From coast to coast, politicians and pundits quickly grasped the irony when the shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown landed Connecticut, the home and birthplace of the American firearms industry, at the center of a national feeding frenzy about guns.
Just days before this horrific event, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's economic development team offered a low-interest loan to the very company whose product — the Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle — was used in the killings. It's hard to imagine worse timing. And yet, as a matter of policy, it's reassuring to know that they have their eye on the ball concerning one of Connecticut's oldest and most distinguished industry clusters — firearms and precision manufacturing.
Like it or not — guns are us. Or rather, the economic and technological benefits that stemmed from Connecticut's internationally significant role in the development of machine-based manufacturing literally changed the world of work and helped make Connecticut rich. One needn't be passionately interested in this local product to be aware and even grateful for its remarkable history and legacy in our culture and economy. Indeed, our congressional delegation is busy laying tracks for a national historic site in Hartford's Coltsville, where this story will be told.
Connecticut's "Industry Cluster Initiative" develops resources to help our core industries compete globally and grow jobs. The bioscience, software/information technology and plastics industry clusters are relative newcomers. The insurance and financial services cluster is big and visible. In times past, we dominated hats, undergarments, shellfish, typewriters and sewing machines, electroplating, textiles, poultry and tobacco. Dean Nelson at the Museum of Connecticut History claims that, in 1880, half the products on the shelves in hardware stores across America were produced in Connecticut.
We were America's workshop. Famous monikers like the Brass Valley, Silver City, Thread City, Whaling City, Insurance City and Hardware City branded our industries to specific places. Most of our cities developed around industry clusters. It doesn't get much sweeter than when your community has 80 percent of the world market for a product.
Industry clusters are ecosystems. Once developed, they feed on themselves as technology, know-how and skilled labor converge around a specialized task or function. But they are also fragile and don't sustain themselves by accident. Connecticut was once the breadbasket of the Eastern Seaboard. Agriculture moved west, and in more recent times our textile industry moved south.
Firearms are controversial. But for the military, police and sportsmen they are indispensible. Our region's firearms industry isn't as big as it used to be, but there are still half a dozen key manufacturers — including such iconic brands as Colt's Manufacturing Co. and, just over the border in Springfield and Westfield, Smith & Wesson and Savage Arms.
Moreover, the firearms industry has long been interwoven with and helped spawn aerospace, machine tool and related forms of precision manufacturing. It's a fascinating history vividly brought to life in the Connecticut Valley at the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vt., housed in the historic Robbins & Lawrence Armory building. One of its founders, Richard Lawrence, seeking larger capital and labor markets, built the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. in Hartford during the 1850s.
There is hardly a more inspiring story in Connecticut's history then the rapid spiraling up of this industry cluster in Hartford, New Haven and Middletown during the 1850s. Some historians believe that if the Army officials had adopted Connecticut's cutting-edge arms technology at the beginning of the Civil War, the war would have ended much sooner and with less loss of life.
Industry clusters are inherently unstable. Firearms, aerospace, machine tools — we should be very careful about disturbing any aspect of this ecosystem.
I think it is time to adopt more rigorous background checks for gun permits and close the gun show loophole. The tragedy and grief of Newtown will be with us for years. But let's not get all wobbly. Demonizing firearms and the firearms industry will accomplish one and only one thing. We will weaken a key industry cluster, jobs will be lost and we will diminish Connecticut's competitiveness in the global economy.
William Hosley of Enfield is author of "Colt: The Making of an American Legend" and is a founding member of the Coltsville Ad Hoc Committee for the National Park.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun