South Carolina's armory for the next civil war
A strip-mall emporium runs on buckets of public money and cutesy nods to political violence
There’s a chain of gun stores in my state owned by the son of a Congressman. The company gets cheap publicity every few years for selling a gun component with a cheeky reference to either shooting the president or starting a civil war.
The company is called Palmetto State Armory. The name and the logo, with its crossed cannons and pile of ammunition, conjure the image of a state-run stockpile for arming a militia. In fact it’s a privately owned chain of stores and gun ranges that hawks its own house-brand guns and gun toys in the repurposed husks of suburban strip malls.
That’s not to say the armory is entirely a private affair. When the company expanded its manufacturing facility into a former brake plant in West Columbia this April, the owners weren’t shy about asking for (and receiving) a 20-year tax handout from the county. And when Gov. Henry McMaster staged a TV news spectacle in August to sign a bill doing away with restrictions on openly carrying guns in public, he chose a Palmetto State Armory store in Greenville as his backdrop.
The company is well-connected, and its business is inherently political. Julian Wilson, son of Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, is a co-owner of JJE Capital Holdings, the private equity company behind Palmetto State Armory. Julian’s brother is South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, who has sunk untold sums of state money into suing municipalities that try to introduce local gun restrictions.
If you aren’t a gun owner or Deep South politician, you might know Palmetto State Armory from its ongoing series of cheap-heat media stunts. The company runs obnoxious billboards around the holidays every year, including an iconic one featuring a silenced rifle superimposed over some garland with the tagline “DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR.” Enough people complained about the billboards in the Upstate to get a segment on the local evening news.
Outside South Carolina, Palmetto State Armory occasionally makes headlines for its clickbait products. The most recent iteration is a lower receiver for AR-15 rifles etched with the slogan “Let’s Go Brandon,” a minced-oath version of “Fuck Joe Biden.” 1 In case you don’t get the subtle reference, the fire selector has three modes labeled “F@CK!” (Safe), “JOE!” (Fire), and BIDEN!” (Full-Auto), according to the product listing.
Predictably, the product engendered a few rounds of liberal outrage and a bunch of people snitch-tagging the Secret Service online. I wouldn’t hold my breath about the company facing a single negative consequence for it; they’ve pulled this exact stunt before.
Palmetto State Armory started in 2008, the year of Barack Obama’s first election, and rode a wave of blockbuster gun sales along with the rest of the industry as the gun lobby played up fears of gun-control laws that never came to pass under the country’s first Black president. When I interviewed representatives of the company several years ago for the Charleston City Paper, gun stores across the country were selling out of AR-style rifles after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.
The first time I remember PSA making national headlines was in 2011, when they sold an AR-15 lower receiver etched with Joe Wilson’s catchphrase that he screamed at Obama during a presidential speech: “YOU LIE.”
“I’m not surprised to see this,” Slate’s Dave Weigel wrote about the YOU LIE gun part. “On the other hand, it is an angry statement directed at the president on a gun.”
Palmetto State Armory laid off the assassination jokes during the Trump presidency. Instead, in 2020 they started making and selling an entire meme gun marketed to internet-poisoned white supremacists.
The gun was a PSA AK-P, the company’s U.S.-built Kalashnikov knockoff, wrapped in a Hawaiian shirt-inspired Teflon finish. The listing was an unsubtle wink to the “boogaloo bois,” 2 members of a decentralized anti-government movement who responded to the Black Lives Matter protests by arming themselves for Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo:
You asked for it, you got it. The Palmetto State Armory Custom Series has taken the best American Made AK-47, the PSA AK-P GF3 and given it a unique “Big Igloo Aloha” Teflon finish to give this legendary rifle a unique appeal.
Cute in-jokes about politically motivated violence are part of the Palmetto State Armory brand. Every few years, they find a new way to play footsie with death.
For all its superficial appeal to far-right militia movements, Palmetto State Armory was also willing to play the game by Washington’s rules. In the winter of 2020-21, as boogaloo enthusiasts and street gangs geared up for their failed putsch on the Capitol, Palmetto State Armory was paying a lobbyist to push for reclassification of firearm accessories by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to The Trace.
Whatever else goes into Palmetto State Armory’s marketing strategy, it’s working. The company has expanded with locations in Georgia and North Carolina; just yesterday they bought an old Bi-Lo grocery store in Charleston to open another store.
They’re also raking in public money. Here are some of the sweetheart deals they’ve been able to finagle, according to public records and the Good Jobs First Subsidy Tracker:
$1.6 million Small Business Administration loan (2012)
$2.149 million SBA loan (2013)
$200,000 grant from South Carolina’s Economic Development Set-Aside Program (2014)
In April this year, PSA convinced Lexington County Council to subsidize its manufacturing expansion into a former brake factory in West Columbia, as I mentioned above. They negotiated the deal in secret, convincing the council to refer to the deal in its meeting agendas as “Project Bronco” (not kidding) before finally unveiling the terms and voting unanimously to approve them.
According to Bristow Marchant at the The State, Palmetto State Armory agreed to invest at least $61.7 million at the site, and the county promised the following with few strings attached:
Under the agreement, the company will pay a reduced property tax rate of 6% instead of the normal 10% for industries. Over a 10-year period, the company would be entitled to a tax credit equivalent to 20% of its investment for the first five years and 10% for the second five years.
PSA is hardly the only company getting its beak wet at South Carolinians’ expense. As I’ve mentioned before, South Carolina public school districts missed out on $423 million of revenue in Fiscal Year 2019 alone due to corporate tax breaks. It’s the kind of theft we allow right out in the open.
At the national level, Palmetto State Armory is plugged into the gun messaging and marketing machine. At the point of sale, the company participates in the NRA Round-Up Program, asking you to round up your purchase to the nearest dollar for the National Rifle Association Foundation as if it were the March of Dimes.
You may have seen the scoop yesterday from NPR, which got its hands on recordings of senior NRA officials on a conference call shortly after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. The piece documents how some PR consultants advised a soft touch after 13 people were shot to death in a high school, but the organization instead opted to go on the offensive and smear anyone who proposed a public-policy fix — setting the conservative talking points for every mass shooting to the present day.
One piece of context from the NPR piece stood out to me as I was revisiting Palmetto State Armory’s greatest hits this week. Before Columbine, one of the NRA’s biggest stumbling blocks was the Oklahoma City Bombing, carried out by the white supremacist and anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh in 1995. McVeigh had specifically targeted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, just a week after the NRA had put out a fundraising letter referring to the ATF as “jackbooted government thugs.”
Rather than backpedal or soften his rhetoric, the NRA’s CEO Wayne LaPierre repeated his ATF stance after the bombing. This intransigence led former president George H.W. Bush to publicly resign as an NRA member in protest, and others followed his lead. According to the conversation caught on the tapes, the NRA lost half a million members in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing. (I realize there are no good guys in this story; I’m just sharing some relevant history.)
In the days after Columbine, the NRA bigwigs were frightened of repeating their missteps from Oklahoma City. The stakes were particularly high because the organization had scheduled its annual meeting in Denver, Colorado, just 10 days after the school shooting. Strategic questions arose: Should they cancel the meeting? Someone floated the idea of canceling the exhibit hall and just holding a members’ meeting — but longtime NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer was worried that only the organization’s most extremist members would show up, leading to a feeding frenzy for the press.
"If you pull down the exhibit hall,” Hammer said, “that's not going to leave anything for the media except the members meeting, and you're going to have the wackos ... with all kinds of crazy resolutions, with all kinds of, of dressing like a bunch of hillbillies and idiots. And, and it's gonna, it's gonna be the worst thing you can imagine."
The hillbillies were in the boardroom all along. To this day, the NRA as a lobbying organization holds more extreme views than its own rank and file. It remains unclear whether the NRA or the gun industry is setting the agenda for gun policy in the U.S., but either way the public policy is out of step with public opinion, which tends to favor more limits on gun ownership and use, not fewer.
That’s all backroom chatter and Capitol Hill intrigue, though. Publicly, the NRA and its allies in the gun industry have come a long way since fretting internally about fallout from the Oklahoma City Bombing. They chose a path after Columbine, and they’re sticking to it.
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A small announcement: I’ll be a guest on the Left Reckoning live stream tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern to talk about plantation politics and the future of labor in South Carolina. Should be interesting. If you don’t care to look at my face, the conversation will also be recorded as a podcast.
The full explanation of the “Let’s Go Brandon” meme is on Wikipedia if you really need to know it. Basically, a sportscaster misheard a crowd screaming “Fuck Joe Biden” at a NASCAR race on Oct. 2. She mistakenly told her audience the crowd was screaming “Let’s Go Brandon,” referring to the driver Brandon Brown, who had just won the race, and much snickering ensued. Anyway this is beside the point by now, but I think if you’re going to say fuck the president, you should just say it and stop acting cute about it.