OKLAHOMA CITY — State officials could have a new weapon in their arsenal as they try to lure gun and ammunition manufacturers to Oklahoma.
Murray State College leaders say the school’s gunsmithing program could become a huge economic development driver thanks to a $10 million legislative investment that will allow the college to offer the nation’s first bachelor’s degree in gunsmithing.
With backing from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, campus officials approached lawmakers in the spring with a pitch that expanding the school’s gunsmithing program to offer four-year degrees could turn Oklahoma into a hub for gun businesses and manufacturing.
“The idea was this is an investment in an industry that can locate in our state, and regionally, we have the ability distribution-wise to become a powerhouse in this,” Murray State College President Tim Faltyn said in an interview.
“Gunsmithing is a very old profession, but we’re seeing a major shift toward embracing modern technology. The industry’s been begging for students to come out of here with some higher, more technical knowledge.”
Although the funding measure passed overwhelmingly, some lawmakers questioned the new investment in a college that’s located in the district of House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.
‘Major shift toward embracing modern technology’
Murray State College has offered a gunsmithing program since 1979. Annually, the school admits 30 students to its two-year degree program at its Tishomingo campus.
By offering a bachelor’s degree in gunsmithing, the college could admit more students and offer training on industry trends, campus officials said.
“Gunsmithing is a very old profession, but we’re seeing a major shift toward embracing modern technology,” said Chad Mercer, Murray State’s gunsmithing program chair. “The industry’s been begging for students to come out of here with some higher, more technical knowledge.”
The two-year program teaches students how to customize guns, in addition to the fundamentals of firearms design and repair. But Mercer said the bachelor’s degree curriculum will be crafted with the needs of the firearms industry in mind as gun-makers are increasingly seeking graduates with digital skills in areas like 3D printing and laser welding.
Mercer’s graduates are spread out across the firearms industry. Some alumni are working in small-town gun shops. Others have taken jobs working for the military, the federal government or custom firearm companies.
“I can place 100% of my students if they’re willing to move,” Mercer said. “There’s a demand out there.”
After graduating from Murray State’s two-year program last year, Logan Hill, 27, accepted a full-time job at H&H Shooting Sports in Oklahoma City.
Hill’s friends convinced him to apply to the gunsmithing program after he graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a human relations degree. Now, he splits his time helping customers in the gun shop and fixing and customizing patrons’ firearms.
He praised the hands-on training he received at Murray State, and said his enrollment in the program helped him get his foot in the door at H&H, where he worked part time on the weekends during the school year.
“I learned so much down there in just a short amount of time,” he said. “It was 100% worth every minute.”
Faltyn hopes recruiting additional firearm companies to Oklahoma keep more program graduates close to home.
According to a 2021 report from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Oklahoma has 138 gun manufacturers — up from just 33 in 2011.
Oklahoma also has the 12th-highest rate of gun deaths, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The expansion of Murray State’s program is expected to cost about $19 million. The college will use the $10 million in new state funding to build a 47,000-square-foot building for the program, which students will use in addition to the on-campus firing range.
College officials are soliciting donations for the remaining funding that will be used to hire three new gunsmithing instructors and purchase new equipment.
Enrollment for the new program is expected to begin this fall, and students could start as soon as the spring semester.
‘Boondoggle’ or boon?
Details of the new degree program emerged in the final days of this year’s regular legislative session.
Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, called the project a “boondoggle.”
“We have a desperate need when it comes to higher education for nurses and teachers,” he said. “So, why did we spend $10 million on a building with … tools? It seems like a misplaced priority.”
McCall, the House speaker, said the Legislature funded the new program after Murray State officials indicated it was important to grow their gunsmithing program.
The $10 million in new funding for Murray State was included in a bill that contained funding for several other colleges and new programs, he said in a statement.
“The bill received bipartisan support, and I was happy to see it pass as the majority of the House continued to support important funding for our state’s institutions of higher learning,” McCall said.
Oklahoma Second Amendment Association President Don Spencer praised Murray State’s gunsmithing program.
But Spencer said the state’s GOP-led Legislature needs to do more to recruit firearm manufacturers.
“They need to get away from who’s making batteries to who’s making ammunition,” Spencer said, referencing legislative efforts to recruit Panasonic to build a massive electric vehicle battery plant near Tulsa.
Touting the more firearm-friendly laws, low cost of living and business friendly environment, Gov. Kevin Stitt and GOP lawmakers have tried to lure gun makers and other firearm companies to Oklahoma.
“Commerce hopes that funding for programs like the gunsmithing program at Murray State will further our pro-business culture and efforts,” said Becky Samples, a spokesperson for the state Department of Commerce. “Commerce is committed to supporting our higher education institutions and CareerTechs as they find innovative programs to equip tomorrow’s talent with the skills needed to support companies looking to grow in Oklahoma.”
Lawmakers in recent years introduced several bills aimed at attracting gun manufacturers to the state, but the legislation has stalled.
Those measures included a bill to grant tax credits to gun-makers and legislation that would prevent state contracts with companies that “discriminate” against firearm businesses or trade organizations like the National Rifle Association.
Stitt, a former businessman, has attended national gun shows to encourage firearm manufacturers to move to Oklahoma.
Several gun manufacturers in recent years have decided to move their operations from blue states to red states with more firearm-friendly policies.
Remington Firearms, the nation’s oldest gun-maker, is relocating its headquarters from New York to Georgia. Smith & Wesson Brands is moving its headquarters from Massachusetts to Tennessee.
“There’s a lot of fear around guns,” said Faltyn, the college president. “We want to be a national example of safe and responsible gun ownership and operation for the country because there’s an industry there that’s important. It’s part of our history and I think it’s part of our future.”