to flee the state and set up shop in a more congenial environment.

But gunsmithing isn’t like other industries: It’s precision manufacturing, requiring a talent pool that doesn’t exist just anywhere. Connecticut has so many skilled machinists and such a long firearms-manufacturing history that the gun companies would rather stay on traditional turf.

“It seems to be that about every year we are going up to Hartford because another bill has been introduced regarding anti-gun legislation,” said Joseph Bartozzi, senior vice president and general counsel at O.F. Mossberg & Sons, a family-owned gun manufacturer in Connecticut since 1919.

“The family still runs the business. We’re the oldest family-owned and -operated firearms business in America,” he said. “This is our home. We don’t want to be forced out.”

Guns as products

On the east side of New Britain, Mark Malkowski, a baby-faced gunmaker, has 200 employees working in a series of low-slung machine shops. This is Stag Arms, although you’d never know it from the street. There’s no sign. A typed note on the front door shoos away visitors, saying it’s not a retail outlet. The only evidence of a gunsmithing operation is the muffled pop-pop-pop from the indoor range where the weapons are test-fired.

Stag Arms makes only one kind of gun: AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles.

These are the kind of firearms often described as “military-style assault weapons.” The gun industry prefers to call them “modern sporting rifles.” They’re lightweight, easy to use and easy to accessorize, with limited recoil. They look like machine guns and are almost invariably black, which is why customers often refer to such weapons simply as “the black rifles.”

They’re the hottest-selling rifles in the nation, with millions in circulation, and gun shops are having a hard time keeping them in stock. Malkowski’s factory cranks out 300 rifles a day — 6,000 a month — and he still has a year’s worth of back orders as he struggles to meet demand.

“We’re very proud of what we make. Very few things are made in the United States,” said Malkowski, 34.

Malkowski’s father, Ted, arrived in the United States from Poland at age 18 and became a machinist in New Britain. Mark worked in his dad’s shop, sweeping floors at first and gradually learning to use the lathes and drills. Ten years ago, with black rifles surging in popularity, Malkowski recognized an unmet market niche: What about left-handed shooters? Or shooters who, like him, were left-eye dominant? Malkowski — just 24 at the time — invented a sinistral version of the black rifle and opened Stag Arms in New Britain.

He’s now one of the top makers of black rifles for both right-handed and left-handed shooters. His armory is decidedly old-school, with vintage machines turning chunks of metal into gun barrels, the place whirring with industrial activity and grease puddling on the floor. His workers build every part of the weapon.

Malkowski defines an assault rifle as one that is fully automatic — a machine gun capable of firing bullets continually with a single squeeze of the trigger.

“We think there’s a lot of ways of keeping the state safe without looking at bans,” he said.

The gun industry here owes its existence to the U.S. government. In 1777, at the height of the Revolutionary War, Gen. Henry Knox, the head of artillery for the Continental Army, established an arsenal on a hill overlooking the Connecticut River in Springfield. In 1794, President Washington selected the site as one of two locations for a national armory for the manufacturing of military weapons (the other was at Harpers Ferry, in what was then Virginia, famously raided by John Brown in 1859).

The gun industry helped pioneer the concept of interchangeable parts, an innovation that powered the Industrial Revolution in New England. Precision manufacturing became a hallmark of Springfield and the region. By the 1920s, Rolls-Royce was making cars in Springfield, and Indian made popular racing motorcycles. Down the river, in Hartford, Pratt & Whitney began making aircraft engines.

“Eighty percent of all firearms ever made in this country were made within 20 miles of Springfield,” said Guy McLain, director of the Wood Museum of Springfield History. But he said some people don’t want to hear it. They’ve objected, he said, to the guns on display at the museum’s exhibit titled “Freedom’s Forge.”

“They say, ‘Don’t you think it’s wrong to have guns in there?’ or, ‘You’re celebrating guns.’ We say, ‘No, we’re not. These are products made in Springfield.’ ”

Therein lies a compressed version of the debate over guns and gun violence. Can a gun ever be simply a product?

‘We didn’t create the situation’

Gun rights lobbyists believe that atrocities such as the Newtown massacre, or what happened at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or what happened in Norway, where the pseudo-commando Anders Breivik systematically hunted down and killed 69 people at a youth camp on an island, are not fundamentally the result of guns. This is a mental health and culture-of-violence issue, they say.

At his Newtown office, Sanetti, the NSSF president, argues that lawmakers shouldn’t focus on the “hardware.” He said the AR-15-style rifle has become “America’s rifle.” Versions of the black rifles are made by 55 companies, according to the foundation.

“It looks like a machine gun; it’s a scary-looking thing. And the other side plays on that fear,” Sanetti said. “But functionally, it’s identical to a wooden-stock, blued-steel rifle.”

At the Springfield Armory museum, historians will tell you that in the days of the early muzzle-loading muskets, a soldier could fire three aimed bullets per minute. But Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, fired hundreds of rounds from a Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle in just a few minutes. Lanza reportedly showed an interest in Breivik’s case.

Malkowski, like other manufacturers, produces black rifles that are modified to comply with the law in, for example, Connecticut, which had an assault-weapons ban at the time of the Newtown shootings.

With Congress discussing another assault-weapons ban and other gun-control measures, the firearms industry is booming. The NSSF said that the firearms and ammunition industry had $4.4 billion in revenue in 2011 but that the 2012 figure is likely to be about $6 billion when the final tally is made.

The foundation has dispatched representatives to testify in statehouses nationwide as gun legislation is debated.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of. We didn’t create the situation. We certainly didn’t pull the trigger in this awful incident. We feel awful for our friends and neighbors,” Sanetti said.

On the wall of his office is a model 1840 U.S. Army flintlock rifle.

“That was the assault rifle of its day,” Sanetti said.

Until Dec. 14, things had been looking up for the firearms industry, he said. Sales of hunting licenses had increased 9 percent nationally in five years. More people were engaged in target shooting. More single parents were buying guns for protection.

“Until this incident,” he said, “it seemed as if all the trends were going our way.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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