A suburban gunmaker is overwhelmed with orders, for now
BY FRANK MAIN Staff Reporter January 11, 2013 8:02PM
Lake Barrington-based DS Arms makes semi-automatic assault weapons along with other guns. Its owner expressed concerns about the impact of an assault weapon ban. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 14, 2013 6:48AM
DS Arms was buzzing with activity.
The phones rang and rang in the front office of the Northwest suburban gunmaker last week. Customers were calling to place orders — and they weren’t happy when they were told of two-month backlogs.
Back in the factory, workers were busy manufacturing components for the military-style weapons the company sells across the country and around the world.
“We are swamped,” said David Selvaggio, owner of the Lake Barrington-based company. “We have thousands and thousands of orders. We can’t even fill them. We don’t have the material.”
But Selvaggio, who founded the company, said the booming sales might not last. Customers have been stocking up because of the prospect of a ban on the sale of assault weapons.
“We would just about go out of business,” said Selvaggio, who provided the Chicago Sun-Times with a rare inside look at his controversial industry. “You would see many, many companies go under.”
Selvaggio said he’d probably have to lay off at least half of his 50 employees in the event of a ban. Hundreds of Illinois companies that supply his factory with everything from springs to plastic moldings would also suffer, he said.
Illinois is a manufacturing hub for military-style semiautomatic rifles, with four other major companies making them here. They would take big hits, too, Selvaggio said.
A previous 10-year federal ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines expired in 2004 under President George W. Bush.
Members of Congress and the Obama administration are now discussing the possibility of renewing the ban in reaction to the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School slayings in Connecticut, in which a gunman mowed down children with a military-style semiautomatic weapon before killing himself.
The massacre prompted a push in the Illinois General Assembly for a state ban on the sale of assault weapons. But the measure failed to muster enough votes for passage in a recent lame-duck session.
Selvaggio said a nationwide assault-weapon ban doesn’t make sense because the guns are used in a tiny fraction of violent crimes.
Most murders in Chicago are committed with handguns. Only about 300 of the 7,400 firearms that officers took off the streets in 2012 were classified as assault weapons, according to police. Records show Chicago police recovered eight guns made by DS Arms between 2001 and 2011, but none in connection with a violent crime.
Still, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other local leaders say they support a state and national assault-weapon ban because people like the Connecticut killer can use them to cause massive casualties quickly.
Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, said the public-safety benefit of banning assault weapons outweighs the economic damage to companies such as DS Arms.
“It’s their choice to make assault rifles. They can make other firearms that would be legal under any assault-weapon ban,” Sugarmann said. “They never take into account the cost to society that these weapons inflict.”
But Selvaggio said he’s only making a tool that civilians use mainly for target-shooting, self-defense and collecting. The problem isn’t the weapon, he said, but the people using it for criminal purposes.
“There are bigger cultural issues we need to address,” he said.
Selvaggio, who gained an appreciation of guns as a youngster while target shooting with his uncle and visiting gun shows, started his company from scratch at age 21.
Now 46, he not only sells to customers in the United States, but exports weapons to foreign governments like Argentina and Israel — with State Department approval — and recently began supplying rifles to game wardens in Africa to stop the poaching of rhinoceroses.
Selvaggio said 80 percent of his sales are to the civilian market and 20 percent to the military and police.
In 2011, DS Arms produced more than 8,000 rifles, according to Selvaggio. Since he founded his company 25 years ago, he’s made about 60,000 “FAL-style” semiautomatic rifles, he said.
Selvaggio quibbles with the term “assault weapon,” which he said should apply only to automatic weapons for military use. He said the weapons he sells to the civilian market are semiautomatic, meaning only one bullet is fired every time the trigger is pulled.
For the purposes of the ban from 1994-2004, though, the government defined semiautomatic rifles with military-style features as assault weapons.
Selvaggio said his company was able to weather the previous ban because he removed the prohibited features from his rifles. But the current proposed ban wouldn’t allow manufacturers to make those modifications to sell their semiautomatic rifles, Selvaggio said.
A ban would not only harm his business, but the state’s economy, Selvaggio said. He estimated that gunmakers have a $500 million annual impact on Illinois.
Selvaggio said there’s an anti-gun political climate in Illinois — and other states know it.
“Every year we get invited by other states to move to their state,” he said. “South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma, Missouri — they’re calling us all the time. They’re saying, ‘move your jobs to our state. We are friendly to manufacturing jobs, even yours.’ ”
One rifle manufacturer recently moved to Iowa, but Selvaggio said he’s not considering a move to another state. He’s not ready to expand, either.
“It’s hard to make a business plan when you’re worried about every politician wanting to shut you down,” he said.
Selvaggio said there’s a lot of hypocrisy in the debate over assault weapons.
“I have sold a firearm to a very high-profile, anti-gun Democrat,” he said.
Selvaggio’s politics are squarely on the side of the National Rifle Association and gun-rights advocates. He’s an ardent supporter of the 2nd Amendment. He believes in the role of an armed citizenry.
“There’s a reason the Japanese didn’t invade us,” he said. “They were afraid they would find someone with a gun behind every blade of grass.”
He also thinks responsible adults should be allowed to carry concealed weapons in schools to prevent massacres like the one in Connecticut.
On some issues, though, Selvaggio and gun-control advocates are on common ground.
“We’re really not opposed to background checks at gun shows. We think people should be checked,” Selvaggio said.
Selvaggio said he supports the roundtable Vice President Joe Biden held last week in Washington with people from both the gun-rights and gun-control sides of the issue.
What he can’t understand is the hate he thinks is being directed toward the gun industry — and his company.
“We’ve had e-mails equating us to crack dealers and that we should burn in hell and put our own guns to our mouths,” Selvaggio said. “We are family people here. We are all concerned about the safety of our children.”