Montana Gun Manufacturers Take Aim At Global Markets
The United States is a big player in the global arms trade, and nationwide, Montana is pretty into the gun business, it has the highest number of licensed gun manufacturers per capita of any state.
But not very many Montana guns are sold overseas. Montana’s Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines are trying to change that for people like Peter Noreen.Noreen started and runs Noreen Firearms in Belgrade, which has 15 employees. Several men oversee SUV-sized machines that turn aluminum bricks into gun parts. In the adjacent room, an employee assembles the rifles. Peter’s wearing a faded, camo baseball hat, and when he smiles, his whole face lights up.
"We're one of the larger manufacturers in Montana," says Noreen. "Last year we produced somewhere in the vicinity of 14,000 firearms."
Of the more than 150 licensed gun manufacturers in Montana, only a handful make most of the guns produced in-state. Noreen exports a small percentage of guns. Most go to individuals, but he has some bigger customers, too.
"We've shipped it to the British Ministry of Defense," says Noreen. "We have shipped product to most of the European countries. We have been to the Middle East. We've been to Jordan. We actually have exhibited at shows, conventions, military oriented in Germany and France."
Noreen says he’d like to sell more guns overseas.
"But we've found that it's quite cumbersome to be able to export. There's so much duplication in the hoops that we have to jump through, it gets to be a real pain in the butt," Noreen says.
"We want to reduce the red tape," Democrat Tester says. "We want to make sure that state and commerce allow our manufacturers to access the new markets that is going to create jobs within the state of Montana and save taxpayer money. So it's really a win, win and it's something we've been at for a while now."
Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Tester and Daines, sent a letter to the secretaries of state and commerce, urging the administration to complete the Export Control Reform Initiative. The initiative started under the Obama administration in 2009. It’s aim is to overhaul the nation’s export control system and streamline regulations. But gun manufacturers are still waiting for it to be finalized.
Mark Oliva is the Public Affairs Manager at the National Shooting Sports Foundation in D.C.
"We're hopeful that now that we have both chambers of the Congress are amenable to what we're trying to do in the firearms industry, and that we now have an administration that's not attacking us anymore for our lawful commerce of our legal ability to produce a firearm for legal gun owners. It's a much more friendly environment," Oliva says.
"And that's really the goal," says Tester. "A single control list, not multiple control lists. So they would coordinate together to have one list for munitions exports. And this really does help the small producers, because right now they're disadvantaged with just too much red tape."
According to the Montana World Trade Center, Montana gun manufacturers exported over $107,000-worth of shotguns and rifles in 2016. Germany, Jordan, the UK, Canada and Australia were the top five partner countries. While the percentage of Montana-made guns is very small on the international market, the global arms trade is the highest it’s been since the Cold War due to increased demand in Asia and the Middle East.
I asked Senator Tester, if the process to get guns onto the global market is simplified, how will that improve national security?
"We've got rules to make sure the bad actors don't get the guns," says Tester. "But as you look around this country and you look around what's happened in Europe, for example, every time there's a bombing in Paris or in Brussels or somewhere, we get impacted by that because we don't know if we might be next. So, if you can put good weapons in the hands of the folks that can help protect the European countries, then that can have positive effects on us."
Senator Tester says the Export Control Reform will help prevent mistakes because there will be less complexity.
Peter Noreen would agree that a simpler export process would help his business, but he says:
"Most of the biggest challenges aren't regulatory. Here in Montana, ours are our distance from raw materials. Labor pool is definitely a challenge, but it is for a lot of industries. It's extremely difficult in Montana to find well-qualified employees, especially in the manufacturing industry."
In 2014 Gallatin College in Bozeman began a certificate program in machining to help fill this niche. Noreen says they have hired a few people from the program, but they can go four to six months waiting for the right person.
Editor's Note: According to the Montana World Trade Center, Montana gun manufacturers exported over $107,000-worth of shotguns and rifles in 2016. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the quantity of Montana firearms exported from the state.