Bringing the Economy Home

Idaho Aims For Job Growth Through Gun Manufacturing

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

BJ Swanson is executive director of the Latah Economic Development Council.


Click above for an interactive map of all gun and ammunition manufacturers in Idaho.

A few years ago, state leaders got the idea to promote Idaho to the outdoor industry, including gun manufacturers.  After all, Idaho is a more firearms-friendly place than most.  More than half of Idahoans own guns, and state law shields firearms manufacturers from liability.

One North Idaho town — Potlatch — is honing its pitch to attract the gun industry and jobs.  Local economic development official BJ Swanson is key to the effort.  Not long ago, Swanson drove through an overgrown patch of ground on the outskirts of Potlatch, population 800.  It’s a humble spot, but in it she sees the town’s future and its past.

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

After its mill closed, Potlatch -- once an "elite rural town," Swanson says -- became a bedroom community to more prosperous towns nearby.

“This is part of the main mill here, the concrete relics that you see,” she says, as she points out the window.  She’s gesturing toward a crumbling cement structure, protruding from tall grass.  It’s all that’s left of a sawmill that was once one of world’s largest.  Now, Potlatch needs a new plan.  And it has one.

“Guns are going to be manufactured somewhere,” she says.  “Why not here?”

Local officials envision a mix of commercial, industrial, retail and residential space, built where the mill once stood.  If all goes well, it will revolve around so-called “recreation technology.”  The term functions as a euphemism for “the gun industry,” though local leaders want to attract related businesses, too. The idea took hold last fall, after ammunition-maker PNW Arms moved from the Seattle suburbs to small-town Idaho.

“If I was working for any other firearms manufacturer in any other part of the country, and the question came up, ‘How could we do our business better?’ I would suggest Idaho as a place to relocate.”

It’s a fervent endorsement that comes from PNW Arms’ vice president of sales and unofficial spokesman, Fred Newcome.  He says the number of available workers who are knowledgeable and passionate about guns was one factor in PNW Arms’ move to Potlatch.

Courtesy PNW Arms

An array of ammunition, all produced by PNW Arms

The company has a consumer line, but it also has higher-profile clients, like the Department of Defense.  Newcome is proud to say that cutting-edge ammunition comes out of PNW’s new home.

“We have literally innovated some things that you can’t find anywhere else,” he says.  “There are munitions being produced here that you don’t know about and won’t know about and are really changing the way small arms are utilized in warfare.”

Think: bullets that work underwater.  That’s a main project.

This interview with Newcome might seem pretty normal, but there were things that set it apart.  First, Newcome and I talked in PNW Arms’ waiting area.  For security reasons, I wasn’t allowed beyond that point.  Second, the conversation was supervised by a company official who asked that his name and title remain off the record.

Then, there were the company’s guard dogs. They had been moved to another room before I arrived.  But when it was decided I could meet the nicest of them, the dog took one look at me and issued a long, low growl.

“He’s the leader of our pack, here, for our security team,” Newcome said, chuckling.

The dog’s name is Almash, and he’s a Hungarian Kuvasz, a breed historically used to fend off wolves.  The unnamed company official jokes that Almash ate the last two journalists who came to visit.

Each of these little departures from the way radio interviews usually go is a reminder of a simple fact: stories about guns carry an automatic charge.  Newcome and I met only hours after last month’s mass shooting in Aurora, Colo.  It’s all but impossible to separate firearms from the passionate political views they inspire.

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Newcome says this M4 is a weapon commonly used by elite units of the U.S. military.

Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer acknowledges that point, but steers clear.  “I don’t have an answer from a philosophical standpoint,” he says.  “What I do know from a strategic standpoint: having arms manufacturers and ammunition manufacturers makes a lot of sense for the state.”

Idaho’s Commerce Department embarked on a recreation technology recruitment campaign in 2008.  The idea was to create clusters of related businesses.  Little by little, Sayer says, the state has seen companies move in.  Now, Potlatch is attempting to pick up that ball and run.

“I think every community has to find their niche,” Sayer says, “and has to find something that can set them apart, and give them a story to tell to the outside world.”

One of Idaho’s stories to the outside world is its open embrace of firearms.  A state statute limiting lawsuits against gun and ammunition manufacturers is more restrictive than most.  Federal records show 180 manufacturers in the state, including PNW Arms.

At the end of our interview, Newcome offers a shooting lesson.  The gun is an M4.

“This is a fully automatic weapon you’ll see in use by any of your tier one teams.  Your Seals, your Rangers, your Force Recon guys all use a weapon similar to this,” Newcome tells me.

This is another of Idaho’s main draws: the ease of testing ammunition.  There’s no need to drive for hours to an open stretch of land.  All we’ve done is walk outside behind the shop, where there’s a target set up.

Like Idaho’s Commerce Director, PNW Arms prefers not to get mired in the politics of its profession.  By choosing Idaho, the company is taking the path of least resistance.

Others appear to be following their lead.

Last week, BJ Swanson says, Washington-based Eagle View Arms committed to moving to Potlatch.  They’re a firearms accessories manufacturer, and they’re small – three employees – but they plan to grow.


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