Six months ago, the nation was horrified that a deranged man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 young children and six educators. The man, Adam Lanza, happened to use a Bushmaster brand AR-15-style, semi-automatic rifle in the Newtown, Conn., massacre. Almost instantly, gun-control politicians and activists blamed the weapon, instead of the man.
George Kollitides, the CEO of Freedom Group, which owns Bushmaster, was blamed by some as being complicit in the killings. He has not commented on the controversy, until now.
"It's very easy to blame an inanimate object. Any kind of instrument in the wrong hands can be put to evil use. This comes down to intent — criminal behavior, accountability and responsibility," Mr. Kollitides said in an exclusive interview last week. The killer's mother, Nancy Lanza, taught her son to shoot and is said to have given him access to the gun safes.
"He killed the gun's owner, stole her car, stole her gun and then went to a school and killed innocent kids. No background checks could have prevented that. He illegally obtained the guns," he told me in his small New York office. "Only two things could have potentially stopped him: his mother locking up her guns and an armed guard. Even then, he could have driven his stolen car into a playground full of kids. He was intent on killing, which we know is already illegal."
Nevertheless, the liberal media is intent on blaming the gun company executive personally.
Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC charged on Feb. 16 that the CEO is "the merchant of death who made the Bushmaster military-style assault rifle used to rip up the bodies of the 20 children and six educators."
Mr. O'Donnell then put Mr. Kollitides' photo on the screen and said, "Leave it up there for a while. I want this merchant of death to be stared at by a national audience for as long as possible."
The New York Times published an editorial in January that said Bushmaster's advertising caused criminal behavior, concluding that, "Given their financial success, gun makers have apparently decided that the risk of an occasional massacre is part of the cost of doing business."
Although he has had to add full-time security at his Connecticut home for his family, Mr. Kollitides is unapologetic about his company's rifles, which range in price from $500 to $3,000. "It has nothing to do with our marketing campaign and everything to do with a reputation for high quality and performance. Do you race a Ford Pinto or a Ferrari?"
Freedom Group, the world's largest privately owned gun and ammunitions manufacturer, is the umbrella over 16 brands, such as Remington, Bushmaster, DPMS, Marlin, AAC and Tapco. It employs more than 4,000 Americans and is valued at $1 billion. Like the rest of the firearms industry, Freedom Group saw sales skyrocket in 2012 as people anticipated President Obama going after guns in a second term and then another spike after the White House push for gun bans in the wake of Newtown.
The company sold 1.4 million long guns and 2 billion rounds of ammunition in 2012, raking in $932 million, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. Sales in the first quarter of 2013 have been $320 million, a 50 percent increase from the same period last year. Freedom Group was put up for sale after Sandy Hook by its current owner, the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, as a result of demands from some of its larger investors, such as the California State Teachers' Retirement System. Lazard has been taking bids for the auction.
Mr. Kollitides scoffs at Mr. Obama's call for a national ban on guns that look scary.
"At the time of Sandy Hook, Connecticut had a pre-existing 'assault-weapon' ban, which like all gun bans, was based on cosmetic features, which once again proves the looks of a gun have nothing to do with its effectiveness. Any weapon in the hand of a criminal or those bent on destruction is dangerous. Bans don't work. Preventing access and punishment work," he said.
In early April, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat, signed into law an expanded "assault-weapon" ban (like the one sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, which only got 40 votes in the Senate), which reduced from two to one the number of features that would make the gun illegal.
"You can only have one of five cosmetic features now — the guns still shoot the same bullets," said the firearm maker's chief executive. "Can we design around that? Yes. Will we? It depends on what the consumer wants. Will the law make the people of Connecticut — where I live — any safer? No."
The gun company CEO opposed the Manchin-Toomey proposal in the Senate to expand background checks to private exchanges. The measure fell six votes short of passage in April, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wanted to bring it back up for a vote this year.
To add pressure on senators who voted against it to change their votes, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been spending millions of dollars on ads against Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Jeff Flake of Arizona, as well as Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
On Friday, Mr. Bloomberg's group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, is launching a six-month national bus tour from Newtown to protest in the states of those lawmakers who voted against the amendments.
"I'm clearly for preventing criminals and the mentally ill from getting firearms. I'm not against well-written background checks, but the devil is in the details," Mr. Kollitides said. "No matter how well intended, if legislators get the details wrong, we will end up with a backdoor registration, which is where some of the recently defeated federal legislation was taking background checks."
To reduce gun violence, Mr. Kollitides echoed the comments of most gun-rights groups and lawmakers on what has been proven effective. "The key is to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from getting firearms, and, when they do, punish them to the maximum extent of the law," he said, referring to the low number of prosecutions for firearms violations by the Obama administration.
"A better mental health system. Accountability of neighbors and parents. I have three young kids; at the end of the day, I am a huge proponent of armed guards in schools."
With all the negative publicity that Bushmaster has gotten, has he ever considered changing the name?
Not at all, he said: "We want to make sure we make a quality product, a safe product, it doesn't misfire, it doesn't fall apart."
"However, it's inherently a dangerous product. When you load it, unsafe it, point and pull the trigger, it's going to have a devastating affect on anything in its path. That's why we need to emphasize safety, accountability and responsibility."
Emily Miller is a columnist for The Washington Times.