Quad Cities Online, 06/21/2007Gun makers in limbo, with one eye on lawmakers
By Stephen Elliott, email@example.com
Area gun manufacturers remain in limbo, unsure if Illinois legislators could put them out of business.
Bills were introduced this year in the Illinois legislature to outlaw high-capacity gun magazines, to ban the .50-caliber rifle, and to ban some types of semi-automatic weapons.
The assaults on the industry were tougher this year, according to gun manufacturers, and that has stalled expansion plans at many of the businesses.
Most have made plans to move to other states if necessary, while one firm -- Les Baer Custom of Hillsdale -- has called it a day.
The firm is in the process of moving operations to LeClaire. While many of the current employees will likely follow the firm to Iowa, owner Les Baer also plans on hiring eight more people, expanding his staff to 24 employees.
Mr. Baer said the move was in large part due to the constant threats of new Illinois laws that would ban or curtail his gun manufacturing business.
Mark Westrom, owner of ArmaLite Inc., in Geneseo, employs about 85 people. Because of this year's heated battles in Springfield, he's unsure what the firm's future in Geneseo will be.
"We have an actual factory -- we have huge machines, and we need more. We need to expand," Mr. Westrom said Wednesday. "In Illinois, we're cautious about expansion. I've already looked at sites elsewhere.
"It's nuts. It's crazy," he said. "We've got states, cities and counties all contacting us. But, I've got good people here. You can't just pull those people out of trees. They have spouses, families, houses. We'll make a decision (on moving) based on the needs of our production."
Bill Dermody, spokesman for Springfield Armory, Geneseo, said with 170 employees, it's hard to move operations.
Like ArmaLite, Springfield desperately needs to expand, he said. But to do so in the current Illinois political climate is risky.
"From our customer service to our machine shop, we're just elbow to elbow," Mr. Dermody said. "We just have no room."
The company still hasn't decided what it will do, he said. "Either you deal with (gun legislation) year in and year out, or you leave," he said. "We really don't want to leave. But, we have this black cloud hanging over our heads that isn't about to blow away."
A spokesman for Rock River Arms, Colona, said it can no longer bring in more employees or inventory into the building.
"We've needed to expand since Jan. 1," the spokesman, who declined to be named, said. "We'd like to build and add more jobs. But with the state legislators talking the way they are, it doesn't make sense to sink several million dollars in a new facility when, next year, you can be thrown out of the state."
At Lewis Machine and Tool Co., Milan, it's the same as far as expansion. Company president Karl Lewis said they have approximately 110 employees, but want to add more with expansion.
"We've had architectural plans to expand our business since 2000," Mr. Lewis said. "And, every year, when legislation comes up, we just say we'll make do."
But this year came close to driving Mr. Lewis' company out of Milan and out of Illinois.
"We like it here," he said. "It's a good community and a good environment. Yet, there were a lot of people from other states that came here with presentations to us. It opened my eyes and gave me pause to see that other states are embracing our business.
"We are being romanced or catered to by about every state around us plus some quite far away," Mr. Lewis said. "When someone says, 'we don't want you here,' it doesn't take very long to move."
Tom Mannard, executive director of Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said he wants to see compromise between legislators and gun manufacturers.
"It's a delicate balance," he said. "You could have a bill that prohibits the sale of assault weapons in Illinois, but allows the manufacturers to continue to manufacture and sell outside of Illinois. The current measures don't allow that."