Meet the British CEO of the firm behind the gun that brought tragedy to Florida

James Debney is a member of the NRAs Golden Ring of Freedom for donating over$ 1m to fight against gun control

As CEO of America’s second-largest gun manufacturer, James Debney- whose company attained the assault rifle used last week to kill 17 people at a high school in Florida- makes $5.3 m a year.

As a second-amendment proselytizer, Debney, of American Outdoor Brands( formerly Smith& Wesson ), has repeatedly built donations to political action committees opposing gun control in the United States.

And as a top donor to the National Rifle Association( NRA ), Debney wears a distinctive gold blazer with a crest designating his membership in the group’s elite Golden Ring of Freedom society, reserved for million-dollar backers.

But that coat is something of a strange fit for a British migrant with a background in bin liners.

Debney read chemistry at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 1989, took a business degree at the Keele University and cut his teeth in consumer goods as a former managing director of Baco consumer products and then chairman of Presto products, a $500 m plastics business.

By his own admission, Debney knew next to nothing about handguns when he took the reins at the US gunmaker, which did $900 m in marketings last year.” It takes a while to understand the business, especially if you’re British and have a limited knowledge of pistols to begin with ,” Debney told the regional business publishing BusinessWest in 2012.

Judging by the performance of his company in the last two years, the learning curve may not have been particularly steep.

As president and CEO since 2011, Debney, 50, has led American Outdoor Brands through an awkward rebranding, an underwhelming expansion into outdoor gear and a 66% breakdown in stock cost since August 2016.

When it hired Debney for the top chore, Smith& Wesson calculated that his background expertise in consumer products would apply in the world of handgun marketings. If you can sell garbage bags, the thinking seemed to be, you can sell firearms- at the least in the USA.

But thrust under the national spotlight by the country’s latest school shooting, Debney is describing fresh scrutiny as an expert in plastics extrusion who somehow became one of the United States’ most vocal advocates for the NRA, a lobbying group many Americans see as an enabler in the country’s mass shooting epidemic.

American Outdoor Brands did not reply to multiple requests by email and phone for commentary. A petition via an American Outdoor Brand spokesperson to establish whether Debney is a US citizen ran unanswered. Nor has the company released a statement on the Parkland, Florida, shooting where one of its M& P-1 5 weapons was used to bring demise to a high school.

The human with the golden jacket: James Debney. Photograph: Screengrab

In an appearance at the CPAC conservative political action conference Thursday, the NRA chairman, Wayne LaPierre, blamed media and “the elites” for propagating school shootings and presented his group as a last line of defense of” individual freedom “.

It’s a message Debney has cheered for years.

” The importance of the NRA and its critical role in the protection of second amendment rights in the United States cannot be understated ,” Debney said at a 2014 event at which he presented LaPierre with a novelty check for $600,000.

The company Debney formerly ran, Presto, a subsidiary of Alcoa, produces more soft goods: food storage purses, plastic wrap, waste pouches, and especially differences on the zipper-lock pouch, including the ribbed zipper, doubled zipper and thermoform zipper.

After he moved and his product range changed, responding to strong firearm marketings on the day after Thanksgiving in 2012, Debney heralded an evolution in American attitudes toward guns, saying:” Firearms have now taken that place in the basket of mainstream durable goods that consumers want to buy on Black Friday .”

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Smith& Wesson began rendering the M& P-1 5 series, eventually including the firearm used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school massacre, in 2006, three years before Debney joined the company. Primarily a handgun manufacturer for 150 years, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based Smith& Wesson was enticed into the market for so-called long guns by the booming popularity of the AR-1 5-style models.

” We are entering the$ 1bn marketplace for long handguns with products that provide the exceptional functionality and reliability that Smith& Wesson clients have come to expect ,” the company said in a press release at the time.

Labeled” assault rifles” outside the industry and” tactical rifles” or” modern sporting rifles” inside the industry, semi-automatic weapons such as the M& P-1 5 are modified versions of weapons originally designed by the military for maximum fast killing. They have been the recurring weapon of option in America’s deadliest mass shootings.

Debney’s rise at the company coincided with a steady growth in assault rifle sales as a proportion of overall marketings. On newspaper, the strategy worked, for a period. Net marketings at the company grew from about $550 m in early 2015 to $900 m two years later, and the stock cost hit $30 in August 2016.

” Our vision must therefore be the leading handguns producer ,” Debney told the Boston Globe in 2013, when his company, which employs about 1,500 people locally, topped the newspaper’s rankings of businesses in the country.” And that entails, genuinely, you’ve got to be number one, in terms of the shares, in every major product category .”

In 2012, Debney and his wife, Karen, bought 64 acres in pastoral Massachusetts near the gunmaker’s headquarters in Springfield. The next year, the Debneys, who have a teenage daughter who is a nationally ranked equestrian, applied to the city planning board to approve plans for a commercial indoor riding arena and horse barn site, and Karen Debney’s equestrian concern, Temple Farm LLC, was incorporated in 2015.

But as all the members of the handgun industry in 2014 knew, the boom was perilously reliant on the emotions of customers, particularly those who might fear that Barack Obama would try to confiscate their weapons, a fiction the NRA, fattened by gun industry fund, actively fed.

Smith and Wesson’s semi-automatic rifle, the M& P-1 5 Photograph: Handout

With the election of Donald Trump, the fears dissipated, and the “Trump slump” find marketings at Debney’s company plunge 36.4% in the third quarter of 2017 compared with a year earlier. Today the stock trades at around $10- one-third of its cost at its peak.

” There was some fear-based buying that would take place from time to period ,” Debney said in a December 2017 conference call.” “Were not receiving” fear-based buying right now .”

Debney had tried to prepare for such a rainy day. His predecessor had expensively acquired a security company; Debney promptly got rid of it. Then he resulted an effort to slap a new name on the gunmaker, American Outdoor Brands, in an apparent play to make the company more palatable to institutional investors, but also to highlight its foray into the highly competitive field of “survival” and camping equipment- everything from cutting tools to parachute cord to pole saws.

But even as the company’s latest report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission( SEC) said such products accounted for only 4% of sales, Debney clung to the notion that expansion in key sectors would return the company to health.

” Toward the end of the quarter, customer handgun purchasing began to cool- a trend that underscores the importance of remaining focused on our strategy to continue growing and balancing our business across the shooting, hunting, and rugged outdoor enthusiast marketplaces ,” Debney said in a March 2017 press release.

It was unclear how the company hoped millions in outdoor accessories sales would replace potentially hundreds of millions in lost gun marketings. A major challenger in the handgun manufacturing industry, Remington, announced plans to declare insolvency earlier this month.

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