They have been largely silent these past six weeks as the debate over gun control has grown nastier. But they are the elephant in the firearms room, and Monday they came together publicly for the first time anywhere since the Newtown tragedy.
And for the people who run the companies that make guns — including AR-15 rifles and magazines — the message could not have been clearer: We are human, we are your neighbors, we are the backbone of your economy and we want to be in the discussion.
Oh, and one other detail: Banning the stuff we manufacture might make some people feel better but it will not make the world a safer place.
They are the sons of machine shop owners whose own ideas brought them into Connecticut's storied firearms industry, which was sparked more than 200 years ago when Eli Whitney invented interchangeable parts. They are the leaders of firms with famous names like Colt's and Sturm, Ruger.
"I come to you also as a father of four, who has three children in elementary school, probably about 20 miles from Sandy Hook," said Jonathan Scalise, president of Ammunition Storage Components, a New Britain maker of magazines that hold bullets — including some that stand a strong chance of being banned by the Connecticut General Assembly in a growing consensus for action.
Scalise turned his family's metals-coating business into a firearms equipment spinoff that's hiring workers as we speak. Just after noon Monday, as part of a parade of people testifying before the special legislative panel on gun violence, he was near tears — not over the threat to his livelihood, but about the crisis of Newtown and other gun tragedies.
Backers of stricter firearms bans might say that that his very products, including 30-round magazines, are responsible for some of the gun violence in America. He disagrees strongly, and he — along with the other industry executives at the Capitol Monday — brings a passel of evidence to counter the passel of evidence on the other side.
"What I come here to ask you is that you do something that works, something that's going to make my kids safer, every kid safer, and not do something reactionary, not do something that's going to have a tremendous effect on people that are just trying to come to work every day and really not have a benefit for what we're trying to resolve here," Scalise said.
That was the tone of the day as executives from six manufacturers came together. Unlike previous lobbying visits to Hartford by similar groups, including one in 2011 to fight a ban on magazines for more than 10 rounds, this mission was long on outreach and shorter on specific criticism of measures such as a tighter definition of which so-called assault rifles cannot be sold in Connecticut.
"We are against gun violence also. We're sickened by all the events," said Dennis Veilleux, CEO of Colt's Manufacturing Co., which, along with Colt Defense, employs 670 people in West Hartford. "We understand that Connecticut's leaders are undertaking a very difficult task on a very complex and emotional issue, and we want you to know we are committed to be part of the solution."
Exactly what that means remains to be seen. As New Haven Mayor John DeStefano testified Monday, "If nothing else, we must do something," and it's clear the legislature will tighten gun laws. The manufacturers would like that to mean access laws, especially for people whose mental conditions create risks, and perhaps some added licensing requirements.
They walk a fine line, these executives. They know we can't let critical public safety issues be determined by pocketbook issues, but they're here to remind us that, collectively, the industry employs 2,900 people in Connecticut directly, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which led Monday's manufacturers' effort. The industry, including retailers, is indirectly responsible for 8,275 jobs and $1.8 billion in activity in Connecticut, through spending on suppliers and the incomes of their employees coursing through the economy.
Unlike some of the more rabid Second Amendment activists who largely advance the patriotism of freedom and sacred rights conferred by the Founders, the gun industry executives know that argument alone won't fly in a legislature full of pragmatists who study the limits of freedom for a living. And each of these executives played the Connecticut heritage card, but they know that momentous events can and do change the course of history.
Their ultimate card is the logic that as good as an equipment ban may feel, it's just too late and too ineffective to try to un-gun America, when all it takes for another tragedy is for a deranged person to grab one of the 300 million firearms in circulation. Among AR-15-type rifles alone, conservative estimates put the total at 3.8 million rifles, perhaps a quarter-million in Connecticut alone.
"From Day One we've taken personal responsibility to provide comprehensive literature and complementary gun locks with all of our firearms," said Mark Malkowski, who founded Stag Arms in 2003 with the innovation of left-handed AR-15's, and now occupies four factory buildings in New Britain. "No one told us to do this, no one regulated us, it was just the fight thing to do … unauthorized access is the problem."
Before the hearing, Malkowski, Scalise and Joe Bartozzi, senior vice president and general counsel at O.F. Mossberg & Sons in New Haven, talked about the climate in Connecticut. The AR-15 has been good for business and jobs here, but a simmering anti-gun climate, which boiled over after Newtown, is just one of a mix of forces that may push them out.
"My grandfather retired from Winchester," Bartozzi said. "This is the arsenal of Democracy right here, and yet this is a legislature that is frankly overly hostile to our business."
All of them get recruitment calls from other states — weekly, Bartozzi said.
In fact, Bartozzi's tone is generally smoother that that remark would indicate and he respects the legislature's dilemma. On Monday, the manufacturers had a warm reception with no heckling and only a few sharp questions from lawmakers including Senate President Donald Williams.
Now we need the courage of inaction. Gun control is a complex issue that requires national, not state-by-state, action when it comes to regulating equipment, for the obvious reason that the gun trade doesn't respect state lines. And it's complex in that critics who say these are merchants of death are just plain wrong.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun