Church's Pistol Firm Exploits a Niche

Washington Post/March 10, 1999
By John Mintz

With parts of its sprawling business empire in decline, the Unification Church headed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon is finding profits in one of the least-known of its commercial ventures: making guns.

Moon's four-year-old gun company, Kahr Arms, has prospered amid glowing reviews for the workmanship of its small but potent pistols. Last month, Kahr Arms expanded, purchasing the company that manufactures Tommy guns, fabled in Roaring '20s mob shootouts from speeding black sedans.

The ties between Kahr Arms and the Unification Church headed by Moon have received almost no notice, both within the close-knit gun industry and among church members. The business arm of the church, whose members believe that Moon is the Messiah and was placed on earth to restore the Garden of Eden, declined to clarify its involvement in the gun business.

One ex-member said that for years church leaders have tried to obscure the movement's involvement with Kahr Arms. "They were afraid if anti-cult groups found out, they'd have a field day," the former member said.

But an examination of corporate records and interviews with experts on the secretive Moon empire demonstrate the links between the church's business network and Kahr Arms. Kahr, whose factory is in Worcester, Mass., is controlled by Kook Jin "Justin" Moon, 28, the elder Moon's fourth son and slated to be second-in-command of the multibillion-dollar Moon empire when the 79-year-old father dies. Justin Moon and his siblings are revered by church members as the Messiah's "True Children."

Some former members and gun industry critics perceive a contradiction between the church's teachings and its corporate involvement in marketing weapons promoted for their concealability and lethality.

"I see an irony, if not hypocrisy, that someone who professes peace and says he's completing Jesus's work also manufactures for profit an implement with no purpose other than killing people," said Tom Diaz, author of "Making a Killing," a new book critical of the firearms industry. "What's the message, turn the other cheek, or lock and load?"

Two years ago a demoralized British member wrote Moon saying he was quitting partly because of the church's involvement with Kahr guns. "I might ask if you, as a founder of a religious organization which has 'world peace' as one of its goals, consider it appropriate to manufacture weapons for sale on the mass market," the member wrote.

Kahr has been in the forefront of seizing on changes in state and federal law and marketing a controversial type of small, six-inch-long handgun whose sales are surging. Guns that size had been around for decades, but they could shoot only small bullets.

Then in recent years, 31 states passed laws, promoted by the National Rifle Association, allowing people to carry concealed weapons. Moreover, in 1994 the government banned manufacture of guns able to hold more than 10 bullets. Now unable to sell popular models shooting up to 21 bullets, the industry searched for new products to sell.

Gun firms - with Kahr at the head of the pack - responded to these changes by finding a new market niche to exploit - small but well-made pistols that fire eight or fewer relatively large 9mm and .40-caliber bullets.

Emergency room physicians blame the spread in the last decade of 9mm and .40-caliber guns for dramatic increases in more devastating and at times fatal gunshot wounds. The NRA says the nation is safer because of the 2 percent or so of adults who always carry handguns, and it cites studies supporting that claim.

Kahr markets its guns for their concealability, among other things. Its K9 model is "the perfect pocket 9mm," says one ad. "No safeties to fumble with when the pressure is on."

Combat Handguns magazine praised Kahr pistols as "made like a fine Swiss watch." Soldier of Fortune said they "pass with flying colors" the key test of any handgun their size: "close range, high stress, rapid-fire desperation shooting when all else has failed."

Kahr guns are used by some police officers as backup weapons holstered on their ankles and shoulders. They have not become popular with criminals, gun experts say, because of their relatively high cost - about $750 apiece - and because the firm is so new.

Last month Kahr Arms bought into a legendarily lethal product line by purchasing Auto-Ordnance Corp., the maker of Thompson submachine guns. The company was founded in 1916 to develop a portable machine gun that its inventors hoped would win World War I. The "Trench Broom" arrived too late for the war but was snapped up by gangsters like John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly.

Now Kahr manufactures Auto-Ordnance's line of semiautomatic weapons and is awaiting a federal license that will allow it to make the fully automatic machine guns once beloved by gangsters.

One reason for the Unification Church's expansion into the gun business may be that Moon has often placed money in ventures in which his children have a personal interest. He bought a Manhattan recording studio for a son who was a heavy-metal rock musician, and horse farms for two other children who rode on Korea's Olympic equestrian teams. In the case of Kahr, the elder Moon was drawn to the gun industry by his sons, who are avid firearms hobbyists, said one former member.

Justin Moon graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with an economics degree in 1992. Then, under his father's orders, he instituted a boardroom shake-up of the church's many firms, placing Moon relatives in the key positions, the former member said. Like his father, "the son was afraid when his dad died, the members would betray the family," the ex-member said. "He wanted everything in the family's name."

Justin Moon then persuaded his father to invest $5 million in Kahr, arguing that it would be a profitable venture. the ex-member said. The son, who has no engineering training, has received five U.S. patents based on his claim that he invented key technical innovations embedded in Kahr's guns. The parent company of Kahr Arms, Saeilo Inc., is an offshoot of a cluster of 15 or so other Moon-affiliated concerns, all called some variation of Saeilo and all in the machine tool or car repair business. For years employees at various of the Saeilo firms have been exhorted to meet sales targets so as not to displease the elder Moon, called "True Father" or "TF."

David Bromley, a Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist who studies the church, said members believe the companies "create connection to the Messiah. ... They create a community and integrate work and family." Moreover, he said, while followers privately view their firms and the church as essentially one entity, in public they often "make fine distinctions between them."

Asked about the tie between the gun firm and the church enterprises, One Up Enterprises Inc., the holding company over many of the church's businesses, said in a statement that it "is not involved with the operations of Saeilo Inc." Asked to elaborate, One Up said it "does not release financial information to the public." Saeilo Inc. said its gun venture is profitable.

An examination of the Saeilo firms' data filed with federal agencies, the telephone company and business reporting firms leaves no doubt that Saeilo Inc. is connected to the rest of the Moon empire.

The church's One Up has long acknowledged that Saeilo Machinery (USA) Inc., a machine tool firm, is an outright subsidiary of One Up. In statements to Dun & Bradstreet and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Saeilo Inc. and Saeilo Machinery describe themselves as "affiliates." The two firms' headquarters share a telephone number at the same address in Blauvelt, N.Y.

Even as Kahr thrives, some of Moon's other business holdings are in serious decline. His South Korean companies, which include concerns that make car transmissions and sell ginseng, are $2 billion in debt, and many are in bankruptcy. A car plant in China, Panda Motors, has gone under. In addition, donations from members in Korea and Japan have dropped precipitously, in part because of economic distress there.

Larry Zilliox, a McLean private investigator who has researched the Moon business network for a decade, said Moon views enterprises such as Kahr as critical to his future.

"Moon no longer looks at the church as the core organization," said Zilliox, who first established the Kahr-Moon link. "The movement's business part is the enduring part."

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