Gun manufacturers have made a dramatic exodus from Maine

Wed, 04/19/2023 - 11:00pm

    Between 2007 and 2021, commercial gun manufacturing in Maine plummeted 77% while national production shot up 250%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

    The number of guns produced annually by Maine manufacturers dropped from 104,552 to 23,226 during that time.  

    The dramatic decrease is part of a broader trend that has seen gunmakers move from the Northeast to the South, where states offer tax breaks and a more welcoming political climate amid an outcry over increasing mass shootings.

    Large manufacturers such as Bushmaster Firearms International LLC and Smith & Wesson have left Maine or reduced production over those 14 years.

    Bushmaster, which started operations in the state in 1973, announced in 2010 it was closing its Windham plant after being acquired by a North Carolina-based private equity firm. Bushmaster officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

    Smith & Wesson Brands Inc. stopped producing firearms in its Houlton plant in 2014, federal reports show. A company spokesperson could not be reached for comment. 

    Windham Weaponry Inc., currently the state’s only major manufacturer, began producing firearms in 2011, when it manufactured 5,494 — a number that has steadily increased. At its peak, in 2013, the Windham-based company produced over 74,000 annually. That number dwindled to 22,930 firearms in 2021, federal reports show, or nearly 99 percent of firearms manufactured in the state.   

    Company founder Richard E. Dyke, who was credited with starting Windham Weaponry after Bushmaster closed, died in March. 

    Since at least 2016, the Maine Department of Public Safety has contracted with Windham to supply AR-15 weapons; the contract was extended last year, state records show. Windham also has had multiple contracts with federal agencies such as the FBI and National Park Service since 2016, government records show.

    Windham claims on its website, where it advertises a host of firearms and parts for sale, that it brings “to market the highest quality AR type rifle.” The company’s motto is: “The Quality Goes in, Before The Rifle Goes Out.” Windham officials did not respond to requests for comment. (The AR in AR-15 stands for “ArmaLite Rifle,” named for the manufacturer that originally designed the weapon.)

    Manufacturers must report the number of firearms produced to the federal government each year in an Annual Firearms Manufacturing and Exportation Report, or AFMER.

    In 2021, aside from Windham, most weapons are now manufactured by small companies or individuals, the AMFER data shows. The types of guns produced in Maine also have changed. While Smith & Wesson produced tens of thousands of pistols in Maine before halting production, the state’s firearms manufacturing in 2021 was dominated by rifles.

    Matthew O’Shaughnessy, a spokesperson for the ATF in Boston, said the agency does not monitor why manufacturers exited Maine, but suggested economic incentives luring the companies south may have played a role. 

    “We don’t ask why . . . We can’t prove why they are leaving,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I speculate they are leaving for tax breaks, cheaper employees in the South and hourly wages, cost of living. There are a million reasons why a business would want to leave. It’s a business model, not an ATF model.”

    Nick Pathiakis, owner of Suspensions Wholesalers in Rangeley, a firearms retailer also licensed as a manufacturer that produced 159 guns in 2020, said Maine’s aging population, as well as tax breaks elsewhere, could be a reason manufacturers left. 

    “Unfortunately, Maine’s population is in the higher age category,” Pathiakis said. “A lot of people are getting close to retirement and they’re not looking to go work for these companies. So (manufacturers) want to go to an area that’s going to give them a bigger tax break and a bigger employee pool.”

    Gun manufacturing exodus

    The exit of two of Maine’s biggest gun manufacturers is consistent with a broader trend of firearm companies leaving northern states for the South. 

    For example, in 2021, New York-based Remington Firearms announced it would establish its corporate headquarters in La Grange, Ga.

    Also in 2021, Smith & Wesson announced it would move its headquarters from Springfield, Mass., to Maryville, Tenn., in part because of tough new gun production laws proposed by the Massachusetts legislature.

    In announcing the move, the company cited “legislation recently proposed in Massachusetts that, if enacted, would prohibit the company from manufacturing certain firearms in the state.”

    The statement also noted the move would have no effect on its plant in Houlton, which produces handcuffs and other law enforcement restraints, and handgun slides. The company last produced firearms in Maine in 2014, the AMFER reports show. 

    Dru Stevenson, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, who researches the gun industry, said southern states court big manufacturers with job creation and tax incentives. Gun manufacturing was once so prominent in western Massachusetts and nearby New York that the area along the Connecticut River was known as “Gun Valley.”

    “These gun companies feel like, ‘Why are we manufacturing in states that are leading the charge to restrict guns in various ways’ — in sales, and redistribution and stuff like that,” Stevenson said.

    “I’m not sure it’s ‘we hate Maine,’ as much as ‘we love Alabama and these other states that are courting us,’” Stevenson continued. “The political climate in New England is not gun-friendly right now — Maine is less that way than New York and Connecticut . . . but it’s not as pro-gun as the Deep South.”

    The generous southern financial incentives played the largest role in the manufacturing drain, said Charles S. Colgan, a former Maine state economist.

    “There are some states that will virtually pay you to be there,” said Colgan.

    Maine’s manufacturing drain

    Firearms manufacturers leaving Maine is part of a larger shift in manufacturing jobs, according to economists and state officials. 

    “Broadly speaking, there has been a substantial shift in production from New England and New York to the southern United States over the last decade,” said Charlotte Mace, director of the Maine Office of Business Development at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. 

    The shift has dramatically redrawn Maine’s job market, experts said. 

    “The state economy has been moving away from manufacturing for decades. The largest loss has been the paper industry,” Colgan said, adding that in past years “one in every three jobs was in manufacturing. Today it’s less than one in five.”

    Market volatility

    The volatility of the gun industry also plays a role in manufacturing trends. Stevenson said gun manufacturers nationwide go through wild cycles in market demand that could influence production but does not mean a company makes a consistent profit.

    Gun sales spike after high-profile mass shootings or before elections that favor Democrats, but then sales experience a huge drop in the following months, he said. The U.S. government also scales back on contracts after the completion of overseas military action.

    “If you are running a manufacturing shop and you have 50 guys working on your floor, now there’s a spike in demand, you spend a lot of money to invest in the demand, but it doesn’t last,” Stevenson said.

    “If someone was telling me they want to go into gun manufacturing, boy, I hope you really have a high tolerance for risk and rollercoasters. The whole company goes through wild cycles every year. That’s part of the business model. You have to have an iron stomach if you are in this because a lot of companies go bankrupt.”