Call to Stiffen Laws Worries Town Built by Guns

Thomas Kaplan, The New York Times

ILION, N.Y. — This is the town that Remington built.

Almost 200 years ago, a young man named Eliphalet Remington Jr. forged his first rifle barrel at his father’s ironworks here in the Mohawk Valley. These days, the Remington Arms factory in this village, midway between Albany and Syracuse, is one of the few large manufacturers still prospering in a part of upstate New York that was once filled with them.

But now residents of Ilion, a community whose history and economy are indelibly linked to one of America’s more celebrated gunmakers, are starting to worry about Remington’s future. The recent mass shootings at a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Colorado and at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin have galvanized advocates of tougher gun laws in Albany, and Remington has made it clear that such laws could prompt it to leave New York for a more sympathetic state. (More: .)

While elsewhere the debate over gun control includes talk of balancing constitutional rights with public safety, here residents are most concerned with a little-discussed element of the gun industry: economics.

Diana Bower, who owns a small engineering business with her husband, a onetime engineer at the Remington plant, said politicians pressing for new gun laws — many of them from New York City — did not realize what was at stake upstate. For example, company officials have said one proposal under consideration would require costly plant retooling.

“If you don’t live here and work here,” Ms. Bower said, “you really don’t know what it means to say, ‘Pass this,’ or, ‘Pass that.’ ”

And Rusty Brown, a furnace technician in the powdered-metal products division at the plant and a former president of its union, spells it out bluntly: “In my eyes, Remington goes away, Ilion goes away.”

Remington, which has its headquarters in North Carolina, employs more than a thousand people at its Ilion plant, a complex of four-story brick buildings, some still with creaky wood floors, that are connected by passageways. The plant looks like a relic of the Industrial Revolution; from the outside, at least, little has changed since close to a century ago, when Remington expanded to meet the demand for firearms during World War I.

Ilion, which now has about 8,000 residents, developed around the plant, and the Remington name is ubiquitous here. Students at Remington Elementary School can see the factory from their playground; even the doormat on the front steps at the Ilion police station notes, “Home of Remington.” (Free gun locks are available inside.)

The company is a rare economic bright spot in this part of the Mohawk Valley. The area has lost over 11,000 of its manufacturing jobs since 1990, or more than half, according to the State Labor Department. But Remington has added positions in recent years as its parent company consolidated production of other gun brands, like Bushmaster and Marlin, in Ilion. (More: Why Fewer Americans Are Starting New Businesses.)

“Not only have they stayed, but they’ve grown,” said John Scarano, the executive director of the Herkimer County Chamber of Commerce. He added that the jobs at the plant were “not minimum-wage jobs — they’re good jobs,” and, indeed, many of the job postings on Remington’s Web site recently were for skilled engineering positions.

Yet the talk of new gun laws, in a state that already has some of the most restrictive in the nation, has some people on edge.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said last week that he felt a new urgency to tackle legislation relating to gun violence and planned to make it one of his top priorities when lawmakers returned to Albany for the legislative session next year.

“There’s been current events that have really shaped the psyche of this state, and I think there is a receptivity, as we stand here today, by the Legislature for additional measures,” Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said, adding, “I think there’s an appetite for reform, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Lawmakers are proposing, among other things, to limit firearm sales to one per person per month; to require background checks for anyone purchasing ammunition; and, most controversially, to require microstamping, a form of ballistics identification, for all semiautomatic pistols sold in New York State.

Microstamping has been an anathema to gunmakers. Colt has suggested that it might leave Connecticut if legislators there approved microstamping legislation, and, for years, Remington has strenuously opposed the measure in New York State.

A Remington executive, Stephen P. Jackson Jr., wrote to Mr. Cuomo earlier this year and said that the enactment of microstamping could force Remington “to reconsider its commitment to the New York market altogether, rather than spend the astronomical sums of money needed to completely reconfigure our manufacturing and assembly processes.”

In Ilion, Mr. Jackson’s threat was not taken lightly.

“If they have to spend a million bucks on that, they’ll move out where they don’t have to spend a million dollars,” said Steve Maley, who owns a custom jewelry and repair shop across the street from the Remington plant. As it is, he said, “New York State taxes are killing everybody.”

Another gunmaker, Kimber, which has a manufacturing plant in Yonkers, is also threatening to cut jobs at its factory if the Legislature approves microstamping. The company has said that passing such a law would create “little more than a false sense of achievement for our elected officials” while costing the state jobs and tax revenues.

And Remington and its competitors are not lacking suitors: in recent years, a number of states, including Alabama, Montana and South Dakota, have sought to persuade gunmakers in the Northeast and Midwest to move their plants to parts of the country with less restrictive gun laws, and, in many cases, a culture that is friendlier toward guns. (More: Why Fewer Americans Are Starting New Businesses.)

State Senator James L. Seward, a Republican whose district includes Ilion, said that passing new gun laws in Albany “would send a bad signal to this gun manufacturer that they’re in a state that’s hostile to gun ownership and gun manufacturing,” and that it could prompt the company to “go to a more hospitable state, no question.”

“It may make people feel good to think they’ve done something,” Mr. Seward added, “but at the end of the day, the criminal element and those that go out and do these horrible things, they’re going to get their weapons. And the cost could be great for a community like Ilion.”

Advocates of tighter gun laws are unsympathetic, accusing Remington and others of using the threat of layoffs to give themselves leverage against state lawmakers. The proposed microstamping law would require that the technology be used only on semiautomatic pistols sold to consumers in New York State, not all of the guns they make in the state.

“I think it’s ridiculous for them to argue that they would leave New York,” said Jackie Hilly, the executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, a group that wants microstamping. “Look, frankly, if we really want to keep jobs in New York, let’s invest more money in yogurt,” she added, referring to one of the state’s growing industries.

To residents, Ilion without Remington would be unimaginable. The Arms, as it is known, is the family business for many; both of Mr. Brown’s parents worked at the plant, and his wife works there, too.

“Three-quarters of the town probably worked there at one point,” said Tim Daly, who manages a bank branch in town and is a co-owner of a liquor store next to the plant. “You think of Ilion and Herkimer County, you think of Remington Arms.”