Guns and Their Makers
By JOE NOCERA
Published: December 21, 2012
“It takes a lot of men to make a gun,” wrote Stephen Sondheim in his 1990 musical “Assassins.”
Men in the mines
To dig the iron,
Men in the mills
To forge the steel,
Men at machines
To turn the barrel,
Mold the trigger,
Shape the wheel-
It takes a lot of men to make a gun…
One gun …
I thought of those lyrics earlier this week when I read that Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm run by the secretive financier Steven Feinberg, was going to sell Freedom Group, a motley collection of gun and ammunition firms it had gathered together under one umbrella company.
Since 2006, it has paid around $158 million to acquire 15 companies, according to an analysis by Andrew Silton, who writes the blog Meditations on Money Management. Although many gun manufacturers are small, Freedom Group now employs a lot of people to make guns — over 3,000. Until last Friday, when Adam Lanza slaughtered 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — using, among other weapons, a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle made by Freedom Group — it proudly called itself the world’s largest manufacturer of guns and ammunition. Now, Cerberus and Feinberg are trying to wipe the blood off their hands.
It’s a little late for that. Go look at some of the Web sites of Freedom Group’s companies. The Bushmaster home page, for example, shows an Adaptive Combat Rifle, an assault rifle that looks like something out of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Did you know, by the way, that one of the guns used by James Holmes when he allegedly killed 12 people and wounded 58 in the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., was a Remington pump-action shotgun? Freedom Group makes those, too.
One reason Cerberus gave for wanting to sell Freedom Group is that, with the Newtown shootings having “raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level,” it didn’t believe its role was to “attempt to shape or influence the gun control policy debate.” This is complete nonsense. Freedom Group’s chief executive, George Kollitides, has run for the board of the National Rifle Association and serves on several N.R.A. committees. The N.R.A. has described Cerberus executives as “strong supporters of the Second Amendment.”
My guess is that what really bothers Feinberg is all the bad press. After Cerberus bought Chrysler in 2007 — not to worry: It got most of its money back from the taxpayers when the government bailed out Chrysler the following year — Feinberg told a group of Wall Street investors that he almost didn’t do the deal. “We knew it would get an insane amount of press, and, boy, we don’t like that,” he said. Daniel Roth, who managed to get into the session for Wired Magazine, also quoted him as saying that if anyone from Cerberus gets his picture in the paper “we will do more than fire that person. We will kill him.” It probably seemed funny at the time.
Robert Farago, who writes about the firearm business on his blog, The Truth About Guns, told me that Cerberus has never been shy about “using its juice in Washington.” Dan Quayle, the former vice president, and John Snow, the former Treasury secretary, are both Cerberus executives.
Farago also told me that Cerberus has been a terrible steward of Freedom Group. It has shuttered factories and laid-off employees, in the name of efficiency. Its executives are called “the Borg” by others in the industry — a reference to a pseudo-race of cyborgs in the Star Trek series. Its guns are considered shoddily made and full of problems. In one infamous case, Bushmaster had to recall the Adaptive Combat Rifle because the trigger sometimes got stuck. The gun kept shooting even after the shooter took his finger off the trigger.
Not that it’s mattered. Since President Obama’s election in 2008, gun sales have steadily risen, which has helped Freedom Group’s bottom line. Although Cerberus had to cancel a public offering for Freedom Group in 2011, it doesn’t actually need an I.P.O. to come out ahead. According to Silton, it has already pulled out $248 million, nearly $100 million more than it paid for the companies it bought. Even if it gives Freedom Group away for nothing, it will still have made a profit.
Not that that’s likely. The rumor is that Taurus, a Brazilian company with an American presence, is likely to make a bid for Freedom Group. The company, strong in handguns, would use the acquisition to bolster its “long gun” portfolio. (Representatives for Taurus, Cerberus and Freedom Group did not respond to inquiries.)
The sad truth is, you can always find a lot of people to make guns. And you can always find people like Feinberg, only too happy to profit from the violence guns can do.