Small gun manufacturers a growing force in Florida
MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) — At FrogBones Family Shooting in Melbourne, you’ll find rows of handguns, rifles and shooting accessories.
You’ll also hear the constant “thud” of guns being fired in the indoor range.
Many probably would be surprised to know that FrogBones also is considered a gun “manufacturer,” meaning it has the same license as other gun makers like Kel-Tec in Cocoa, Knight’s Armament in Titusville or I.O. Inc. in Palm Bay.
“It’s 1/100th of a percent of our business,” said Doug Torpy, one of the founders of the 17-month-old FrogBones, a premier shooting range in Brevard County. “It’s basically nothing. It just leaves me the option to manufacture if I want to.”
Florida has more “gun manufacturers” than any other state except Texas, after a surge of 346 percent in licenses for gun makers since 2009, fueled by the nation’s growing demand for firearms.
That has created some concerns about the regulatory oversight of these businesses by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal law enforcement agency that monitors the nation’s gun sales and distribution.
“Maybe we are on the edge of a point where the ATF will not be able to keep up anymore,” said former ATF special agent William Vizzard.
Broad definition of ‘manufacturing’
“Manufacturing” of guns can be a bit of misnomer. It’s not like Smith & Wesson moving its operations from Massachusetts to the Sunshine State.
Rather, it’s dozens of smaller-sized operations, like FrogBones, that have licenses to put the pieces of weaponry together and sell the finished product as a gun if they chose to; or companies like Merritt Island-based Twisted Industries Inc., that make components for gun manufacturers.
“This is a firearm,” Torpy said, holding up a black, palm-sized piece of metal that’s actually the lower receiver of a AR-15 rifle.
“If I decide I want to turn this into a gun, attach the barrel and some other parts and sell it as a complete gun, that’s manufacturing,” Torpy said.
In Florida, the number of firearm manufacturing licenses more than quadrupled from 155 in 2009 to 691 in May, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Texas tops the list at 1,103 licensed gun makers, a 404 percent increase from the 219 reported in 2009.
In Brevard alone, there are 47 entities with gun manufacturing licenses, nearly triple the 16 licenses that were active in 2009. Among Florida’s 67 counties, only Broward has more such licenses issues, at 48.
“I think the Space Coast is turning more into the Gun Coast,” said Harry Perrette V, president of Twisted Industries, which is one of the Brevard companies with a gun manufacturing license. “It’s always growing. We’ve continued to grow. I think it’s always going to be a growing industry.”
Among its other businesses, Twisted Industries, which was founded in 2006, manufactures steel and aluminum parts and accessories for firearms manufacturers — everything from optic sights to conversation kits that enable a gun owner to change the caliber of a firearm.
“A lot of cool stuff,” as Perrette describes it.
“There’s a lot of companies out there” in the gun industry in Brevard County, said Perrette, whose father and grandfather also were involved in the industry.
He notes, though, that “a lot of companies come and go,” unless they have steady contracts with manufacturers.
Perrette attributes the increasing presence of gun-related companies in Brevard in part to former space industry workers staying in Brevard, but moving into another technology field.
“Florida is a business-friendly state that has had a good number of manufacturers involved in the firearms industry, as well as startups, for many years,” said Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based advocate for the gun industry.
Gov. Rick Scott has promoted gun makers Colt Manufacturing Co. in Kissimmee and Azimuth Technology in Naples as examples of his success in attracting jobs. Both manufacturers hired more workers as they expanded their operations.
People on the Space Coast, known for its beaches and aerospace programs, don’t talk much about the area’s vibrant gun-making industry. And the companies don’t talk much, either, preferring to go about their business of making guns and not getting caught in the ongoing rhetoric of gun rights and gun violence.
Among the better-known manufacturers in Brevard are Kel-Tec and Diamondback, both in Cocoa, Knight’s Armament in Titusville and I.O. in Palm Bay.
But there are many other businesses with manufacturing licenses in Brevard.
If someone with all the parts goes to a gunsmith and ask for it to be assembled, that not considered manufacturing. But if someone like Torpy puts it together himself and sells it as a gun, that is manufacturing.
“It’s just the order of operations,” Torpy said.
Strain on regulators
The increase in gun manufacturing licenses since 2009 has strained the resources of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
As the number of licenses to make firearms grew nationally by 245 percent from 3,040 licenses in 2009 to 10,503 last year, the number of special agents watching manufacturers has increased only 30 percent, from 623 in 2009 to 811 in 2015.
The agency is outmatched, and that’s a public danger when police departments across the country rely more frequently on the expertise of the ATF to respond to gun violence, Vizzard and another former ATF special agent contend.
Within 12 hours after Omar Mateen fatally shot 49 people at an Orlando nightclub in June, ATF special agents traced the Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle and the Glock semiautomatic handgun he used to a St. Lucie County gun dealer.
But the spike in the number of gun makers in Florida and elsewhere piles more work on the agency and leaves many manufacturers unchecked for years by federal agents who try to ensure firearms are documented and made properly.
“I hate to say this, but they’ve adopted a sort of triage method that goes after the bigger gun dealers — the guys out there who may be more likely to get in trouble,” retired ATF special agent David Chipman said. “They’re not going to pay attention to those smaller guys making a handful of guns here and there.”
The situation is particularly critical in Florida, with the fast growth in firearm manufacturing licenses.
The ATF doesn’t have the resources needed, and that’s leaving many gun makers free to operate without regular oversight, according to government reports and retired agents.
In 2004, the ATF determined to inspect all federal firearm license holders — that includes all dealers and manufacturers — every three to five years.
But a 2013 audit by the U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general found 58 percent of dealers and manufacturers didn’t receive a visit from ATF special agents in a five-year period.
“One reason for this was insufficient investigator resources,” the audit states.
In 2001, 961 ATF agents supervised 102,913 federal firearms licenses, including dealers and manufacturers. The number of agents dropped in 2010 to 627, when the number of total licenses jumped to 118,484. As of 2015, there were 811 ATF agents assigned to supervise 139,444 licensees, ATF data show.
In responding to concerns raised about its staffing levels, ATF spokesman Corey Ray said: “While additional resources could always assist in the fight against violent crime, ATF uses the staff and resources immediately on hand in the most effective and efficient ways possible.”
The site visits to new gun makers is important because federal agents have to ensure the required documentation on firearms is maintained, and it’s easy to make mistakes, said Chipman, a retired ATF special agent who now advises Everytown for Gun Safety, a group advocating gun controls. The information is used by the ATF National Tracing Center to perform investigations for law enforcement officers when they recover weapons.
“It’s crucial for an agent to visit a store in that first year, at least to give that dealer or that manufacturer a rundown on the system and to answer any of those questions,” Chipman said. “You have law enforcement wanting traces and you aren’t sure how good your information is anymore.”
Strong oversight by ATF special agents also is important because it’s easier today to make certain gun parts and those parts are readily accessible for small operators to use to manufacture firearms, said Vizzard, a retired ATF special agent, who now teaches criminology at California State University, Sacramento.
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