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Fertile Ground for Gun Makers
New nonprofit will court, and advocate for, firearms industry
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, speaks during a Montana Firearms Institute breakfast in Whitefish. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
WHITEFISH – Gordona is a small mountain village in northern Italy on the Swiss border. Despite its diminutive size, the village is home to a community of highly skilled gun makers – wood carvers, engravers, barrel makers – who work together as, in the words of Ron Duplessis, “a complete conglomeration of journeymen and trade artists,” supplying some of the top Italian firearms manufacturers, like Beretta and Perazzi, located in the northern region of the country.

Duplessis, the president of the Kalispell-based American Gun Company, believes a new organization in the Flathead Valley could move Northwestern Montana’s small firearms firms in that direction by, “bringing together some cottage industries and making us like Gordona.”

That’s why he was in attendance last week for the launch of the Montana Firearms Institute, along with other members of the valley’s nascent firearms industry and the head of the National Rifle Association.

“Montana, and you’re doing it, has a huge amount to offer the firearms industry,” NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre told the audience. “What shooter or hunter wouldn’t be happy to be out here in Montana?”

“It’s great that MFI wants to put Montana on the map as a friendly place for the gun industry to locate,” he added.

Chris Hyatt, a Whitefish city councilman, formed the Montana Firearms Institute as a 501(c)3 nonprofit along with state Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, and attorney Duncan Scott, seeing a need to foster communication between firearms businesses, help those small businesses compete for lucrative government contracts as well as lobby at the legislative level for policies favorable to the industry.

Hyatt described the development of the MFI as the product of a discussion between he and the other founders on which local industries showed signs of a promising future, particularly where it concerned job creation.

“The next thing that we saw locally, as a state, as a nation: the firearms industry,” Hyatt said. “There was synergy at a time when most of the economy was not going up, but the firearms industry was.”

MFI’s mission, according to Hyatt, is to, “Advocate for Montana's firearms and shooting sport industries, promote Montana's friendly climate for firearms manufacturing and champion the Second Amendment.”

Montana is a particularly fertile environment for such a venture, he added, since politicians on both sides of the aisle tend to support robust gun rights.

And while the head of the nation’s largest gun lobby may have broadly agreed with that assessment of Montana’s politics, he clearly disagreed with that concept at the national level, as LaPierre unleashed a blistering diatribe against President Barack Obama and, particularly, city councils in places like Chicago and New Orleans that he said were rolling back Second Amendment protections reinforced by a recent Supreme Court decision.

“When it comes to protecting us from violent crime, government can’t do it,” LaPierre said. “The only time government really stops violent crime is they’re lucky or it’s a coincidence.”

“In this dangerous world, the Second Amendment is really all the good guys have,” he continued. “I have a right to protect myself and it is worth defending.”

LaPierre said it was his mission to raise awareness of the increasing scandal related to Operation Fast and Furious, when federal agents in Arizona allowed the purchase of more than 1,000 guns to flow to Mexican drug cartels, with the intent of tracing the firearms to the cartels. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), however, apparently lost track of some of those guns, and last week top congressional Republicans widened their investigation into the program, demanding documents from the Justice Department.

LaPierre called the scandal, “this massive conspiracy out of the Justice Department and ATF” and alleged federal agents deliberately increased the “trickle” of firearms to Mexican drug cartels: “Someone in our government set out to turn that trickle into a river,” he said. “Everyone ought to be shocked by what happened on this.”

LaPierre also blasted a new Obama Administration policy aimed at increasing reporting requirements for gun dealers selling semiautomatic rifles. House Republicans voted to strip funding for the policy last week.

He also touted some of the NRA’s legislative achievements, like a law shielding gun makers from some liability over the sale and manufacture of guns, which LaPierre said, “saved the American firearms industry.”

It is those types of policies and protections that, according to Scott, MFI could help facilitate in Montana.

“In 10 years, when we look back, MFI will have changed Montana for the better,” Scott said, pointing to a campaign already underway in South Dakota aimed at drawing firearms makers there by emphasizing the hospitable business climate and gun culture.

“What can we do to Montana law to help you succeed and hire more people?” he added. “In a couple more years we will replace South Dakota as the place to relocate.”

Zinke described another goal as the training of a workforce with the skills to accommodate the requirements of gun makers, and potentially developing a program at Flathead Valley Community College or MSU extension offices tailored to those areas.

“MFI will look at commonalities among your businesses and what you need,” Zinke said. “If necessary, we will develop a course that will meet those requirements.”

“Just having an idea isn’t enough,” he added. “We have to have a workforce.”

Zinke also cautioned that tailoring legislation specifically to the firearms industry was unlikely to find many backers in Helena, but if those policies broadly benefited all small businesses, chances of success improve.

After the meeting drew to a close, the heads of local gun businesses stood in circles, exchanging business cards and talking. Among them was KK Jense, CEO of Proof Research, a new firearms business launching in Columbia Falls that plans on building what he called a “state-of-the-art” facility with a ballistics laboratory and high-speed cameras to allow local gun makers to actually test, and provide proof, of their weapons’ capabilities.

Though his business is just getting off the ground, he thinks MFI will prove beneficial.

“It helps us from a standpoint of keeping abreast of what’s going on in the higher levels of government and the firearms industry,” Jense said. “We just need to be encouraging people to be coming in.”

If the attendance at last week’s event is any indication, MFI is off to a good start.
 
 
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