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Beretta's back story [Editorial]

Beretta U.S.A.'s decision to move all of its American manufacturing facilities from its long-time home in Prince George's County to a new facility it's building in Tennessee has immediately put Maryland's new gun control law in the spotlight and has become a political football in the governor's race. But on both counts, there's more here than meets the eye.

Beretta had already announced in January that it would expand its American manufacturing in a new factory it's building in Gallatin, Tenn., about 25 miles from Nashville. At the time, it said it was looking to invest in a gun-friendly state, and Maryland, which had enacted a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines and a new fingerprint licensing system for handgun purchasers did not fit the bill. However, officials said at the time that they did not plan to move the company's existing operations from Maryland.

Now Beretta is saying that it is nervous that some provisions in a version of the 2013 legislation passed by the state Senate but stripped out by the House of Delegates could be revived and could impact its operations in Maryland.

What has happened since January to create the impression that such a turn of events was likely? The General Assembly considered 59 bills in 2014 that had anything to do with guns, many of which were attempts to undo Maryland's existing gun regulations. Only five bills so much as got out of committee, and all were signed into law. One prohibits a Kent County liquor inspector from carrying a gun. Another allows an inspector for the Dorchester County state's attorney's office to do so. One extends the statute of limitations for using a gun in a crime of violence, one prevents the state from prohibiting bow hunters from carrying handguns for personal protection if they're otherwise allowed to, and the last requires the Department of Natural Resources to establish a training program for rifle shooters to hunt deer for population control purposes in Charles and St. Mary's counties.

It's hard to see how any of that would have changed Beretta's calculus about its ability to continue manufacturing in this state. And it's pretty rich for a company headquartered in Italy, which has far stricter gun control laws than Maryland, to become a Second Amendment absolutist.

Perhaps a better explanation for Beretta's newfound ardor for the Volunteer State might be found in the Nashville Business Journal's excellent reporting on the extent to which Tennessee bent over backward to attract the gun manufacturer. In February, the Journal wrote about a year-long wooing effort by the state's current and former governors, repeated visits back and forth between state economic development officials and Beretta executives in Tennessee, Accokeek and the Italian villa of Beretta CEO Ugo Beretta. Tennessee put on the hard sell, and it was offering up more than rib dinners. The state provided $2.41 million for employee training and $8 million in assistance for construction, plus $1.8 million it had already spent for a new road to the Gallatin industrial park. Gallatin is pitching in with a 10-year deal that includes an 80-percent reduction in local property taxes, plus a "considerable" but unspecified amount of assistance to buy the land, according to the Journal.

As for how the issue is playing out in the Maryland governor's race, Republican candidate Larry Hogan issued a statement shortly after Beretta's announcement blaming it on "the O'Malley-Brown administration's high taxes and punitive regulations." Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's spokesman shot back by criticizing Mr. Hogan for opposing "a law that prevents the mentally ill from getting guns, bans the sale of automatic assault rifles and 30-round clips to protect our children, families and police officers."

There are two problems with the statement from the Brown camp. First, its allowance that "we understand why a gun manufacturer would oppose common sense gun safety measures" makes no sense at all. Maryland's laws do not impinge on Beretta's business. And second, Mr. Hogan rather pointedly did not criticize Maryland's gun control laws in his statement. In fact, he has previously said that while he thought some elements of the 2013 law went too far, he recognized it as the law of the state and would not seek its repeal but would instead focus his efforts on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and those who suffer from mental illness.

If Beretta's decision poses an issue in the governor's race, it is this: Both Mr. Hogan and Mr. Brown say they want to improve Maryland's business climate. Does that mean Maryland should more aggressively play the tax incentive game like Tennessee?

Perhaps Beretta's sole motivation for leaving Maryland was its desire to operate in a state that presented a better cultural match — the Nashville Business Journal quoted a Tennessee economic development official as saying the state piqued Beretta's interest by boasting that a gun manufacturer would fit right in with a place where "we make great cars, we make great whiskey and we make great guitars." If that's really all there was to it, then there aren't many lessons to draw from a decision that affects one company and 160 employees. But if this governor's race really is about the best way to make Maryland more economically competitive, then the story of why Tennessee beat out fellow gun-loving states South Carolina and Georgia is the one the candidates should be focusing on.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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