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6:34 PM EDT, April 12, 2013
When Stag Arms president Mark Malkowski held a black rifle in his office last week and showed the sawed-off pistol grip, it seemed as much a protest against the state's new gun ban as an effort to redesign a military-style firearm that's legal for sale in Connecticut.
But now, more than a week later, Malkowski reports progress. The New Britain company he founded 10 years ago is working on ways to modify the banned rifle so that it still has the core of the AR-15, the wildly popular type of rifle that represents fully one-quarter of all firearms sales in the United States, but complies with the law that took effect April 4.
Malkowski is moving ahead in the time-honored tradition of factory managers and engineers, solving the latest technical problem, even as he considers relocation offers from Texas and other states.
"Don't dismiss the creative minds of manufacturers. We're entrepreneurs, we're job creators and we will do what we have to do to succeed," Malkowski said. "I'm currently working with some prototypes that may be something that would be available for Connecticut citizens. ... It's still early in the development."
And it's not just the employees at Stag. "We have been approached by a lot of other designers that have input," he said.
It's too soon to say whether Stag's modifications will yield an AR-15-type gun that's legal for sale in Connecticut. The state police special licensing and firearms unit is still not prepared to say what designs, exactly, would be legal — just as the unit is examining the 139-page law for rules on retail sales, distribution and other aspects.
"We've got all the experts that are examining the bill to ensure that we cover all the bases," said Lt. J. Paul Vance, the state police spokesman. "Certainly we have to inform the public … but it's going to take a little bit of time."
Vance said that the last time Connecticut adopted a ban, the unit created a detailed guide as to what designs were and were not legal. Before that happens this time, he said, "We've got to see what needs to be done immediately. … We're making progress. It's evolving as we speak."
For example, earlier this week the unit told retailers not to deliver firearms to people who had ordered them online and paid for them, but had not picked them up before Malloy signed the bill into law. That angered some buyers and left store owners in the middle, confused. By the end of the week, the rule was clarified for retailers: Deliver the guns after ensuring that they were bought legally before the deadline.
For Stag Arms and anyone else with designs on a new design, confusion over the law will end — but the law itself is the deeper problem. It's a lot harder to get around than previous gun bans. Many people believe this ban is a true, outright prohibition on the AR-15, unlike earlier bans.
In 1993, Connecticut passed a law banning military-style rifles, which allowed the basic AR-15 design to slip through with some minor changes. That law, similar to a federal ban in effect from 1994 to 2004, prohibited guns with at least two military-style features from a list that included a flash suppressor, adjustable stock, bayonet mount and pistol grip.
The pistol grip is the one indispensable feature of the AR-15, so gun-makers simply designed "ban-legal" versions that had the pistol grip but didn't include those other things.
California tightened its version of the ban, essentially outlawing detachable magazines — another crucial feature of all military-style firearms. In response, companies designed a so-called bullet-button, which requires a jab by the point of a bullet or some other probing object to remove the magazine.
The result: The bullet-button made the magazine non-detachable under the law, and the modified gun was good to go in the Golden State.
The latest bans, adopted in New York and Connecticut and under debate in other states, apparently offer no such easy out, lawyers connected with the industry say. That means no pistol grip — a basic part of the AR-15 design since legendary inventor Eugene Stoner first developed the ArmaLite rifle in 1957 — unless Yankee ingenuity leads to some other answer.
That's where Malkowski comes in, looking for a bit of hope at an otherwise grim time in the life of his 200-person firm. It's not known how many other manufacturers are also working on a new design — Colt's Manufacturing Co. in West Hartford and O.F. Mossberg in North Haven aren't talking about the issue, for example.
Some critics have said the effort at a redesign is underhanded. "How disgusting that he would try to subvert a law that the majority of CT citizens and legislators wanted passed," said a commenter on this story posted online Friday.
"Complying with the law is not subverting it," another commenter said.
The key is that Malkowski and other manufacturers are not acting cynically. They genuinely do not believe that the ban will save any lives, since there are so many equally deadly guns not banned, and since there are an estimated 8 million of the rifles in U.S. circulation that are now banned for sale in Connecticut.
Therefore an effort to make a compliant gun is simply part of business. The irony is that a pistol grip makes a rifle safer because it's easier to handle and less likely to be fired accidentally, firearms instructors and manufacturers say.
Another irony: A modified AR-15 might function more or less like a traditional rifle with semiautomatic action that's far deadlier, with larger caliber bullets — but is not banned.
Just this week John W. Olsen, president of the state AFL-CIO, suggested that manufacturers get busy finding ways to modify the gun so they can sell it in Connecticut.
"Obviously we are going to do everything we can to comply with state law," Malkowski said. "We're trying to figure out what that is right now. ... We will be submitting designs to the state weapons unit as soon as they're available."
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant