Back in May, a month after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the state's gun control law, Stag Arms of New Britain came up with a modified design and took it to the state police firearms unit to see if it would pass muster.
The unit was helpful, even making a design suggestion that would help assure the gun would not be classified as an illegal assault weapon. Stag prepared to make the rifle, a .22-caliber version of the military-style AR-15.
Then in June, the state legislature tightened the law in order to correct a few problems. Stag returned with an updated model, seeking an opinion.
But this time, the firearms unit had a different answer.
"I was told to get a lawyer, figure it out and if I'm wrong I'm going to have to deal with it," said Mark Malkowski, the Stag Arms owner and president. "It's my responsibility to interpret … I was told we were no longer allowed to bring prototypes in."
That means Stag, and any other manufacturer seeking to design a rifle within the rules, and any retailer who offers that product in Connecticut, must take a risk when it comes to figuring out a regulation — a high risk, since selling assault weapons could be viewed as a crime.
It seems reasonable to ask a law enforcement agency to tell citizens what is and is not legal. We expect that of town building departments, tax authorities and countless other local, state and federal offices.
Part of the problem is time. The firearms unit, with four state police detectives and about a dozen civilian employees, is performing a heroic task these days. This is far from the only law the unit must enforce, but this law alone has kept the place on overdrive since the instant Malloy signed it at lunchtime on April 4.
"The first six weeks was pretty much insanity," said State Police Det. Ken Damato, who helped Stag initially and responded to the manufacturer's second request for an interpretation. "People were calling us for interpretations and we hadn't even read the bill ourselves."
On top of the initial rush of retail and distribution issues, the unit, located in Middletown, must also oversee the process of setting up permits and registrations for rifles, magazines and ammunition purchases. The unit is sending out directives and continues to answer questions.
"We get anywhere from 20 to 50 inquiries a day from different retailers," said Damato, who is also a lawyer. "We try to give them an understanding of what their obligations are under the law."
The line is drawn, though, for manufacturers seeking a yea or nay opinion on new designs — and not just because of time concerns, Damato said.
"We're not engineers," Damato said. "We're not arbiters of weapons construction. Stag or any other manufacturer is clearly capable of reading a law which sets forth in great detail the identifiers of an assault weapon, what is now classified as an assault weapon, as well as us. They don't really need us to be vetting their products, nor is that really our function."
Malkowski and Nick Discenza, a Stag sales manager who worked with the firearms unit, see it differently.
"He was very apologetic and said the state police are no longer part of the vetting process," Discenza said of Damato. But Discenza added, "How can you not tell people what they can and cannot make?"
It's a good question, and in this case the gunmakers — including the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group that's troubled by the policy — are right.
Malkowski points out that he's not coming to the firearms unit with concepts, drawings and ideas, but finished prototypes that actually fire bullets. The company is ready to present a design with a new type of grip that may or may not meet the law, he said, depending on the size of the shooter's fingers. That's obviously a tough call.
Malkowski and Discenza wondered whether the unit received an order after the media widely reported that state police offered advice the first time around. That might make sense, since it's no secret that Malloy and many legislators are in a running tiff with the gunmakers, and some resented Stag's efforts to design a new AR-15 under the law.
But Damato said, "We've received no directive from staff command that we're not to communicate with manufacturers."
This is an easy fix. The firearms unit, to repeat, is performing heroically under battle conditions. These are men and women, sworn officers and civilians, who understand the products, speak the language and have the respect of the industry — unlike the elected officials who created the law.
Attorney General George Jepsen should determine who, exactly, is the final arbiter of firearms design, presumably the state police firearms unit. That agency must be given enough resources to do its job immediately, including overtime and hiring if necessary.
And the agency must be empowered to give an up or down answer any time a gunmaker comes in with an actual prototype — not a concept, a gun that fires.
If the state wants to put 3,000 jobs at risk in the name of perceived public safety, it can do that. It can't ask those 3,000 people to risk their legal health by figuring out a law that's hard to interpret even for the agency in charge of doing so.