A Visit To The Wisconsin Factory That Armed Its Employees

Dec 19, 2018

A Wisconsin manufacturer that gave guns to its employees as a Christmas present is reporting a good holiday sales season. But a local group that worries about gun violence says the gift was a potentially bad idea.

The conflict shows the debate over guns is far from finished, and views may partly be based on where people live.

BenShot is the company that gave guns to its employees. It operates a small factory southwest of Green Bay, Wis., in the village of Hortonville. The firm makes drinking glasses — with a unique twist.

Making Its Mark On Glasses

At a table on the factory floor, employees heat drinking glasses to soften them enough to create a bullet-sized divot in the side. After the glass anneals, meaning slowly cools off in a kiln, an adhesive is placed on copper bullets and into the divot they go. BenShot co-owner Ben Wolfgram says it's an uncommon approach to making decorative glassware.

After an adhesive is applied to a bullet, the shell is placed in the edge of a glass.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"We talked to a lot of different glass makers and told them what we wanted to do, and they told us, ‘It's not going to work, the glass is going to break, you can't anneal it like this afterward.’ So, that part we had to figure out ourselves. We bought a kiln and started working on it. Once we figured the process out, we scaled it up to this,” Wolfgram said.

The finished product looks like a bullet has been shot into the side of the glass. But Wolfgram says that's not the case: "No, no, we tried that, and it didn't work very well," he laughed.

BenShot also offers a glass beer mug embedded with a bullet and takes special orders — this fall it took one for the Arizona police officer who wanted seven bullets in a glass to symbolize being shot seven times in the line of duty.

BenShot co-owner Ben Wolfgram holds a specially-ordered glass, embedded with seven bullets to symbolize being shot seven times in the line of duty.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Company Gift Gets Mixed Reviews

It's not the only unusual step BenShot has taken with firearms this year. In November, the three-year-old company offered guns to its 16 full-time employees as a Christmas gift. Fourteen took it up on the offer, mostly getting handguns. The other two received gift cards. 

Wolfgram says national attention from the company gift prompted the glassware to sell faster. But he says giving employees a handgun was for their personal protection and for team building. And he's not surprised so many accepted.

“I mean, we make a glass with the bullet in the side. So, if you're not pro-gun, you probably don't work here. And so, that's kind of our culture within our company," Wolfgram said.

All the BenShot employees who accepted a handgun had to first take a safety course. 

BenShot Marketing Manager Chelsea Priest holds a beer mug embedded with a bullet. She is one of 14 BenShot employees who accepted a gun as a company Christmas gift.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

One who did is company Marketing Manager Chelsea Priest. She's a deer hunter and comes from a military and police background. She says the handgun will be used to protect herself.

"I'm a young girl. I'm tiny. So, for me, this is something I know I can be safe when driving. Yes, we do live in a safe community. But in how many safe communities have you heard of girls walking down the street at night with their dog and them getting attacked?" Priest asked. 

Hortonville Police Chief Kristine Brownson says when she heard about BenShot's gift to its employees, there were no worries. "No, I didn't have any concerns. Just for the fact that we are a rural community. We have a lot of gun hunters in the village," Brownson said.

The Hortonville Municipal Building, which is where Police Chief Kristine Brownson is based.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Brownson says Hortonville, with about 2, 800 people, has a low crime rate. But she says some of BenShot's employees live in larger communities, where personal safety may be more of a worry.  

BenShot giving employees handguns caught the eye of some groups worried about gun violence.  In suburban Milwaukee, Jeri Bonavia of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort or WAVE says adding a gun to someone's house increases the chances of a shooting, especially if there are other risk factors.

“For example, a history of violence, or a history of drug or alcohol abuse. History of depression in the home. All of those things can stack up, and really put people at much greater risk," Bonavia said.

BenShot disagrees, saying an employee with a handgun at home may be better able to ward off an assault. 

A WAVE protest with members of the Overpass Light Brigade last summer in Milwaukee.
Credit Joe Brusky/Overpass Light Brigade

In a year of more mass shootings across the U.S. and dozens killed by guns one at a time in Milwaukee, WAVE’s Bonavia also has another concern.

“It seems to miss the point of the holiday season pretty significantly. The peace on Earth, goodwill to men message may have been lost on this company," Bonavia stated.

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