Firearms Industry Booms In Montana

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Firearms manufacturers looking for a favorable, pro-gun political climate are moving to Montana. The Flathead Valley in the northwest corner of the state has had a steady gun manufacturing industry for decades, and it's now looking to expand. Despite 10 percent unemployment in the area, gun industry jobs have increased during the economic downturn. Manufacturers now say they can't find enough trained machinists for all the jobs they have to offer.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The firearms industry is booming in Montana. Throughout the economic downturn, the state's gun manufacturers have added jobs. Part of the reason is a pro-gun political climate.

As Montana Public Radio's Katrin Frye reports, gun makers say they'd be hiring even more if they could find the right workers.

KATRIN FRYE, BYLINE: Montana Rifleman produces 1,000 rifle barrels per day in its Flathead Valley shop in northwest Montana. It sells the barrels to gun manufacturers like Remington and Winchester. President Brian Sipe founded the company more than two decades ago.

BRIAN SIPE: I started with $200. My father-in-law had a dairy farm up on Whitefish Stage. And I cleaned out the milk house and started gun-smithing and making barrels in that milk house.

FRYE: In the late 1990s, he expanded his business and created another company selling custom rifles to consumers. The two companies combined employ about 100 people. With the unemployment rate here stubbornly hovering around 10 percent, Sipe says there are plenty of workers, but he still struggles to fill certain jobs.

SIPE: Finding skilled machinists is one of the hardest things for us right now. I've had to bring guys in from outside because they really had offers in job service for months and never got a call.

FRYE: The Montana Firearms Institute is aiming to build off the existing firearms industry in the Flathead Valley and push the area and the state as a whole as a hub for gun manufacturing. Statewide, manufacturing as a whole has grown just under 5 percent from 2010 to 2011. The gun manufacturing industry has grown a whopping 82 percent during the same period.

Republican State Senator Ryan Zinke also works as a director for the institute and says they're trying to tackle the problem of unqualified machinists.

STATE SENATOR RYAN ZINKE: What we've done is we've entered an agreement with the Flathead Valley Community College in college technologies to look at developing the curriculum that meets the industry's requirements.

SUSIE BURCH: We're hoping this will be something that will employ a number of people locally.

FRYE: Flathead Valley Community College's Susie Burch says she sees potential for the gun industry to create good jobs. And when she says good jobs, she means year-round employment with decent wages and benefits.

Burch says the college is tweaking an existing program to suit the industry's needs. She says the industry fits well with the area.

BURCH: We have sportsmen. My brother-in-law - I mean, he has real reverence for his equipment, as well as the animals that he's hunting. And so, I think that to have these guns manufactured here, it would be pretty cool. It would just be a good character fit.

FRYE: Burch says that training program should be in place within the year.

MIKE BUSH: Every rifle we make is 100 percent handmade.

FRYE: Mike Bush is president and founder of BlackOps Technologies. His gun manufacturing company has four people working, including himself. Right now, they're producing about a dozen rifles per month, but he wants to more than double the workforce and the output in the coming year. Bush's company is relatively new in the Flathead. He moved up from Arizona in 2009.

BUSH: Politicians on both sides of the aisles have guns, and they promote it and they're in favor of it. And when you don't have that political bickering back and forth, generally speaking, there's going to be legislature that supports the gun industry as a whole.

FRYE: The Montana Firearms Institute is hoping to capitalize on this idea, seeing growth in the gun industry as a way to cut the high unemployment rate.

For NPR News, I'm Katrin Frye in Big Fork, Montana.

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