How Illinois’ gun manufacturers keep winning the regulations battle

April 9, 2013

WBEZ/Tony Arnold
Jay Keller has a good record of defeating calls to ban so-called assault weapons in Springfield. He is a lobbyist for Illinois’ gun manufacturers in Springfield.

There’s one interest group that’s keeping a particularly close eye on the debate over guns: firearm manufacturers. Gun producers would need to adjust ammunition magazines if there are restrictions on capacity. As more of these laws come down the pipeline, manufacturers are leveraging their power.

But we couldn’t get a manufacturer to talk to us for this story. Many are wary of talking to reporters these days. We did, however, talk to someone who speaks for them.

At least, in Illinois’ state capitol.

“Here we are today discussing assault weapons legislation that will, by realistic terms, accomplish nothing,” Jay Keller said when he was testifying before an Illinois House Judiciary Committee hearing on banning so-called assault weapons.

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At the hearing, he sat next to the lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. Both were testifying against the assault weapons ban, but Keller said they have different interests.

“Mainly they focus on the Second Amendment. I never once talk about the Second Amendment rights,” Keller said.

These days, Keller is busy trying to block laws that would ban certain guns or ammunition magazines. It’s a debate he’s seen before. In the 10 years he’s represented the industry, Keller has defeated attempts to ban assault weapons, year after year. He talks about one of his most recent victories with a hint of pride.

“We stopped the first assault weapons ban in the country a week after Sandy Hook,” he said.

It was actually two weeks after Sandy Hook and one of the first legislative responses to the shooting.

Keller said there’s a reason gun manufacturers have such influence, at least in Illinois.

“There are 8,500 jobs in the Illinois firearm manufacturing industry,” he said. “The manufacturers range from organizations that have two employees up to 1,000 employees.”

Keller’s elevator pitch to elected officials is that his clients, 10 of the 65 firearm manufacturers in Illinois, provide good jobs. And he said bans and regulations that affect his clients just distract from other, most important issues, like funding mental health programs.

But that hasn’t stopped people like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who’s called on the city to divest pension funds from any account that involves gun makers. Emanuel’s plan was heard in Springfield. Now, Democratic State Representative Christian Mitchell is calling for similar measures on state pension funds.

“When a large majority say they want an assault weapons ban, when people say it doesn’t make sense to have guns in schools and parks and on public transportation for God’s sake and you are lobbying against those efforts for purely financial gain, you’ve crossed a line,” Mitchell said at his district office in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

Mitchell said gun violence is the single largest domestic issue facing the country right now. He says his calls for divestment from gun manufacturers follow similar actions the state took against companies that were in business with Iran and Sudan.

“I don’t want to make a direct comparison, but I do want to say that I think the principle of what we want to be invested in and what we believe is doing damage to our communities and to our state and our country is the same in that way,” Mitchell said.

Except there are a few hitches in this plan: one is actual impact. For instance, university employees sent out a memo saying its $113,000 of shares in gun manufacturers account for 0.00 percent of the $14.5 billion fund.

Another issue is that the gun industry is making bank. If you go to manufacturers’ websites right now, most greet you with a warning about how they have a backlog of orders they’re trying to get through.

“It’s hard to see what positive outcome might come from divesting other than it just protects the credibility of the city itself,” said Brayden King, professor of management at Northwestern University.

He said divesting hasn’t gotten companies to change the way they do business partly because someone else usually comes along and picks up the stock that’s dropped. Also, he said it’s not like gun manufacturers do well on the stock market after mass shootings.

“Investors have already taken into account a lot of this risk,” King said. “But if a lot of activists, if a lot of cities, are willing to divest, it may send additional signals which may increase the perceptions that this asset is actually quite risky.”

King said the way to make a difference can come through stockholder activism, meaning someone buys stock in the targeted company to address the issues from the inside or at shareholder meetings.

But Jay Keller, the gun manufacturers’ lobbyist, said if the state government approves regulations against gun-makers, they’d be running providers to some police departments around the state out of Illinois. Keller wonders then, where would they go for their guns?

Tony Arnold is WBEZ’s Illinois politics reporter. Follow him @tonyjarnold.