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Alaska left out in the cold as gun-friendly states woo manufacturers

Sean Doogan
Gunsmith Brian Swanda re-barrels a rifle at Wild West Guns in Anchorage. Loren Holmes photo

South Carolina, Texas, and other southern and western states are having success wooing large gun manufacturers away from less gun-friendly places on the East Coast, but Alaska, despite passing a legislative resolution in April to do the same thing, has had little luck getting the firearms makers to notice the Last Frontier.

Following tighter firearms restrictions passed in the wake of the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which left 20 students and six adults dead, gun-friendly states began lobbying firearms manufacturers based on the less gun-tolerant Northeast to move. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his South Dakota counterpart, Dennis Dugaard, visited such famous gun makers as Colt, Ruger, and PTR, offering tax credits and a more-understanding citizenry. In some cases, the pitch is working.

PTR, which manufactures mostly assault-style rifles, is moving from Bristol, Conn., to a new plant in South Carolina. Kahr Firearms is packing up shop in New York and moving across the border to Pennsylvania because it doesn’t feel welcome in the Empire State since New York tightened its gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. Baretta, based in Maryland, is looking to build new factories in any one of seven states, including Texas and South Dakota, that have looser gun laws and a citizenry that embraces the gun culture. In April, Alaska passed Joint House Resolution 12 to attract gun makers, too, but it hasn’t had any takers.

“We have had some inquiries, but nobody has said they want to come up here,” said Alaska House Speaker Mike Chenault, who sponsored the resolution.

Prohibitive energy costs

Why aren’t gun makers interested? The main reason: energy costs. Other than Hawaii, Alaska has the highest shipping costs in the nation -- due to its location and the price of fuel. Despite relatively lax gun laws -- including a recently passed expansion of the stand-your-ground law and eased conceal-carry requirements -- the cost of doing business in the 49th state is just too high.

“It’s a double-whammy for us, when it comes to shipping,” said Ken Feinman, manager of Wild West Guns in Anchorage.  His company is one of just a handful of Alaska-based gun dealers that manufacture parts and create custom guns.  Shipping steel that can be milled into firearm parts costs as much as 50 cents a pound. On the other end, because of Alaska’s sparse population of 730,000, most of Feinman’s business is from Lower 48 states. Most guns made in Alaska have to be shipped out.  

Across the country, guns have been flying off shelves faster than they can be made, partly due to a fear of stricter rules. The number of background checks for gun purchases in the US has almost doubled from 2011 to last year. Manufacturers are struggling to keep up.

Growing in Nevada

Wild West Guns itself is expanding, too, but the Alaska company is not growing in its home state. Rather, the company has opened a manufacturing plant in Nevada, where it makes all its parts. Cheaper shipping costs aren’t the only reason

“You have to also consider there are no support businesses up here for the gun industry,” Feinman said. Small manufacturing companies, that stamp-out parts, make gun springs, and plastic accessories, are common throughout the U.S., but not in Alaska.

“We don’t have a manufacturing industry, and I’m not sure we ever will,” Feinman said.  

“Alaska should make what Alaska can sell,” he added, suggesting the state invest in attracting data storage companies like Google, Facebook, and others to the North Slope because of easy access to plentiful natural gas and cold weather.

The main cost of storing and exporting large amounts of data comes from trying to keep the computer servers cool. Massive banks of electronics create heat – and local cold weather offsets the cost of air conditioning.

Facebook has been looking toward the Swedish Laplands as a possible location of its planned server farm.

“We should be exporting data, not industrial goods,” said Feinman.

Feinman’s shop, Wild West Guns, is popular among locals while gaining national fame. Currently, shooting is taking place for the second season of its television show on the Animal Planet network.

“The show can sometimes make working difficult, but it has greatly increased our T-shirt sales,” Feinman said, noting that sometimes full tour buses pull up to the shop on Homer Drive in Anchorage, hoping for a glimpse of the show’s stars.

A backroom full of heavy manufacturing and CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) machines is put to use for more than modifying guns or creating the shop’s specialty, the, “Alaskan Co-Pilot” -- a powerful .45-caliber rifle used for bear protection or taking down large game. Because of the cost of getting such heavy machines to Alaska, few are around. Consequently, his company has made prototype parts for the oil industry -- and even airplanes.

But Feinman doesn’t expect big gun manufacturers will ever relocate to Alaska. “It will never happen,” he said.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com