How Gunmakers Are Using Their Leverage to Pit States Against One Another

At first he thought it was an umbrella. But when the shotgun that was pointed at John Seymour went off, hitting him in the back and the wrist, he thought he was going to die in his own barbershop. He fell to the floor and played dead as the gunman shot three of his customers, killing two of them. Then the gunman, a former customer, killed two men in a nearby oil-change shop and holed up in an abandoned restaurant, where he later died in a shootout with police.

Nearly 10 years later, Seymour thinks constantly about the shooting. “To this day, anything goes, Bang bang! and I jump. What do you expect? I had a guy die on top of me at my barbershop,” says Seymour, 76, who is known locally as John the barber. “​​We never thought we’d be a mass-murder part of the country.”

But like just about everyone else in Ilion, N.Y, a small town in New York’s Herkimer County about 80 miles northwest of Albany, Seymour has a soft spot for Remington Arms, the gun manufacturer that has been located here since Eliphalet Remington started making firearms in 1816. Remington’s imposing redbrick factory looms over Main Street. Walk around downtown, past the vape shops, the peeling multifamily homes, and the Remington Federal Credit Union, and you can hear the clinking of steel being cut as the factory churns out orders.

People here don’t talk about how Remington’s version of an AR-15—made in Ilion—was used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting less than 200 miles away, or that the company filed for bankruptcy twice between 2018 and 2020, because of financial engineering by the private equity firm that bought the company in 2007. They also don’t talk about how the company regularly threatens to leave New York and move somewhere cheaper, or periodically lays off hundreds of workers, leaving some in limbo for months or years. What they do talk about is Remington’s proud history of making arms for America when the country needed them the most, like during World Wars I and II—when workers had to carpool to the factory because the parking lot couldn’t fit everyone’s cars—and the affinity they have for a company that employed most of their fathers, and their father’s fathers.

“They help the little village of Ilion and its 7,500 people,” says Seymour, who when he isn’t plying his trade as a barber moonlights as a wedding and event singer. His father worked at Remington for 43 years, beginning in 1932, and Seymour’s brother and brother-in-law also worked there. “They pay taxes on that building, and we give them a little break on everything.”

Remington, on the other hand, has not been very kind to the village of Ilion in recent years. After decades of threatening to relocate to the South, where gun laws are friendlier and labor is cheaper, the company went so far as to move two lines of manufacturing to Alabama in 2014, after that state offered nearly $70 million and factory space rent-free. That endeavor ultimately failed, leaving the Alabama factory shuttered, and some of the equipment moved back to Ilion. When the Remington Outdoor Company filed for bankruptcy in 2020, it owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to local suppliers and utility providers, including the local shoe store, the hardware store, and Ilion’s treasurer, police department, water commission, and the roughly 609 workers it had abruptly laid off without the health care benefits or severance pay promised in their contract.

Despite these slights, many Ilion residents remain unfailingly loyal to the company. “I would say that we bleed green—Remington green,” says Frank “Rusty” Brown, who has worked at the factory since 1995 and was one of the workers who protested outside the factory in 40-degree weather in October 2020, after Remington filed for bankruptcy and fired all its Ilion manufacturing workers. “This is our living; it’s how our parents made a living. I’m dedicated to the place.”

Remington’s Ilion and Tennessee properties, as well as its long-gun, shotgun, and pistols businesses, were bought out of bankruptcy in 2020 by a company called the Roundhill Group LLC, which now operates Remington through a holding company called RemArms. Roundhill appears to have been created solely to purchase Remington’s assets from its bankruptcy proceedings; Richmond Italia, a paintball entrepreneur who is one of Roundhill’s two partners, said in court filings that he was approached by Ken D’Arcy, a professional race-car driver and manufacturing executive who was appointed CEO of Remington in 2019. D’Arcy suggested that Italia buy Remington’s firearms assets. (The two men knew each other because they had both served as CEOs and then sat on the board of GI Sportz, a paintball company that filed for bankruptcy in October 2020, shortly after Roundhill purchased Remington.)

In November 2021, D’Arcy, who is still CEO of Remington, announced that RemArms was moving to LaGrange, Ga.

Ilion officials scurried to give RemArms incentives to stay, offering a 50% discount on property taxes, but Remington seemed uninterested in negotiating. Some residents began to imagine a town without Remington; others, like Brown, remained skeptical that the factory would shut down. After all, RemArms had started calling workers like him who’d been laid off in 2020 back to the factory in April 2021 to restart manufacturing, and the company is now negotiating with the United Mine Workers of America, the union representing workers when Remington filed for bankruptcy, to ink a new contract for Ilion.

The Roundhill Group did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment for this story.

“Remington has been going to move elsewhere since my parents worked there,” says Brown, whose wife, two daughters, and son-in-law still work at the plant. “You hear it so many times over the years, you become numb to it.”

Remington’s hot-and-cold relationship with Ilion is not a rare case among American gunmakers. It may seem reasonable to assume, in light of recent state laws and lawsuits filed against them, that gun companies are under siege, their bottom lines threatened by regulations and shifting public attitudes toward firearms. But today more than ever, gun manufacturers like Remington (now RemArms), Smith & Wesson, and Colt are pulling the strings, convincing elected officials they have to choose between gun-control laws and manufacturing jobs. States in the South and West are offering millions in incentives to gun companies and loosening laws around gun ownership to show their fealty to gun culture, even as gunmakers have raked in $3 billion in profits since the pandemic began. Profits for gunmakers have been strong for the last decade, with both Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger & Co., the country’s two biggest gunmakers, surpassing $100 million in profit every year. That’s putting pressure on states like New York to loosen recently passed gun-control laws, to convince manufacturers to stay—even though often those manufacturers are just adding new locations in other states and not actually leaving their original homes.

The gunmakers’ leverage makes sense in a country where manufacturing is still seen as the backbone of the country, even though jobs in the sector make up less than 10% of U.S. employment, down from one-quarter of employment half a century ago. Politicians and voters on the right and left often romanticize factory jobs that make products marketed as all-American, such as trucks, tractors, and guns, particularly if they’re set to remain on American soil. (In the case of guns, many buyers don’t want something manufactured in a foreign country where safety standards are perceived to be lower).

How Gunmakers Are Using Their Leverage to Pit States Against One Another

As America has become more polarized, gun manufacturers have been able to orchestrate complicated political theater, threatening to move factories—and jobs—when gun-control legislation is passed in certain states. They are garnering millions of dollars in incentives from states and local economic development boards rolling out the red carpet to demonstrate their gun-friendly credentials. Despite evidence that giving incentives to factories isn’t a cost-effective way to create jobs, and often they actually lose money—as in the case of electronics maker Foxconn’s deal in Wisconsin—states know that attracting manufacturers is popular with voters.

Remington is a master at this game. In 1995, the company announced that it was moving its headquarters to North Carolina, receiving $150,000 from the state to do so. In the end, no manufacturing jobs were moved to the state. Then, after private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management purchased Remington in 2007 and rumors swirled that manufacturing would be moved overseas to save money, the State of New York gave Remington $3 million to expand its Ilion plant, and then $2.5 million more in 2010 to add 100 jobs.

Just three years later, in 2013, New York passed sweeping gun-control legislation the SAFE Act, which banned some assault-style weapons, began requiring background checks for nearly all gun sales, and prohibited people who’d committed certain offenses from possessing guns. Ilion politicians used the law’s passage to criticize state Democrats for driving Remington away, and indeed, Remington soon announced that it was being courted by five other states. Six elected officials from the Ilion area pledged assistance should Remington build a new manufacturing plant in the area, warning in a public letter that “the clock is ticking on an inevitable exit by Remington from the state.”

Read more: How Gunmakers May Benefit From Mass Shootings

In 2014, Remington announced it was moving two production lines to Huntsville, Ala., a decision the company’s CEO George Kollitides blamed on New York gun laws, citing “Alabama’s rich tradition of defending freedom,” as a “major deciding factor” in the move. At the time, a company spokesperson said the move was “a strategic business decision” to consolidate plants. But while the announcement provided a platform for conservatives to lambast New York’s gun laws, the Ilion plant continued to operate with around 1,300 employees. The jobs that moved to Alabama were from other Remington plants in conservative states like Montana, Utah, and North Carolina. Alabama’s play for Remington did not look so smart by 2020, when Remington filed for bankruptcy and owed $12.5 million to Huntsville, because it had not met the hiring numbers it had agreed to in its $70 million incentive deal with the city.

The company appeared to be drawing from the same playbook when it announced it was moving its headquarters to LaGrange in 2021. “The decision to locate in Georgia is very simple: the state of Georgia is not only a business-friendly state; it’s a firearms-friendly state,” RemArms CEO Ken D’Arcy said at the time. RemArms secured $6 million in incentives from Georgia, and pledged to build a $100 million research and development center in LaGrange. According to T. Scott Malone, president of the Development Authority of LaGrange, RemArms has set up shop in an 80,000-sq.-ft. temporary facility, and recently started producing its first guns.

RemArms specifically attributed its decision to move to a New York law passed in 2021 that would bypass blanket immunity provided to gunmakers under federal law, and make it easier to bring civil lawsuits against gun companies. “Unfortunately, if a law like that is passed in New York State, we would have to reconsider our options for the future and our plans to expand our New York operations,” Italia, the managing partner for Roundhill Group said in an email to Utica’s Times Telegram in July 2021. But the law applies to all gunmakers that sell guns in New York, which would include RemArms wherever it has its plants.

But despite all the headlines, the company has told New York stakeholders that it now has no plans to close the Ilion facility. “Nobody’s moving to Georgia—in fact, they’re adding employees here,” says John Piseck, CEO of the Herkimer County Industrial Development Agency, a public-benefit corporation that can offer tax breaks to local businesses. RemArms has called back nearly all of the 609 workers Remington laid off when it filed for bankruptcy in 2020, according to Jamie Rudwall, District Two Representative for the United Mine Workers of America. He notes that only 300 have actually returned, the rest having either found new jobs or retrained for new careers.

Business is good. Because gun sales are soaring in the U.S., and manufacturers need to expand operations to keep up with demand, gunmakers can combine business decisions with lobbying, announcing that they’re opening a new factory in Georgia or North Carolina to meet demand while complaining about gun-control laws elsewhere. Retailers performed 21 million background checks associated with the sale of a firearm in 2020, a 62% increase from 2019, and twice as many as 2010, according to data from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that is used as a rough proxy for gun sales. The figures don’t include background checks for other purposes, like concealed carry permits.

For workers like Brown, the constant push and pull is more of a nuisance than a threat to their livelihoods. Brown—whose wife, two daughters, and soon-to-be son-in-law work at the Ilion plant—says the company should know by now that it won’t find workers anywhere as skilled, dedicated, or patient with the company as those in Ilion.

“It’s always, ‘We’re going to move to where there’s cheaper labor. We’re going to move to where there’s this law or that law.’ After so many years, you become immune to it,” Brown says. “And then to see them fail miserably in Alabama, it’s like, ‘I told you so.’ ”

To this day, both Georgia and New York officials are still pulling for RemArms to bring some more good news to their communities, even though RemArms’ future looks a little shaky. Tax collectors in Alabama are already trying to foreclose on some of Roundhill’s recently purchased assets because they weren’t removed from the state in a timely fashion, according to bankruptcy documents.

The firearms economy

When Brown was growing up, there were lots of manufacturing jobs in upstate New York, but Remington was the place he wanted to be. “It was so hard to get in there, because it was the greatest job ever,” he says. Both his parents had worked there, so he knew: health care didn’t cost anything; he got a pension and a good wage; and he didn’t have to bother with college. By the time he was laid off in 2020, he was making $26.87 an hour—more if he worked nights or overtime.

Brown is one of thousands of people in the U.S. Northeast who make a living manufacturing firearms. The area around western Massachusetts and Connecticut, nicknamed Gun Valley, has been a gunmaking hub since George Washington set up an armory in Springfield, Mass., in the late 18th century to keep weapons out of reach of the British Navy.

In 1986, 47% of guns manufactured in the U.S. were made in Connecticut, 24% in Massachusetts, and 12% in New York, according to Jürgen Brauer, the chief economist with nonpartisan research group Small Arms Analytics, who analyzed historical data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). But in recent years, amid rising political polarization, states in the South and West, desperate to attract jobs in the aftermath of the Great Recession, have attempted to lure manufacturers from Gun Valley. Their pitch: gun companies should move to places where people like guns.

The sunset of the federal assault-weapons ban in 2004, and subsequent attempts by states to pass laws either loosening or tightening rules on gun ownership, signaled where gunmakers would be welcome. Some states even started to designate official state guns alongside their state flowers and fish. “We’re all here to show our support for the Second Amendment to our neighbors and communities,” Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts said earlier this year, onstage with five other governors at the trade show of the National Sports Shooting Foundation (NSSF), which now spends more on lobbying than the National Rifle Association. (Around 10,000 guns were made in Nebraska in 2020, less than 1% of all guns made in the U.S.)

“There’s a trend of companies that have picked up and moved, and it’s really been accelerating as of late,“ says Mark Oliva, managing director of public affairs at the NSSF. The NSSF keeps a running list of gunmakers that it says have migrated from the Northeast to the South, including Kimber, Sturm Ruger & Co., and Beretta.

But the NSSF’s list is misleading. Though some gunmakers have picked up and moved their factories south from states like Connecticut, the far more common occurrence is that they move only their headquarters to Southern states, but keep manufacturing in the state in which that factory already exists. Such a move can secure juicy incentives such as tax breaks and free facilities, and generate headlines about liberal states losing manufacturing, while sparing gunmakers the hassle of moving millions of dollars of equipment and hiring and training new workers. Indeed, most of the companies on the NSSF’s list of “gun industry migration” still have manufacturing in the northeast.

The devil is in the details. According to Brauer’s analysis of ATF data, by 2020 just 1.42% of guns were made in Connecticut, and less than 1% in New York, while states like Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina accounted for 9%, 6%, and 5%, of firearm manufacturing, respectively. The two top states for gunmaking in 2020, according to the data, were Missouri and New Hampshire. However, those figures only show where guns are distributed, rather than manufactured, deceptively counting Smith & Wesson—the biggest producer of guns in 2020—as a Missouri company, even though its guns in 2020 were made in Massachusetts, not Missouri. The company generated headlines in 2017 when it announced it was moving to Missouri, receiving a 50% tax break over 10 years. But at the time, it only moved about 20 jobs from its Massachusetts headquarters. The data shows that Massachusetts made 21% of all firearms in 2015 and just 0.49% in 2020—but that’s because Smith & Wesson established a distribution center in Missouri, not because it moved its manufacturing, Small Arms Analytics’ Brauer says.

And in October 2021, Smith & Wesson said it would be relocating its headquarters to Tennessee from Springfield, Mass., its home for 165 years, after a bill was introduced in the Massachusetts legislature that would have banned the manufacture of assault weapons for civilian use. (The bill has gone nowhere.) At the time, Smith & Wesson said it decided to move because “We are under attack.” What it did not make clear was that its manufacturing operations—accounting for about 1,000 jobs—would stay in Springfield, and that what it was moving to Tennessee was assembly and distribution of firearms.

One-quarter of the jobs being moved to Tennessee are currently located in Missouri and Connecticut, not Massachusetts. The Missouri warehouse the company had received an incentive for just a few years before would be closed, Smith & Wesson said. The company received $9 million from the state of Tennessee and made a deal with the local economic development agency that gives it a 60% tax break for seven years. Its CEO, Mark Smith, thanked Tennessee’s governor and legislature for their “unwavering support of the 2nd Amendment and for creating a welcoming, business friendly environment.” Smith & Wesson did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Gunmakers are increasingly turning to this playbook. Kahr Arms, which said it was moving out of New York in 2013 because of “stricter gun control,” moved its headquarters to Pennsylvania, which also has relatively strict gun-control laws, and kept its manufacturing in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Colt, which threatened to move after Connecticut considered gun control laws in 2008 and passed them in 2013, decided to remain and then received a $10 million loan from the state of Connecticut in 2017. Colt made 158,501 guns in Connecticut 2020 and was recently bought by Czech company Česká zbrojovka Group (CZG), which itself received incentives in 2019, including 73 acres of free land by the state of Arkansas to build a gunmaking plant there. That Little Rock, Ark. plant has been put on hold, and the company says it has no plans to move Colt out of state.

“Once situated in one state, it is exceedingly rare for a firearms manufacturer to move its entire operation to another state,” says Brauer. His research has found that gunmakers that say they’re leaving a Northeast state because of its gun-control policies usually keep a substantial presence there, and that they leave not because of the political climate but because they can find nonunionized, lower-paid workers in the South—and get millions of dollars in incentives.

In 2010, for example, Olin Corp., owner of a Winchester ammunition factory, moved 1,000 jobs from Illinois to Mississippi after union workers in Illinois rejected a contract that would have reduced their pay. And a Remington executive told the New York Times in 2019 that in Ilion, the union “had them by the balls,” one reason the company moved some operations to Alabama from New York.

Oliva, of the National Sports Shooting Foundation, says that moving operations is not a decision gunmakers take lightly, but that Smith & Wesson and other companies have to consider “the survival of a business” when states like Massachusetts talk of banning the manufacturing of some assault weapons to anyone but police and the military. The companies keep some manufacturing in the places where they were founded, out of loyalty to workers, he says, but “it is clear that many of these manufacturers are expanding to other states which are more friendly business environments and more friendly to gun rights.”

For RemArms worker Brown, one of the ironies of the company’s indicating it will move to a state friendlier to gun owners is that Ilion is a place where people love guns. Ilion residents will offer to show strangers their gun collections, or wax lyrical about their favorite hunting rifle. Ask them about gun-control legislation, and they’ll blame Democrats, or politicians in Albany, for punishing the law-abiding citizens who want to own guns to hunt or to protect themselves. (Herkimer County voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden in 2020 by a 2-to-1 margin.)

Even “barber John” Seymour—still widely recognized locally as a mass-shooting survivor—is skeptical about the effectiveness of gun-control laws. “It’s tough for me to see the stuff that goes on in places like Uvalde,” he says. “But that guy would have gotten a gun no matter what—he was on a mission.” He points to the difficulties of assessing someone’s mental health when deciding whether they should be allowed to purchase a gun. In Seymour’s own case, the man who shot him, Kurt Myers, was mostly known locally as a loner who kept to himself, but authorities never found a motive for why he’d shot six people.

It’s laws like New York’s SAFE Act that have most riled people in Ilion. “The climate changes when you say, ‘Big bad Remington is making this big mean gun in the middle of our state,’ ” says Rudwall, the union rep. “Look at the comments these politicians made: they demonize the tool, not the dude that did it.”

When Remington threatens to leave, locals often blame state politicians for driving gunmakers out of the state. New York Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney has seized on that sentiment, campaigning to overturn the SAFE Act, lambasting former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for what she has called “failed economic and anti–Second Amendment policies in New York,” and using her positions on guns to shore up her connection with Donald Trump. At a fundraiser Trump held for Tenney in 2018, he warned attendees: “They want to end your Second Amendment and they’re putting a big move on it … Cuomo wants to end your Second Amendment more than anybody.” In 2020, when Remington filed for bankruptcy, Tenney said she’d contacted President Trump and would get the factory reopened, and that it would “eventually employ a workforce significantly larger than the plant’s previous head count.” (It’s unclear whether Trump intervened.) A week later, Tenney was re-elected in one of the most expensive House races in the country, by 109 votes.

Gunmakers’ threats to leave states in the Northeast have helped to stoke fear among some employees. As soon as renderings of the LaGrange RemArms headquarters started showing up online, Brown says his daughters and other workers on the factory floor began to express concern that they would lose their jobs. The pictures emerged just as the union was in the middle of negotiations with RemArms over wages and benefits, and people around the plant started hinting that the union should take whatever deal it could, says union representative Rudwall. Negotiations are still ongoing.

“My daughter says, ‘Daddy, look at this brand-new facility, they’re not going to stay here,’ ” Brown says. “So when Jamie [Rudwall] comes back with a contract, whether they like it or not, they say, ‘Yes,’ because we want to keep working.”

There are other jobs in Ilion; in this economy, there are other jobs just about anywhere. They’re just not manufacturing jobs. The county’s largest employer is now Tractor Supply, which is a distribution center. Verizon has a presence in the area, and Amazon is opening a warehouse nearby too.

But some of the laid-off Remington workers who missed their chance to go back to the factory say they’d go back if given the opportunity. Allen Harrington worked at the Remington factory in Ilion for eight years. In October 2020, a few months after Remington filed for bankruptcy, the company laid off nearly all of its Ilion workers. Harrington was on the factory floor at the time, until a supervisor came in and said they had to shut everything down, and that everyone was terminated, and that health care, severance, and other benefits would be gone at the end of the month. Harrington eventually found a job making $13 an hour in a warehouse, down from the $25 he had made at Remington. He kicks himself for not going back to school after being laid off, but he felt too old—and he felt sure that the factory would re-open and he could work in manufacturing again. It’s hard to let go.

“I loved that job,” Harrington says. “I know it’s uncertain there, but I’d go back in a heartbeat.”

—With reporting by Julia Zorthian/New York

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