After chewing it over for a while, Larivee offers a partial explanation for the boom. “I think it’s because of our president and what happened down in Connecticut,” he says, talking over the roar of machines and the horns of forklifts. “Everybody’s nervous that Obama’s going to pass some law that you’re not going to be able to buy ammo or guns, or that he’s going to go in your house.”
Nonsense, Larivee says. “He ain’t gonna go in your house. I wouldn’t let him in my house, and I don’t even own a gun.”
That last comment surprises me, so I want to make sure I heard him right. “You don’t own a gun?”
“No,” he says. “I never have.”
As it turns out, most of the people I will encounter in my three days roaming the factory floor at Savage don’t own or use guns. The company estimates that only about one-quarter of the employees in Westfield do.
Despite producing more guns than he can count over the years, Larivee tells me he hasn’t used one since he was a 12-year-old kid shooting a .22-caliber with a friend. “I don’t like hunting. I don’t care about hunting,” he says. “Savage gives me a job, pays my bills. Thank you very much.”
WHEN YOU REALLY THINK ABOUT IT, it shouldn’t be a revelation that most of the people building the guns don’t also collect and shoot them. We wouldn’t expect all the people who stitch together Rawlings baseball gloves to be fielding grounders after they’ve punched out for the night. But, of course, guns are different. They’re such a political fault-line issue that there’s not much meaningful interaction between the sides.
Those of us who don’t own guns are less likely to have many gun owners in our circles of friends and family, given trends in firearms ownership. Hunters, in particular, are harder to find. Federal statistics show that the number of them has fallen from its peak of 19.1 million in 1975 to 13.7 million in 2011 (with a slight uptick in recent years). Hunters make up a small subset of all gun owners, a number that has also been falling. Even as sales soar, only about one-third of US households have guns, down from about half in the 1970s, according to the 2012 General Social Survey, produced by an independent research center at the University of Chicago. Most of us are at least two generations removed from the farm, and our meat arrives in rectangular plastic-wrapped packages.
On the other side, responsible gun owners have often let the loudest, most extreme voices do the talking. When National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre took to the airwaves amid the fresh tears of Newtown, he sounded not just insensitive but close to unhinged, refusing to cede an inch. Meanwhile, a Johns Hopkins University poll found that three-quarters of NRA members support universal background checks for all gun purchases, as do 85 percent of people in households with an NRA member, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
Economic development is an area that may provide even more fertile common ground. That’s why you find Governor Deval Patrick, a prominent gun control advocate, pushing through $6 million in tax breaks in 2010 for Smith & Wesson to move 225 jobs from New Hampshire to Springfield. It’s why you find Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, an outspoken member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns — “Are you going to shoot a deer or shred a deer?” he once said in support of an assault rifle ban — securing another $600,000 in incentives for the company. And it’s why you find that Joe Lieberman during his time in the US Senate worked to advance tough gun control measures while lobbying behind the scenes to keep a certain Colt firearm off the Clinton-era list of banned assault weapons.
In Springfield, where the unemployment rate tops 10 percent, Smith & Wesson is a success story. It has invested more than $80 million since 2009 to expand and modernize its sprawling plant there, according to vice president Liz Sharp, and plans to spend another $40 million in 2013. It has employed multiple generations of the same families, and its Massachusetts full-time workforce has grown to nearly 1,300. Politicians who cheer those job numbers tend not to mention one of the important drivers of S&W’s recent growth: its manufacture of assault rifles. (The industry prefers the term “modern sporting rifles.”)
There’s more nuance to the gun issue than the locked-in debate usually allows. The search for fresh insight is how I ended up on the Savage factory floor at 7 o’clock on a recent Tuesday morning, being handed goggles, gloves, and an apron and told to build my own gun.Continued...