Seeking A Warmer Welcome, Gun Factory Moves Down South

Apr 18, 2016
Originally published on April 18, 2016 5:56 pm

When companies uproot, executives usually point to factors like lower government taxes or fewer unions.

But one gun maker, Beretta, blames something entirely different — a law passed in Maryland to try to curb mass shootings.

The company recently moved its factory to Nashville, Tenn., because it says the law in Maryland threatened its business. The opening day was celebrated with shooting demonstrations and a warm welcome from state officials.

The Italian gun maker says it's being driven out of its longtime U.S. home on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The political culture there has grown hostile to guns and to the people who make them, the company says.

The view couldn't be more different in the city of Gallatin.

"They do what the people who live here really appreciate and respect and enjoy," says Mayor Paige Brown. "And so it's been a real pride thing for us."

The state of Tennessee spent more than $10 million to woo Beretta. Gallatin has also thrown in a $2 million property tax break and 100 acres for free.

Gov. Bill Haslam says the plant has made him the envy of his Republican colleagues.

"I literally had the governors of Texas and Georgia and North Carolina and South Carolina and I'm sure a few others walk up and go, 'Dang, Haslam, that's one we really wanted,' " he says.

That the governor would even attend the opening shows just how different the climate is for gun makers in Tennessee, says Jeff Reh of Beretta.

"Beretta USA was the second-largest private employer in Southern Maryland," Reh says. "In the history of the state, we never had a governor visit the facility."

A History Of Tension In Maryland

The company's history in Maryland goes back to the late 1970s.

In the decades since then, Beretta has clashed periodically with state officials. In 2013, in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, then Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley led a clampdown on ownership of high-powered weaponry.

Some proposals would have made it illegal for Beretta to import some of its own products — even for sale to the military, Reh says. The exceptions the company managed to get written into the law were not enough.

"But after that experience, we realized how close we had come to being forced out of business by the state government," Reh says. "And that's when we started thinking about moving the entire factory to a gun-friendly state."

One of Beretta's competitors, Remington, is also relocating jobs, from a plant in New York to Alabama. It also cites gun laws passed after Newtown as a reason for the move.

Beretta will spend about $45 million on the first phase of its Tennessee plant. Although the ceremonial opening was last week, the factory has operated since December.

The new plant is expected to create 300 jobs, the company says, and most workers have been hired locally. One exception is Kevin Lancto, a quality manager.

He has worked for firearm companies throughout the Northeast and taken some cold shoulders through the years.

"Even people in my own family," Lancto says. "You know, when you know people, some people have different ideas about things."

Lancto says even his own thinking about guns has changed. He was once an avid shooter. Now he's more interested in the weapons' technical aspects.

Still, Lancto says he appreciates working in a part of the country where gun making is more often a source of pride than controversy.

Copyright 2017 Nashville Public Radio. To see more, visit Nashville Public Radio.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

When a company moves its headquarters, executives may point to factors including tax incentives or fewer unions. Gunmaker Beretta points to something different, a law passed in Maryland to try to curb mass shootings. The company says the law threatened its business, so it left for Tennessee. And Chas Sisk of member station WPLN reports it's been getting a warm welcome.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: There are certain things to accept at a factory's grand opening, a big ribbon to be cut, speeches, tables overflowing with free food. But at Beretta USA's opening just outside Nashville a few days ago, there was also this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

SISK: A sharpshooter obliterating eggs as they whizzed through the air. The crowd was delighted.

(CHEERING)

SISK: A shooting demonstration was Beretta's way of saying thank you. The Italian gunmaker says it's being driven out of its longtime U.S. home on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The company says the political culture there has grown hostile to guns and to the people who make them. The view couldn't be more different in the town of Gallatin, says Mayor Paige Brown.

PAIGE BROWN: They do what the people who live here really appreciate and respect and enjoy. And so it's been a real pride thing for us.

(Laughter) That would be the Olympic ski shooter.

SISK: The state of Tennessee spent more than $10 million to woo Beretta. The city of Gallatin has also thrown in a $2 million property tax break and 100 acres for free. Gov. Bill Haslam says the plant has made him the envy of his Republican colleagues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL HASLAM: I literally had the governors of Texas and Georgia and North Carolina and South Carolina and I'm sure a few others walk up and go, dang, Haslam, that's one we really wanted.

SISK: That the governor would even attend the opening shows just how different the climate is for gunmakers in Tennessee, says Jeff Reh of Beretta.

JEFF REH: Beretta USA was the second-largest private employer in Southern Maryland. In the history of the state, we never had a governor visit the facility.

SISK: The company's history in Maryland goes back to the late 1970s. In the decades since, Beretta has clashed periodically with state officials. In 2013 in response to the Newtown school shootings, then Gov. Martin O'Malley led a clampdown on ownership of high-powered weaponry. Some proposals would have made it illegal for Beretta itself to import some of its own products, even for sale to the military, says Reh. The company managed to get some exceptions written into the law.

REH: But after that experience, we realized how close we had come to being forced out of business by the state government. And that's when we started thinking about moving the entire factory to a gun-friendly state.

SISK: One of Beretta's competitors, Remington, is also relocating jobs from a plant in New York to Alabama. It too cites gun laws passed after Newtown. Beretta will spend $45 million on the first phase of its Tennessee plant. Though the ceremonial opening was last week, the factory has operated since December. On the floor, a worker inspects a gun while a machine test fires new pistols.

Most workers have been hired locally, the company says. One exception is Kevin Lancto, a quality manager. He's worked for firearm companies throughout the Northeast and taken some cold shoulders through the years.

KEVIN LANCTO: Even people in my own family, you know - you get - when you know people, some people have different ideas about things.

SISK: Lancto says even his own thinking about guns has changed. He was once an avid shooter. Now he's more interested in the weapons' technical aspects. Still, Lancto says, he appreciates working in a part of the country where gunmaking is more often a source of pride than controversy. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Gallatin, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.