Georgia quietly becomes a top gun-making state

Hollis Brown looks over a 9mm Taurus handgun he purchased at Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna in December. Taurus moved its U.S. manufacturing plant to Bainbridge, Ga., in 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Hollis Brown looks over a 9mm Taurus handgun he purchased at Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna in December. Taurus moved its U.S. manufacturing plant to Bainbridge, Ga., in 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

When Remington Arms announced in November its decision to move its global headquarters to west Georgia, bringing 850 jobs, it became the latest in a string of gun-makers relocating to the Peach State.

Georgia has quietly become one of the country’s top 10 states for gun manufacturing, according to data from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The state is now home to 74 companies that make hunting rifles, shotguns, pistols, semi-automatic military style rifles, parts, accessories and ammunition, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

It didn’t happen by accident.

The state’s business recruiters began aggressively courting gun-makers six years ago after noticing a trend: Firearms manufacturers were fleeing the Northeast, where some states have passed more stringent gun laws, and relocating to politically friendlier Southern climes.

“It has been good politics for red state governors to recruit these companies,” because it adds to their conservative bona fides, said Ryan Busse, a senior adviser at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates for gun control.

In September, when Smith & Wesson announced it was moving its headquarters to Tennessee, executives said the company was relocating due to tough new gun manufacturing laws proposed in Massachusetts, where it had been since 1852. Democrats there introduced a bill to ban the manufacturing of certain firearms unless they are intended for sale to the military or law enforcement.

The gun-maker also cited Tennessee’s “unwavering support for the Second Amendment.”

The expansion into the South is also a sign of the times, Busse said. Companies are expanding. Since last year, gun sales in the U.S. have been at all time highs. Smith & Wesson reported last summer that sales had doubled to more than $1 billion compared to the previous 12 months.

In addition to the gun-friendly environment, gun manufacturers that make their home in the South often avoid unionized labor.

Remington plans to build its $100 million facility factory in LaGrange, near Columbus, and will move its headquarters from upstate New York.

At the same time, international gun companies have been expressing interest in Georgia.

Taurus has been making a line of pistols in Bainbridge. The state lured the company to Georgia with $36 million in incentives. The plant employs about 300 people. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Rick McCaskill, the head of the Development Authority of Bainbridge and Decatur County, helped to lure Brazilian gunmaker Taurus to the state. The manufacturer arrived in 2019 and brought an initial 300 jobs.

Landing the company sparked new life in Bainbridge, a city of 14,500 in southwest Georgia, he said. In a decade in which census counts show 67 of Georgia’s 159 counties lost population, Decatur County gained 5.5%.

“Taurus has made over a million guns in Bainbridge,” said McCaskill.

Each pistol that rolls off the line has the city name stamped into the metal.

Georgia’s gun industry employed 4,630 in 2020, according to data from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Its suppliers provide jobs for thousands more, the foundation said. McCaskill believes some of those could be coming to his area. A few already have been looking around, he said, though he declined to name them.

The country’s iconic firearms brands — such as Winchester, Colt, Smith & Wesson, Remington — were founded in the United States’ original heavy industrial corridor of Connecticut, New York and other northeastern states.

The companies largely remained in that region until the late 20th century.

Then some northeastern states started imposing more gun restrictions, said McCaskill.

Connecticut — where 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown in one of the nation’s most notorious school shootings — banned certain military style semi-automatic rifles and large ammunition magazines.

Massachusetts now requires that gun buyers get purchase permits from the local police and that first-time buyers pass a training course.

The South, meanwhile, has one of the gun-friendliest populations, said Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

A 2020 report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress notes that Georgia is among the states that have passed laws that shield gun-makers from lawsuits.

Bergara bolt action hunting rifles are on display at Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna. BPI Outdoors, the company that makes the guns, is based in Lawrenceville. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Remington and other Georgia-based firearms companies did not respond to requests for interviews. But Ken D’Arcy, Remington CEO, issued a statement in November saying, “We are very excited to come to Georgia, a state that not only welcomes business but enthusiastically supports and welcomes companies in the firearms industry.”

Bert Brantley, who is the deputy chief of staff for Gov. Brian Kemp, was the chief operating officer of the state Department of Economic Development when officials became aware of the National Shoot Sports Foundation’s annual convention. It was an opportunity to talk to firearms companies that were looking for a new home.

The state already had a group of successful home-grown companies, such as Daniel Defense near Savannah, and one international heavyweight, Glock, located in Smyrna since the 1980s, Brantley said.

However, economic development recruiters were eager to attract more. Georgia sent representatives to the show in 2015.

“We went and rolled out the welcome mat and recruited them,” he said.

German gunmaker Heckler & Koch opened shop in Columbus in 2017, bringing more than 60 jobs and paying a wage averaging $66,600. Georgia promised it $3.3 million in tax breaks and exemptions.

Taurus was lured in with $39.9 million in tax breaks, grants, training costs and job credits. It promised to pay an average annual wage of $35,000. Remington, a 200-year-old company, was promised $27.9 million in state grants, tax breaks and other help. The company says it will create 856 jobs at an average wage of $65,900.

Brantley said they are solid jobs in what has been a growth industry.

He shrugs off the people who would rather not see Georgia become a magnet for gun manufacturers.

No matter what the industry is, critics can find controversy, Brantley said. “Some would say the film industry is controversial. Automotive. No matter what, there are going to be some that are against or for it.”

“Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to help provide jobs and investment for the community and our citizens,” he said. “They are legal products.”

FBI background checks for gun purchases remain high

There is no tracking of gun purchases in the U.S., so background checks are the best approximation of the number of gun sales. To purchase a gun in Georgia, a person must either have a state license to carry a weapon or apply for a background check by the FBI. Not every background check results in a gun purchase, and some result in the purchase of more than one.

Background checks spiked in the state after a summer of social unrest in 2020 over police killings of Black people, a contentious presidential election in November and an attack on the U.S. Capitol a year ago.

Year/ U.S./Georgia

2016/ 27,538,673/ 612,985

2017/ 25,235,215/ 541,665

2018/ 26,181,936/ 549,532

2019/ 28,369,750/ 539,113

2020/ 39,695,315/ 904,035

2021/ 38,876,673/ 806,912