The trail of outrage that began at the scene of massacred first-graders and teachers in Connecticut led to a little town 90 miles northeast of Charlotte that is home of the nations largest firearms maker.
Freedom Group, a conglomerate headquartered in Madison, near the Virginia line, owns Bushmaster Firearms, maker of the AR-15 assault rifle that was used along with two handguns in Newtown, Conn.
But a fast-growing appetite for military-style rifles extends to the Charlotte region, where at least three companies make assault weapons or components.
A Huntersville company, Tactical Arms Manufacturer, makes AR-15s. USA Tactical Firearms in Statesville makes AR-15 components. I.O. Inc. in Monroe makes the Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifle. Officials of none of the companies could be reached Friday.
Their guns are now in the crosshairs of critics who would like to see them banned, once more, after a federal prohibition expired in 2004.
A ban would literally put us out of business, Ken Rinkor, vice president of Tactical Arms Manufacturer, told McClatchy Newspapers earlier this week. The family-owned company is a specialty maker of AR-15s and sells mostly to law enforcement personnel, he said.
Lightweight but rugged, the semi-automatic weapons fire one round for each pull of the trigger, in contrast to military-issue rifles that can empty a clip with a single squeeze. While most are an intimidating matte black, I.O. sells one in pink.
The rifles are easily customized with components such as scopes, stocks and bipods, and favored by younger shooters and former members of the military, according to an industry trade group, but arent inherently more powerful than conventional hunting guns.
Surveys show target shooting, home defense and collecting are the top reasons shooters buy what the industry calls modern sporting rifles, said the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Remember, that if AR-15-style modern sporting rifles are banned, your favorite traditional-looking hunting or target shooting semi-automatic firearm could be banned, too, the industry group warns on its website.
The foundation has attempted to rebrand assault rifles to put a happy face on the weapons of war, countered Josh Sugarmann, a Newtown native who is executive director of the Violence Policy Center. The center advocates for gun control.
Assault rifles and concealed-carry handguns are the firearms industrys top two profit makers, Sugarmann said.
The issue is not so much that they are more powerful, he said, but that they have more firepower.
What makes assault rifles especially lethal, Sugarmann said, are their high-capacity magazines and design features such as pistol grips and folding stocks that let shooters quickly fire from the hip.
How do you stop crazy?
Freedom Group, in a securities filing, said U.S. long-gun sales rose at a 4 percent annual clip from 2004 to 2008. Assault weapons, it estimated, grew 31 percent annually.
Thirty to 40 customers queued up at Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte Friday morning. By early afternoon, only a handful of assault rifles were left on a display wall.
We have our Christmas business and the hunting business and now what we call the political business, said owner Larry Hyatt. You barely have the funerals over from this tragedy, and the gun control talk starts.
Buyers fear the weapons will be unavailable or prices will soar. That happened when a ban was announced in 1994, Hyatt said, and he predicted manufacturers will boost prices again now.
I bought one a few weeks ago for $700. That same one is going for $1,000 to $1,100 now, said customer Scott Donohue. He likes the guns for their firepower in home defense, but says theyre also fun to shoot.
Im sure somethings going to happen, but it would be a shame if it did. You shouldnt be banning things, you should be dealing with the problem and not just saying, you cant have that. Criminals would still get them.
Collector John Dixon shopped for an AR-15 because he figures theyll be hard to get soon.
Guns dont kill people, people kill people, he said. I hate it, but how do you stop crazy? Once they figure that out, were good.
Firm will sell off Freedom
The New York private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management bought Bushmaster in 2006 and formed Freedom Group the next year. A string of acquisitions made it the largest firearms maker in a U.S. long-gun and ammunition market that Freedom estimates is worth $2.4 billion a year.
We believe our scale and product breadth are unmatched within the industry, the privately held conglomerate said in a 2010 securities filing. It claimed to lead the U.S. markets for shotguns, traditional rifles, ammunition and modern sporting rifles made by Bushmaster, a prominent supplier to law enforcement and the military, and a second company, DPMS Firearms.
Freedom Group sold $403 million of firearms in the first nine months of 2012, a 30 percent jump from the previous year, according to its most recent earnings report. The company attributed most of that growth to demand for assault weapons.
We believe the continued economic uncertainty and the outcome of the 2012 presidential election is likely to continue to spur both firearms and ammunition sales, the report said. A company representative did not return a phone call.
Freedom landed in Madison because one of its acquisitions, gun-maker Remington, was based there, said Graham Pervier, president of the Rockingham County Partnership for Economic & Tourism Development.
No guns are made there. About 200 people work in finance, administration, marketing and customer service, Pervier said, with many of them commuting to work from outside Rockingham County.
Cerberus said Tuesday it would sell Freedom Group.
We believe that this decision allows us to meet our obligations to the investors whose interests we are entrusted to protect without being drawn into the national debate that is more properly pursued by those with the formal charter and public responsibility to do so, the $20 billion equity firm said in a statement.
The New York Times reported that Cerberus made the announcement hours after hearing from a major investor, the $154 billion California State Teachers Retirement System.
In a statement, the California pension fund said it had bought its 2.4 percent stake in Freedom Group before adopting a 2008 policy requiring that risks associated with products that pose significant threats to human well-being be taken into account in its investment decisions.