Dale Countryman paused while cleaning a terrarium for red crabs and a green tree frog at an aquarium shop in downtown Ilion, New York, and began to lecture customers about guns and the U.S. Constitution.
“They’re coming up with new regulations and destroying the Second Amendment,” Countryman said inside Tropical Décor Too. “Now, a lot of people are worried about the Arms going down and what it means for their families.”
“The Arms” means one thing in Ilion: Remington Arms Co., the almost 200-year-old gun manufacturer that employs about 1,300 workers in a village of 8,000. Just about everyone in this Mohawk Valley town midway between Albany and Syracuse has some connection to the plant. That means Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tougher gun-control law passed by the legislature last week may have more impact here than anywhere in the Empire State.
New York was the first state to act on calls for tighter limits on firearms after 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school Dec. 14. President Barack Obama and Democratic governors and lawmakers in at least 10 states have since advocated tighter gun controls, challenging the firearms industry’s clout.
In Ilion, the debate is playing out at the Farmhouse Restaurant on Central Avenue. Before starting work at the eatery 10 years ago, Ellen Jones spent 17 years in the plant’s cafeteria along with her mother and sister. Her nephew works at the Arms now. Remington has seen tough times before, and sometimes closes for a week in November when hunting season starts, Jones said. With new gun regulations come new fears of firings, she said.
“Everybody is affected by it -- the banks, everyone -- any time they cut back or there’s layoffs,” Jones, who now owns the Farmhouse, said while serving breakfast among its six tables. “I worry about my business all the time anyway. This just makes it worse.”
There’s no indication that Remington plans to abandon New York. Workers leaving the Arms at the end of the day shift Jan. 17, such as 52-year-old Mark Ashley, said the company had not informed employees of changes.
“I’m a little concerned about layoffs right now,” said Ashley, an Ilion resident who lost his job at a tool-manufacturing company when it closed, went back to school and later landed a job at Remington. “The ban on assault weapons is not good for the company.”
New York’s law expanded a 2000 ban on assault rifles and it limited magazine rounds to seven, the lowest in the nation. The Newtown gunman used a Bushmaster AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle, similar to those made in Ilion. Under the new law, those weapons are banned, according to Cuomo’s office.
Jessica Kallam, a spokeswoman for Madison, North Carolina-based Freedom Group Inc., which owns Remington Arms, didn’t respond to telephone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Remington has been awarded $6.6 million in tax incentives from New York since 1999, according to New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. The Manhattan-based group, which supports gun restrictions, obtained the information from the state through open-records requests.
Cuomo, a 55-year-old Democrat who owns a Remington shotgun, said at a Jan. 16 press briefing in Rochester that he hasn’t spoken with company officials about the new law.
“I don’t believe it’s going to have a significant impact on them, but that’s for them to determine,” Cuomo said. “Enough innocent people have lost their lives, and something has to be done.”
On Jan. 14, as negotiations over Cuomo’s gun measure intensified, village leaders called a meeting in the municipal building to address residents’ concerns, said Mayor John Stephens, 46, who was injured in a snowmobile accident two days earlier and couldn’t attend. After the meeting, a contingent of about three dozen plant workers traveled 82 miles (132 kilometers) east to Albany to deliver a letter to Cuomo urging him to drop his plan.
“We are asking that you not hinder the growth of our employer,” the letter said. “Many of the people that lost their jobs in the closing of other manufacturing facilities were able to find employment at Remington.”
That night, the Senate, where Republicans hold power thanks to a group of five breakaway Democrats, approved Cuomo’s proposal with the help of Republicans from Long Island. Their counterparts in New York’s rural upstate regions voted no. On Jan. 15, the Democratic-controlled Assembly approved the bill and Cuomo signed it into law less than an hour later.
The next day, Obama proposed a federal assault-weapon ban and a 10-round magazine limit. He also signed 23 executive orders aimed at circumventing congressional opposition to gun restrictions, including several designed to maximize prosecution of gun crimes and improve access to government data for background checks. Republicans control the House, and the party has typically opposed regulations.
In Ilion, those actions were weighed in conversations at places like Hair It Is, a downtown beauty salon where 86-year-old Betty Johnson had her hair in rollers. Johnson said she has lived in Ilion all her life.
“Now they’re trying to tell people how many bullets they can have, and everyone is just buying them all up,” Johnson said. “If the Arms goes, you might as well roll up the sidewalks. If you take the industry away from Ilion, where are all those people going to work?”
The Arms got its start in 1816, when Eliphalet Remington II crafted a flintlock rifle at his father’s forge in nearby Ilion Gulch, according to Remington’s website. After finishing second in a shooting contest using the rifle, orders for the gun began to roll in. In 1828, Remington moved his operations to Ilion so he could better ship his products down the Erie Canal, which had opened three years before.
Stephens, Ilion’s mayor, said the community is saddened by what happened in Newtown and Webster, New York, about 140 miles to the west, where two firefighters were killed Christmas Eve by a 62-year-old man wielding a Bushmaster. He said Ilion is caught in the middle of a debate that’s “bigger than Remington.”
“We’re very fortunate to have Remington here, and we wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Stephens, a retired firefighter whose father worked at the Arms for 37 years. “I want to be optimistic and I’m going to be. Will it hurt? I’m sure it will, but hopefully it won’t be that bad. Remington, the gun lobbyists, they’re going to fight against it. It’s not over.”