Beretta U.S.A., the American arm of the iconic Italian firearm maker, said Tuesday that it would move all of its U.S. manufacturing activities from Prince George's County to Tennessee in response to the gun control law the Maryland General Assembly passed last year.
Beretta, which has been making firearms in Maryland since 1977, employs about 160 workers at its Accokeek plant, according to board member Jeff Reh.
He said the company expects to begin moving its production lines from the facility in May, and to wind up its manufacturing in Maryland by the end of 2015.
Beretta's parent company has continued in the same Italian town for more than 500 years.
"We tend to be a company that has deep roots," he said. "We didn't want to leave Maryland or even consider it but we decided it was the most prudent course of action. We could have been happy staying in Maryland for hundreds of years."
Reh said Beretta U.S.A. employs about 95 people in its administrative offices in Accokeek — jobs he said would remain in Maryland.
The company's announcement immediately became a flash point in the governor's race between Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Republican nominee Larry Hogan.
Hogan put the blame on Brown and the gun control law pushed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"I am saddened to learn that the hard-working women and men I met at Beretta's factory in Accokeek in May will now lose their jobs as a direct result of the O'Malley-Brown administration's high taxes and punitive regulations," he said. "The loss of these several hundred jobs will tear through the local community.'"
The Brown campaign said it was clear Beretta never planned to keep its production in the state.
"At the end of the day, we understand why a gun manufacturer would oppose common sense gun safety measures, but Larry Hogan's opposition is more troubling," Brown campaign manager Justin Schall said. "Hogan opposes 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."
The company had already announced plans to do all of its new manufacturing at the plant it plans to open in Gallatin, Tenn., next year. Reh said that Beretta's latest decision means that all of its gun-making activities will be consolidated there.
Reh pointed to provisions of O'Malley's Firearm Safety Act of 2013 as it passed the Senate, saying they could have interfered with the company's manufacturing, storage and shipment of Beretta products in Maryland.
While those provisions were removed by the House, he said the company remained concerned they could be revived in the future.
"The chance we would go through that next legislative session or the one after that was just too great a risk for us to accept," Reh said.
Prominent lawmakers, however, said the chances of those proposals coming back were nil.
"There's been no sentiment in the House to revisit those provisions," said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who served on the Judiciary Committee when it considered the gun bill.
A spokeswoman for O'Malley expressed disappointment in Beretta's decision but defended the law, which among other things banned sales in Maryland of some of the assault weapons the company manufactures.
"We remain energized about all the jobs we're creating here in Maryland," spokeswoman Nina Smith said. "Since June 2013, Maryland has created more than 24,100 total jobs, and we're one of only 19 states in the nation that has recovered all of the jobs lost in the national recession."
Del. Michael J. Hough, a Western Maryland Republican who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said Beretta gave lawmakers fair warning about its intentions.
"I'm not surprised. If you combine our anti-gun laws with our high taxes, Beretta is just one of many businesses that have fled the state," said Hough, who is running for the state Senate. "There's a lot of people who are going to be leaving the state and having to pick up and move because of the blatantly political bill the governor passed."
But Vincent DeMarco, a longtime activist who was one of the 2013 bill's chief backers, rejected Beretta's logic.
"Their headquarters is in Italy, which has a lot stricter gun laws than Maryland does," DeMarco said. "I don't believe that's what's going on here. If they were serious about not wanting to be in a place with strict gun laws, they would move out of Italy."
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Beretta has long been an anomaly in Maryland — a storied firearms manufacturer operating in a deeply Democratic state where polls show voters favor gun control measures by hefty margins. The company's interests have long received critical support from powerful Democrats representing southern Prince George's, notably state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
Miller could not be reached for comment Tuesday night. But when Beretta announced plans in January to build its new manufacturing plant in Tennessee, the Senate president chalked it up to economic and political factors.
"The cost of labor in Prince George's County is much different than the cost of living in Tennessee," Miller said at the time. "I'd imagine the politics of Tennessee would be much more in line with the thinking of the administrators of Beretta."
Beretta said Tuesday that it expects to invest $45 million in buildings and equipment at its Gallatin site and will employ 300 workers there. The company said it would meet with each of its Maryland manufacturing employees to determine their interest in relocating to the Tennessee plant.
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.