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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - From where Miss. House Speaker Philip Gunn sits in Jackson, overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic New England looks like a place firearms manufacturers would want to flee -– especially amid the huge renewed push for stricter gun control laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.
So late Thursday, Gunn, a Republican, sent a letter to 14 gunmakers around the country – including eight in New England – urging them to look at relocating to the Magnolia State.
"I am personally inviting you and your company to come to the great state of Mississippi," Gunn wrote in a letter he made available to the news media. "In our state, you will not be criticized for providing good to the law abiding citizens who enjoy hunting, shooting or who just want the peace of mind that comes with the constitutional right to protect their families."
In a telephone interview with NECN Friday afternoon, Gunn said his message boils down to: "Hey, you don’t like where you are and you're not welcome there? You're certainly welcome here. We'd love to have you here. It helps our economy. It helps our state."
So, is it a bit of a political stunt by a pro-gun Southern Republican? Yes. A chance for free PR for recruiting Northern industry to Mississippi? Absolutely.
But attention-grabbing aside, Gunn’s move is a blunt reminder to New Englanders that – whatever your feelings about gun control, gun manufacturing is a big, good-paying industry with deep (160-year-old-plus) roots in the region, employing hundreds of skilled machinists and manufacturing workers, and it’s an industry many would love to lure elsewhere.
The eight firearms manufacturers Gunn wrote to locally are: Sig Sauer of Exeter, N.H.; Heckler & Koch of Newington, N.H.; Kahr Arms of Worcester, Mass.; Smith & Wesson of Springfield, Mass.; Savage Arms of Westfield, Mass.; Colt of West Hartford, Conn.; O.F. Mossberg of North Haven. Conn.; and Ruger of Southport, Conn. Collectively, they employ many hundreds of people – S & W nearly 900 in Springfield alone – not to mention hundreds of more jobs at suppliers, machine shops and other business partners.
NECN research staff reached out to all eight companies Friday. None had any comment. Because Gunn mailed the letter Thursday, it’s very likely several or all of the eight had not yet even seen his letter as of Friday afternoon, when this story was being prepared.
Gregory Bialecki, Massachusetts housing and economic development secretary, said when asked to respond to Gunn’s letter: "It is our understanding that Massachusetts gun manufacturers have been keeping themselves informed of the various proposals for increased gun safety in Massachusetts, and they do not see these proposals as adversely affecting their businesses." (Worth noting: While there are lots of calls in New England for stricter limits on what kinds of guns firearms manufacturers make, what bullet capacity they have and whom they can legally be sold to, there have been no serious calls from Democratic or Republican officials to drive local gunmakers out of business, or out of New England. Police, security, military buyers and recreational hunters account for a vast share of New England gunmakers’ sales.)
While Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick has endorsed many stricter gun-control and gun-purchase measures, a little over two years ago, his administration awarded Smith & Wesson $6 million in state tax breaks – on top of nearly $600,000 in Springfield property-tax breaks – after S & W agreed to move its Thompson/Center Arms hunting-rifle manufacturing business from Rochester, N.H., to Springfield and create 225 jobs there over the following seven years.
Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, who also wants new gun-control measures, told NECN’s Jacqueline Bruno in a telephone interview he considers S & W "a vital part of Springfield’s economy and a good corporate citizen," with a strong bond to the city and western Massachusetts’ skilled, precision-manufacturing workforce. Smith & Wesson has been manufacturing guns in Springfield in 1852.
Conn. Senator Richard Blumenthal said he thinks Gunn’s appeal is "preposterous", according to the Associated Press. Blumenthal said he is confident moves by Connecticut to tighten gun regulation in the wake of the Newtown school shooting are entirely separate from quality-of-life and skilled-workforce reasons gun manufacturers would want and should want to remain operating in Connecticut.
Gunn, however, said he sees an opening to get New England firearms manufacturers to look setting up shop in his state.
"It just seems to be somewhat of a hostile environment where they are," Gunn said. "We have a good environment for industry, and we are always looking for the opportunity to attract people to Mississippi. We also have citizens who feel very strongly about Second Amendment rights. We love to hunt down here. We love the shooting sports. And we have many citizens who feel strongly about their right to protect themselves."
Adding that all up, Gunn said, if gunmakers in New England feel ostracized and vilified by many of their public officials, "I don’t think they would find that in Mississippi. I think they would find Mississippians welcoming them -- embracing them."
With videographer Bob Ricci