Five weeks after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a gun control law outlawing any retail sales for the entire product line of Stag Arms, the maker of military-style rifles unveiled a new design Thursday that its owner said will not be subject to the Connecticut ban.
From the outside, the new firearm looks identical to other Stag rifles, complete with matte black finish, pistol grip and adjustable stock. Stag owner Mark Malkowski showed a prototype of the new rifle in the shipping room of his New Britain plant, explaining why he feels certain that it's legal.
It's not a radical new concept. The gun fires smaller bullets, which are allowed under the new law even in a military-style rifle.
The new model will only be available in Connecticut, said Malkowski, who founded the company 10 years ago. But he said he's not in any way trying to defy the state.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Malkowski said. "My only intention here is to sell a product in the state where I reside, to people who have supported me for a decade."
Compliance, not defiance, as a colleague says.
The main change is that the gun has a redesigned bolt carrier, the 5-inch long, cylindrical fitting that moves the bullet from the magazine to its firing position. It carries .22-caliber bullets of the sort fired by millions of people, including children at camps, rather than the longer, more powerful .223-caliber Remington rounds used in Stag Arms' line of AR-15 rifles.
Some .22-caliber rifles in the AR-15 platform are already on the market, made by companies including O.F. Mossberg & Sons in North Haven. With about one-third the firing velocity and a much smaller overall size, the .22-caliber bullets are far less lethal than the .223-caliber rounds, which are virtually identical to the bullets widely used by soldiers in fully automatic assault rifles.
Malkowski said he intends to seek approval from the state police firearms unit, which is charged with interpreting the 139-page law. He's certain that there's no problem, but wants to check with authorities as a courtesy, and so they'll be able to answer questions about the guns.
The firearms unit is already plenty busy answering questions about what guns may be transferred to which customers, based on subtle issues in the law — and it must help devise systems for the state's new rifle registration, registration of magazines that carry more than 10 rounds and increased background checks.
'A Lot of Buzz'
But even if the redesign is approved, Malkowski said, he still might move all or part of his company — which now has 200 people in a four-building complex in New Britain — to another state that does not restrict sales of his rifles. Last week, Malkowski was at the National Rifle Association's annual convention in Houston, where he met with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's actively wooing gun makers from states that have enacted tighter controls.
"There's more factors that are in place with that," he said.
The main issue that will determine a move is how much other states offer, and how customers around the nation will react to Connecticut gun makers in the aftermath of the ban. The local firearms firms, including the Colt companies, worry that sales will fall if gun owners — a famously cantankerous bunch — boycott Connecticut brands. Federal law requires all firearms to have the location of their manufacture prominently stamped on the product, and many gun rights advocates don't want "CT" on their firearms.
"We have seen a slowdown," Malkowski said. "We're not sure if it's 100 percent affected by that."
The slowdown, however, is judged from a very brisk pace that was strong throughout 2012 and gained more speed after the Newtown tragedy, with the threat of bans. Malkowski said he's able to make just more than 6,000 rifles a month, and has an eight-month backlog of orders.
The new rifles could be shipped by the end of this month, and among the first buyers is John Napierski, co-owner JOJO's Gun Works in Southington, who ordered a few dozen. It was Napierski who sold the first-ever Stag rifle, after Malkowski founded the company in part to advance his innovation of firearms for people who aim with their left eye and shoot with their left forefinger.
"There's a lot of buzz about the new products coming out from Stag," Napierski said. His store previously depended on rifles that are now banned for about 40 percent of its business, but that's been made up, he said, with custom gunsmithing. Some stores that don't have such a specialty are suffering.
Spirit of the Law
Some people who support the law are critical of Malkowski's newest effort.
"If people are going to try to design around what the ban is, then that's violating the spirit of the law and clearly by their own statements, that's what they're doing," said Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. "If this law had not been passed, would they be designing this weapon?"
Opponents of the law, and some who support it, say that any manufacturer's modifications to meet new rules are just plain Yankee ingenuity.
Another possible variation is a version that saws off the pistol grip. That would make the gun legal in Connecticut because the ban affects firearms that are semi-automatic, with detachable magazines and one or more military features, such as the pistol grip or a flash suppressor at the end of the barrel.
On April 4, when Malloy signed the bill, Malkowski showed me a sawed-off version of an AR-15 in his office. On Thursday, he was coy about whether he'll build one of those. "We have a lot of things in development, always," he said.
There might be some question about the legality of the redesigned version if it's easily converted back to an illegal model. But that can't happen, Malkowski said, because the .22-caliber model lacks the gas pressure system that makes a gun with larger rounds semi-automatic.
It is semi-automatic, meaning that it fires immediately with every pull of the trigger, based on a "blowback" mechanism using the gun's recoil. Replacing the new bolt carrier with a traditional one would allow an owner to fire larger bullets, but not with semi-automatic action.
I'm in the group that thinks this is all good Yankee ingenuity because, after all, the law did not necessarily ban the most deadly weapons out there — it banned the ones that have the menacing features found on assault rifles, such as pistol grips, combined with the more powerful rounds.
Here you have two identical guns in look, features and function, one of them apparently legal because it uses a smaller caliber bullet — even though some guns that are semi-automatic, with detachable magazines and much larger, .308-caliber rounds, are still legal in Connecticut simply because they don't have a pistol grip.
Malkowski doesn't even consider the new version an AR-15 at all. As proof, he heads to a back room and takes out yet another model that looks and feels like his regular line of banned firearms — except that it has an orange tip and fires tiny plastic pellets. He licensed another company to make it a few years ago.
"It's a toy," Malkowski said, "but some people in law enforcement use it for training."
The latest, .22-caliber version is definitely not a toy, but it's just as surely not a weapon that Malloy and lawmakers intended to ban. It only looks like one.