July 19. 2014 7:08PM

Newington-based gun company layoffs said to reflect sales

Union Leader Correspondent

Ernie Shipman, owner of Renaissance Firearms in Rochester's Gonic neighborhood, displays pistols Thursday in the back room of his store on Main Street. Despite indications that the gun market is slowing across the state, Shipman said his sales are up overall compared to last year. The rack behind Shipman, to his right, contains many pistols made by gun manufacturer Sig Sauer, which announced layoffs at its Newington facility last week, citing declining sales. "They make a fantastic product," Shipman said of Sig Sauer, calling the decline just a short-term dip. (MIKE LAWRENCE/Union Leader Correspondent)

NEWINGTON - Layoffs announced last week at the Newington facility of firearms manufacturer Sig Sauer highlight a cooling of the nationwide gun market that's having significant effects in New Hampshire and could cause skilled local workers to look for employment in other industries, a state workforce official said.

Sig Sauer announced Tuesday that it had "instituted a series of workforce adjustments" amid declining sales after "record highs experienced over the past couple of years."

Sig Sauer spokesman Allen Forkner declined last week to cite a specific number of workers that could be affected, but comments by the state official and an education administrator involved in workforce training indicate that more than 180 employees could be out of work as a result of recent cuts by the company.

Michael Power, community outreach administrator for the Office of Workforce Opportunity at the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, said Thursday that Sig Sauer previously laid off 57 workers in May.

"We're the state's job training agency, and we handle large layoffs like this," Power said, referring to the latest round of cuts.

Power said the state's "rapid response team" was meeting with Sig Sauer employees Thursday to offer help with services such as filing for unemployment and job retraining programs. He said the team is called in when the number of affected employees tops 25.

"It's not a little thing if (Sig Sauer) called us," Power said.

Lin Tamulonis, associate vice president of corporate and community education at Great Bay Community College, indicated Thursday that the new layoffs could greatly exceed 25. Tamulonis spoke shortly after walking out of the Sig Sauer facility, which is on the Newington side of Pease International Tradeport.

Tamulonis manages workforce training programs at Great Bay, which also is on the Tradeport and has a close relationship with Sig Sauer.

"The number I heard was 125 this time," she said, cautioning that she hadn't received confirmation of that number.

Statewide impacts

The Sig Sauer layoffs follow a July 2 filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection by Newport precision machining company Latva Machine Inc. Latva owes more than $3.1 million in total debt to more than 100 creditors across New Hampshire and the country, according to the filing made in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manchester.

Latva, founded in 1979, says on its website that it's "a long-term supplier to the military of small arms components" and of components for the commercial firearm industry.

Power said the gun market is slowing across the country, following huge spikes in sales amid fears of gun control legislation in recent years.

"Nationwide and even in the region, there have been some cutbacks," Power said. "We're seeing it across the country, so you'd expect to see it in New Hampshire, too, and we are."

Power said Green Mountain Rifle Barrel Co. in Conway, for example, also made staff reductions this year.

Green Mountain Rifle Barrel owner Rick Sanborn said he had more than 200 employees in June 2013 but now has about 100 after "a couple of different layoffs." The barrel manufacturer was founded in 1976.

Sanborn said he had expected sales to decrease after surges in recent years.

"You come off a big boom in sales ... (and) it was bound to happen," Sanborn said Wednesday. "You can get this kind of wild swing in any industry."

At Renaissance Firearms in Rochester, owner Ernie Shipman said sales at his retail store skyrocketed around the 2008 presidential election amid concerns about gun control legislation.

"That was a crazy week," he said.

Worries over legislative restrictions returned and pushed up sales from January to March 2013, Shipman said, after the tragic December 2012 shootings that killed 20 students and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

"It created kind of a false demand," Shipman said.

Sanborn said "the boom wasn't all just panic-buying," though, citing factors such as a spike in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who bought civilian models of firearms they had used on their tours.

"I know a significant amount of those guys purchased those firearms because they look exactly like what they used over in the sandbox," Sanborn said, saying those sales were now slowing.

Background checks

After a spike in 2013, background checks for gun purchases in New Hampshire this year appear to be falling back to a rate comparable to that seen in 2012, according to data related to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. While background checks don't correlate directly with purchases and can vary with each state's laws, NICS data can indicate interest in firearm purchases.

According to NICS records available at www.fbi.gov, there were 62,852 background checks in New Hampshire from January through June this year. That compares with 15,525 checks in Vermont, 37,712 checks in Maine and 98,404 checks in Massachusetts.

The nation's leader was Kentucky, with more than 1.5 million background checks from January through June this year. California had the second-largest number, with 706,803. Texas had 698,677, according to the data.

The FBI data says 86,502 background checks were conducted in New Hampshire through the first six months of 2013, when a total of 147,726 checks were conducted for the year.

In 2012, 57,474 background checks were conducted in New Hampshire through the first six months, and 128,178 were conducted over the year.

The data says 90,984 checks were conducted in New Hampshire in 2011, and 79,940 were conducted in 2010.

Shipman noted that after 11 years in the business, he was used to ups and downs in gun sales, which he expected to rise again in the fall, calling summer a traditionally slow season for firearms.

Shipman said his year-to-year sales remained up.

"We're still busy," Shipman said. "We're real happy with our sales overall."

Sig Sauer workers

A display case in the back of Shipman's store was filled Thursday with Sig Sauer pistols. He said the company makes "a fantastic product," producing handguns used by Navy SEALs, law enforcement agencies and pilots.

Sig Sauer announced online Saturday that its P226, chambered in .357SIG, has been selected as the new duty pistol of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. The Highway Patrol has more than 1,600 sworn troopers, covering more than 78,000 miles of roadway. Sig Sauer says it will deliver 1,800 P226 handguns to the agency, according to the post.

Power said workers laid off at Sig Sauer in Newington could have new options for employment, citing New Hampshire's growing aerospace and advanced composite industries.

"A lot of these workers are skilled, particularly in (computer numerical control) machines and advanced manufacturing," Power said. "We have a good need for these people."

Power said Safran, a French multinational company that builds aircraft and rocket engines and aerospace components, plans to "make the next generation of airplane engines" at the new, 275,000-square-foot plant in Rochester that Safran USA shares with Albany Engineered Composites.

"They're going to need 400 to 500 people over the next couple years to start making those engines," Power said.

He noted that Great Bay plans to expand its Advanced Technology and Academic Center, a manufacturing training campus in Rochester, to help meet that demand.

"We're going to try to get these Sig Sauer people placed as soon as possible," he said.