Beneath an exterior of liberal politicians decrying gun violence, the firearm industry thrives in Massachusetts

By Noel Gasca, Autumn Pattison, Riane Roldan, Olin Hayes, Max Reyes

On February 14, 2018, 17 people were killed during a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It became the deadliest shooting at a high school in United States history. The gunman used a Smith & Wesson rifle, built in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Condemnation of the shooting was swift and came from leaders across the country, including politicians in Massachusetts, like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker.

Baker had an “F,” the lowest possible rating from the National Rifle Association at the time of the shooting. However, the politician ranks second on the list of Massachusetts lawmakers and public officials who receive the most money from the gun industry.

As the state with the strictest gun laws in the nation, Massachusetts seems, on the surface, to reject firearms. But on a much deeper level: according to data we compiled from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Smith & Wesson has donated to the campaigns of several state politicians, including Gov. Baker, Gale Candaras, the former representative of the First Hampden and Hampshire district, and her successor, Eric Lesser. We put together a graph showing which five politicians in Massachusetts have received the most gun money.

Donald Humason Jr., the representative of the Second Hampshire and Hampden District, has received the most gun money.

Who exactly are those people in the chart above, and what do they do?

We also used data from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance to find the biggest donors among employees and executives of gun manufacturers and retailers in the state.

Michael Stolpinski, the president of Westfield Electroplating Company, has donated over $9,000 to Massachusetts politicians.

Michael Stolpinski, the president of Westfield Electroplating Company, has donated over $9,000 to Massachusetts politicians. However, it’s important to note that Westfield Electroplating Company also services the military, and not just state police outfits.

It’s not clear what gun companies like Smith & Wesson hope to gain by making campaign contributions to politicians who consistently receive low ratings from the National Rifle Association, as more gun-control related legislature has been adopted in the state in recent years. In July, almost five months after the shooting in Parkland, Gov. Baker signed the “red flag” law, allowing an individual’s gun to be taken if they pose a significant threat to someone’s safety, or their own.

Even in a state with tight gun control legislation, the gun industry still plays a significant role in the state economy and as a source of jobs in western Massachusetts. The company employs roughly 1,600 people at its Springfield plant. Profits aren’t slowing down either. Net sales this quarter for Smith & Wesson were $161.7 million, compared to $148.4 million for the same quarter a year ago.  

Other manufacturing industries in Massachusetts are struggling to stay afloat. In October 2017 Berkshire Industries, a manufacturer or aircraft components based out of Westfield shut down. One year later, in July 2018, the last glass recycling plant in the state closed too.

Despite the spotlight being put on the industry each time there is an incident of gun violence, the donations companies like Smith & Wesson have made to Massachusetts politicians make sure they don’t get shut down. By cultivating and maintaining relationships with those in power, gun manufacturers and retailers ensure their own safety.

Often, these relationships extend beyond officials that work in the State House. County sheriffs receive donations from those protecting the interests of the gun industry as well. Our research found that Axon, the biggest supplier of tasers in the state, hired the same lobbyist that works for the Massachusetts State Police.

When reached for comment, Mark Swenson, a Senior Regional Sales Manager of the Greater Boston area said the following: “We (Axon) have a great relationship with the Massachusetts State Police Department, like we do with other state police departments and other law enforcement departments. They are where the bulk of our sales come from.”

OCPF data shows Swenson donated $100 to Frank G. Cousins, Jr., the Essex County Sheriff in 2015. Cousins did not seek re-election in 2016.

The company also has a government affiliation position, who attends law-enforcement related conferences to try and make contact with people from different agencies there.

“They build relationships with law enforcement, like the Mass State Police,” Swenson said.

In an email, Massachusetts State Police Spokesman David Procopio said State Police Colonel Kerry Gilpin and her command staff make procurement decisions based on input from officers and the department’s armorer. These decisions include contracts for firearms and munitions worth millions of dollar. One such contract with Axon extends into fall of 2019.

Those relationships are clearly shown by the below graphic, with Smith & Wesson’s influence looming large, literally. Through data that we compiled from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the Massachusetts Lobbying Database and Massachusetts Corporate Database, we were able to create a web that literally follows the gun money in Massachusetts politics.

However, not everyone was as eager to talk to us as Mark Swenson. Several requests for interviews went unanswered, including the Massachusetts Lobbying Division and Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. This highlights the disparity between the messaging coming from the state about their stance on guns, and the reality of what they are willing to talk about or take action regarding.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “…nearly all states require lobbyists, and the organizations/individuals that hire lobbyists to submit periodic disclosure reports.” Massachusetts requires lobbyists to file disclosure reports that include all campaign contributions, but they only have to submit those reports twice a year. For reference, Washington state requires lobbyists to file a report each month, and New York requires it bi-monthly.

Under the newest Massachusetts lobbying law enacted in 2010, deadlines for filing registration and disclosure did not change, nor did the filing fees. However, the definitions of executive and legislative lobbying changed to include “acts to influence or attempt to influence the decision of any officer or employee of a city of town when those acts are intended to carry out a common purpose with executive or legislative lobbying at the state level.”

While we were not able to find evidence that money from the firearms industry directly influences legislation, the relationships between the gun conglomerate and politicians still exist.  

The state’s reputation as a liberal haven covers up just how much the gun industry is controlling the state’s economy and its politics. In reality, the firearm industry in Massachusetts is operating virtually unchecked because of the power of campaign donations keeping politicians and sheriffs quiet.

A link to our complete dataset can be found here. For our methods, go here.