With demand for gun products booming, Brownells Inc. is building a large distribution and retail center along Interstate 80 in Grinnell. The central Iowa city of 9,100 is home to Grinnell College, a selective liberal arts institution proud of its commitment to social justice.
Critics have attacked the company for profiting from accessories for military-style weapons, but the city and college are rolling out the welcome mat. It’s an example of how left-leaning politics and gun rights can coexist cheerfully, particularly when economic benefit enters the equation.
“I think it is going to be fantastic for the community,” said Juli Sanford, owner of Juli’s Natural Foods, which sells organic food and supplements a block from the college. She said the project will bring jobs, income and visitors to Grinnell, located about 55 miles east of Des Moines.
But the development is galling to gun-control advocates, who have watched cities and states continue to compete for firearms-related businesses despite mass shootings they hoped would bring more criticism for the industry.
“Grinnell has been synonymous with high-quality education, with creative and even brilliant contributions to education,” said Cheryl Thomas, a spokeswoman for Iowans for Gun Safety. “This is not a fit.”
Billed as the world’s largest supplier of gun accessories, Brownells is a family owned company that has long been based 20 miles south of Grinnell in Montezuma. The company’s third-generation chairman, Pete Brownell, is a top donor and board member of the National Rifle Association, making him a lightning rod in the debate over gun rights and regulations.
His business has boomed in recent years. The privately held company does not release sales figures, but it has told customers that demand for ammunition, high-capacity magazines and other accessories is so strong that some customers wait months for orders as manufacturers race to catch up.
The gun industry has grown by 8.4 percent annually over the last five years, fueled largely by fears of new regulations following mass shootings, said Maksim Soshkin, an industry research analyst with IBISWorld. High-capacity magazines have become particularly hot products amid fears they will be banned, he said.
The expansion will allow Brownells to carry more products, ship them faster and promote its brand with a highly visible location. The company is expected to open its first retail store at the site within the next year, which will include an experiential center with interactive displays featuring products.
Local residents and government officials are backing the $16 million project, which will employ up to 200 workers.
A farm family sold dozens of acres of land to the company. The city and state have promised millions in tax breaks. A government program helped train workers on basic skills, such as filling orders and answering customer inquiries. An Iowa Department of Transportation grant helped build a road to the center, about three miles from the college.
Grinnell officials have long hoped to add more development near the interstate and expand their tax base. The expansion has faced virtually no opposition, even at the 1,600-student college.
Students have been more focused on issues such as fighting poverty and hunger than on debating gun control, said Rabbi Rob Cabelli, an associate chaplain who helps run the Center for Religion, Spirituality and Social Justice.
Grinnell City Manager Russ Behrens said the lack of criticism is a testament to how Brownells runs its business. Residents describe the company as a model employer and its namesake family as civic-minded and professional. Pete Brownell’s grandfather founded the company in 1939.
In a statement, Brownell said the cooperation between his company and Grinnell has “been exceptional as we prepare to become an even larger part of the community.”
Brownell was elected to the NRA board in 2010 and was awarded the NRA’s “Golden Ring of Freedom” this year, recognizing donations of more than $1 million to the group. He champions a hard line on the constitutional right to bear arms.
A report issued in September by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit that advocates for more gun regulations, cited Brownell as an example of how the industry has turned the NRA into its marketing arm for military-style weapons.
“They are one of the major vendors of high-capacity magazines, which are the common thread that runs through mass shootings,” said the group’s executive director, Josh Sugarmann.
Iowans for Gun Safety plans to call on the company to voluntarily stop distributing magazines that carry more than 10 rounds. Brownell indicated he would reject that request.
Brownells’ sales have surged after mass shootings. In the days after last year’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the company said that it sold as many of one kind of high-capacity magazine in three days as it usually does in more than three years. Pete Brownell apologized for delays and problems in processing customer orders.
Following Sandy Hook, Cabelli wrote an opinion piece in the Des Moines Register calling for a new national debate about gun rights.
The proximity of the company and the college “does make for an interesting juxtaposition,” he said.