This week the National Shooting Sports Foundation withdrew its support for the long-running effort to make a national park out of the Colt firearms manufacturing complex in Hartford’s Coltsville section, citing Connecticut’s new strict gun control laws. The foundation couldn’t abide the “hypocrisy” of paying homage to an arms factory while simultaneously restricting the modern firearms industry. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wasted no time in calling it “sour grapes.” He’s right, it’s a petty move, but there’s more to it than that.
Connecticut’s relationship with the past, when we think to remember the past at all, is an odd one. History surrounds us, but we’re content to ignore it or at least not think too deeply about it. The massive and burgeoning arms manufacturing industry brought wealth and prosperity during the 19th century, but most of it has vanished or moved since. It’s easy to overlook, but it continues to shape us in all kinds of ways.
I hiked in the Scantic River State Park on Thursday, and passed by the ruined stone structures lining the river. They’re the legacy of the Hazard Powder Company, which was a major supplier of gunpowder during the mid-19th century. The company, owned by Col. Augustus George Hazard, cranked out an astonishing 12,500 pounds of gunpowder per day during the Civil War. Meanwhile, only a few miles away in Springfield and Hartford, the massive Armory complex and the blue-domed factory of the Colt Manufacturing Company produced the weapons that won the war. Money and people poured into the state, and began to transform it into something we might recognize today.
Reconciling that history with current gun-control regulations might seem to be a tricky proposition. “Our industry is more than just a legacy,” said Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “The firearms industry is, still today, an important and vital part of Connecticut’s economy.” There is something to that, since for at least a few companies, like Colt, it’s possible to trace their evolution and descent all the way back to the industry’s heyday. And, the argument goes, if we really do treasure the history of firearms making in Connecticut, we shouldn’t be doing so much to hurt that industry now.
So does gun control mean we’re turning our backs on the Samuel Colts and Augustus George Hazards who helped make this state into an industrial powerhouse? Is it actually hypocrisy to want to enshrine our remarkable arms-making history while simultaneously restricting that industry’s descendants and successors?
Well, no. Not really.
Here’s the thing about history — wanting to remember and enshrine it doesn’t mean we endorse it. There’s plenty of things about 19th century labor practices that would make our hair curl, for instance, such as poor pay, unsafe conditions, grueling working hours, and child labor. Enforcing modern labor regulations doesn’t mean we’ve turned our backs on our industrial forebears, any more than our current religious tolerance means we don’t honor our Puritan past. After all, the current arms industry bears about as much resemblance to its 19th century progenitors as the current Congregational Church bears to its own ancestor, the Puritan Church.
The firearms industry is only a shell of what it used to be. The U.S. government closed the Springfield Armory in the 1960s. Winchester closed its New Haven plant in 2006. Remington Arms closed its Bridgeport plant and moved its headquarters to Delaware in the 1980s. Colt’s been plagued by troubles from low quality to labor strikes, and they, too, are only a shadow of what they were. Their mammoth factory in Hartford stands empty; they moved to the suburbs a long time ago. As for Col. Hazard’s gunpowder business, it struggled after the Civil War, and eventually, after the place was severely damaged by an explosion in 1913, went out of business. All that’s left are mysterious ruins along the banks of the Scantic, near the village that bears Hazard’s name.
The remaining companies, as well as new ones like the now South Carolina-bound PTR and Stag Arms, now make weapons so much more advanced and deadly than their forebears that their heritage is nearly unrecognizable.
Therefore, wanting to place long-overdue consumer restrictions on assault weapons Colt and Hazard couldn’t have dreamed of doesn’t mean we’re disrespecting or dishonoring our history. I believe that the new gun-control laws are a necessary step in the right direction. And if Coltsville ever does become a national park, I’ll see you all there.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.