AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is actively courting gunmakers and ammunition manufacturers to relocate to Maine, focusing on companies that have threatened to leave states that have passed new gun control measures.
In an op-ed column for the Wall Street Journal published Saturday, LePage touted Maine as a state that is “fiercely protective” of its gun rights and a welcoming potential home for gun manufacturers.
“I will never sign anti-gun legislation that erodes the rights of Maine citizens, drives your business away or infringes on the U.S. Constitution or the State of Maine Constitution,” he wrote in the piece.
LePage’s economic adviser, John Butera, said Saturday that Portland-based Maine and Company, a private company the state works with on business attraction, has reached out to two gun manufacturers recently on the state’s behalf. George Gervais, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, is on Maine and Company’s board.
LePage said if companies such as Colt’s Manufacturing, Beretta USA Corp. and Magpul Industries come to Maine, he’ll look to “provide incentives and guarantees that will make it attractive for you to set up shop in our state.”
Those three companies have all threatened to leave Connecticut, Maryland and Colorado, respectively, after those states’ legislatures passed tough gun-control measures.
Butera said the state has contacted two gun companies that have publicly mulled moving, but he wouldn’t say which ones because the relocation process is sensitive.
Peter DelGreco, Maine and Company’s president and CEO, wouldn’t confirm talks with companies, but said that generally, if a company has indicated there’s something wrong with policy in another state, Maine and Company will engage the business, feel out the problem and make a pitch for Maine.
Governors in Connecticut and Colorado — two states that saw mass shootings in the latter half of 2012 — have already signed off on gun-control laws, while Maryland’s Senate has passed a bill that Gov. Martin O’Malley backed and is soon expected to sign.
In Colorado, Magpul, a company that makes gun accessories and magazines, told the Denver Post in late March that it will leave the state “almost immediately” after Gov. John Hickenlooper signed sweeping gun measures into law, including a provision prohibiting the sale of magazines holding more than 15 rounds.
In an email, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett noted the recent plans to lay off 110 employees at a General Dynamics location in Saco. The company, which makes heavy machine guns for military use, cited troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan as the reason for the layoffs.
“Those (machine guns) are not things that the public would buy,” Bennett wrote. “Inviting Colt and Beretta to Maine still makes sense, since they sell to consumers and that market is growing.”
In his op-ed, LePage said the respective companies are facing “hostile — and hysterical — legislation from politicians who slap them in the face for providing their states with jobs, opportunity and revenue.”
As for Maine’s specific strengths for gun manufacturers, Bennett cited a good work force, plentiful business sites, access to air, sea and rail transport and a “pro-gun climate that would welcome and appreciate the companies.”
“Maine people are used to making things,” Butera said. “We seem to do fairly well with manufacturing base and advanced manufacturing base.”
Butera said in negotiations with businesses, the state would push Pine Tree Development Zones — a state program where certain businesses can apply to reduce state taxes for up to 10 years when they create new jobs in certain sectors or move those jobs to Maine.
In the op-ed, LePage mentioned Richard Dyke, the former owner of Bushmaster Firearms and currently the president and CEO of Windham Weaponry, based in the Windham Business Park.
Dyke sold Bushmaster in 2006, and the company left Maine. He opened his new business in 2011. Dyke contributed $750 to LePage’s 2010 campaign for governor.
In the op-ed, LePage, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, also said Maine has a tradition of supporting hunting outfitters such as Cabela’s and L.L. Bean.
“Just as we welcome and support these companies and the jobs and opportunities they create, we would welcome and support the manufacturers of firearms and accessories,” LePage wrote.
J. Thomas Franklin, president of Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence, a pro-gun control group, said he doesn’t have a problem with LePage trying to woo gun companies to Maine.
But he does have a problem with LePage’s approach, which he said leans too heavily on Maine’s gun climate. Support for certain gun-control measures, such as mandatory background checks in private gun sales, shouldn’t dissuade manufacturers, Franklin said.
“I’d like LePage to take pride in Maine’s ability to develop a balanced approach to this issue instead of an extremist approach,” he said.
“His statement that Maine is a gun-friendly state is a less attractive argument (than) a more subjective appeal to gun manufacturers saying Maine has learned how to balance these interests that are in conflict across the country.”
LePage has long been a staunch opponent of sweeping gun control, although in his State of the State address in February, he said “we need to do something about getting guns away from abusers.”
At a gun-rights rally in February, the Associated Press quoted LePage as saying: “The Constitution is very, very clear, and free people, law-abiding citizens, should have the ability to carry guns. That’s what keeps us safe and free.”
“While I’m your governor, they will not infringe on your rights,” he said.
Bennett repeated that sentiment Saturday, saying LePage won’t support laws “attacking” law-abiding citizens utilizing their Second Amendment rights.
In a 2010 video interview during his campaign, LePage said, “Everybody blames the gun manufacturers” for tragedies involving guns. “Everybody blames everybody but what’s really happening.”
“What’s really happening is those without guns” or those who abide gun laws “become vulnerable to those who don’t live by the law,” he said then. “It’s that simple.”
LePage has also been vocal in Maine’s recent debate over keeping identifying information on concealed-handgun permits confidential.
After a public-records request by the Bangor Daily News for information on each Maine permit was publicized on Valentine’s Day, LePage’s office released a picture of the governor holding his permit.
“If newspapers would like to know who has concealed weapons permits, then they should know the Governor has his,” LePage said in a statement then. “I have serious concerns that (the) BDN’s request will incite fear among gun owners and non-gun owners alike regarding their safety. There is no reason why these records should be public and I encourage the Legislature to act quickly to make this personal information confidential.”
Just days later in the midst of an uproar from Maine’s gun-rights grassroots, LePage signed an emergency bill making the information, including names, dates of birth and addresses, confidential temporarily while a bill to do so permanently was considered. The permanent bill was endorsed by a legislative committee earlier this month.
All but 11 legislators, all of them Democrats or liberal independents, voted to shield the information temporarily. The bill that did so was a LePage proposal sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.
“Maine Democrats, many of whom serve rural areas where hunting and gun ownership are a way of life, readily agree with Republicans that the rights of firearms owners must not be infringed,” LePage wrote in the Wall Street Journal op-ed.
However, certain Democrats have introduced gun-control legislation. For example, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, has a bill in to limit magazines to 10 rounds in Maine, though it likely won’t see widespread support among Republicans or avoid LePage’s veto pen.
“This bill is only one part of the solution,” Alfond said in testimony before a committee on Monday. “I have no illusions that restricting access to these high-capacity magazines in and of itself will stop the next massacre, but it could reduce the number of lives lost.”
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:
On Twitter: @mikeshepherdme