Henry County is known by many as the Gun Valley of Illinois.
However, that could change if a bill making its way through the Illinois House of Representatives becomes law.
HB2414, sponsored by Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago, would make it illegal to manufacture, possess or deliver semi-automatic assault weapons, assault-weapon attachments, .50-caliber rifles and .50-caliber cartridges.
Last session, a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Acevedo fell three votes short of passage in the Illinois House.
If this one passes, it could affect five Quad-Cities area firearms manufacturers, three of them in Henry County -- Springfield Armory and ArmaLite Inc., both of Geneseo; Rock River Arms, Colona; Les Baer Custom, Hillsdale; and Lewis Machine and Tool Co., Milan.
It could mean the loss of several hundred jobs, and work for some area subcontractors. For companies such as Springfield Armory, which has 165 full-time employees, and ArmaLite, which has 85 employees, it also could mean a move to another state.
ArmaLite, which makes a .50-caliber rifle, gets much of its business from collectors, competitive target shooters, government agencies and the military, owner Mark Westrom said.
"The word is out on Illinois" about the bill, Mr. Westrom said. "We're getting letters of interest from South Dakota, Arkansas, Oklahoma. They're inviting us to come to their state."
Mr. Westrom said the .50-caliber models ArmaLike makes sell for about $3,000 and are a "long-range target gun. It's not something you manhandle around and use in a crime.
"Could it be misused? Heavens, a kitchen knife is misused far, far more. The .50-caliber is big, and most are very ugly. Their sin is they are the biggest that are allowed."
He said the nearly 5-foot long rifle is loud and weighs 34 pounds without accessories. "It's not something anyone is misusing in a car or a truck."
Mr. Westrom believes HB2414 is a feel-good measure for politicians, particularly those from Chicago and its suburbs.
Sen. Todd Sieben, R-Geneseo, opposes the bill, but says it's coming up in an election year, which may have an impact. "Generally speaking, gun-control bills have not passed the senate. Some bills are in districts where gun control is important for re-election."
National Rifle Association spokesman Todd Vandermyde said the bill would prohibit virtually everything ArmaLite makes and a third to a half of the production line that comes out of Springfield Armory.
He said it also would take a good chunk of business from Les Baer, Rock River Arms and Lewis Machine and Tool. "The bill makes it a crime for replacement parts. "Basically, you've got to look at every single gun and make a determination (what's legal)."
Rebecca Rausch, spokeswoman for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, said she couldn't comment on the potential job loss if the bill passed, but she did say the governor believes the bill is a way to make streets safer.
"The .50-caliber rifle is something the governor believes should be banned," she said. "It's one of the most destructive weapons available to the public. The governor is concerned with taking these weapons off the street."
Rep. Acevedo said, if the bill, which has been amended eight times, is enacted, gun manufacturers would have to adapt and make different weapons.
"I'm sure they are going to continue manufacturing different sorts of weapons," he said. "How did they survive when the ban was in effect on the federal level?"
As far as losing jobs, Rep. Acevedo said, "Did they ever hire more when the federal ban was not reinstated? So, as far as losing jobs or employment, I don't think it's affected one way or another."
Mr. Westrom said there wasn't a ban on the manufacture of .50-caliber rifles during the federal ban enacted by Congress in 1994. When that ban ran out 10 years later, it wasn't reinstated.
Mr. Vandermyde said there are major differences between the federal ban and Illinois bill. For instance, having two or more military-style features, like a pistol grip or a flash suppresor, on a firearm would be illegal under the federal ban, but the Illinois law would prohibit any features.
Springfield Armory co-owner Dennis Reese said the federal ban forced his company to modify its guns to be different from what they are now. "It was problematic for us, because people wanted the original-looking rifles."
Mr. Reese and Mr. Westrom said they've added employees since the federal ban was lifted. Mr. Reese said a state ban would put his products at a competitive disadvantage with gun manufacturers around the country who might have larger magazine capacities and other items prohibited in Illinois.
Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, believes HB2414 picks up where the federal ban left off. As for job loss in Henry County, Rep. Currie said, "Yes, I'm in favor of jobs. I don't know if I'm in favor of jobs if it's all about doing things to kill people. The balance comes down on the side of safety."
Mr. Vandermyde said the Illinois bill is much more prohibitive than the federal ban.
"The politicians that say they are the same are either woefully stupid or intentionally lying."
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