New Britain — Mark Malkowski celebrates 10 years in business May 1. Under other circumstances, he might expect the governor to drop by to celebrate the unlikely story of the local kid who opened a factory at age 24 in a city desperate for jobs.
That’s not going to happen.
Malkowski, now a boyish 34, is president of Stag Arms, a company located in a complex of unmarked buildings. Its only products are a line of black semiautomatic rifles that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants to make illegal to sell and difficult to possess in Connecticut.
The rifles are Malkowski’s version of the AR-15, the weapon Adam Lanza used to kill 20 first-graders and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a matter of minutes on Dec. 14.
“What happened there was the worst thing I could ever conceive in my life, and it was a such a horrible tragedy,” said Malkowski, the father of two, ages 1 and 3. “My family lives here. I want a safe Connecticut.”
But the reality is Sandy Hook is good for business, at least over the short term.
Sales spikes are the awkward byproduct of every gun-violence tragedy, every political development that leads to the suspicion that the hottest-selling rifle in America might be banned.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 produced a strong year for Stag in 2009, when its young chief executive bought a mountaintop home in Avon from the chief executive of a larger and older concern, Aetna. The price: $3.4 million.
People want what they can’t have. They flock to buy what might become unavailable. So, every time politicians talk about banning the AR-15, sales go crazy.
With overtime for its workforce of about 200 employees, Stag now produces 300 rifles a week, 6,000 a month and 72,000 a year, priced at $895 and up. It’s not enough. Stag has a two-year backlog, and some of its models are priced at $2,000 on the re-sale market.
“I mean, we get peaks and lows all the time. This is nothing that –”
Malkowski pauses for a moment.
“We’d rather just be steady. This is nothing we wish for.”
Sales dipped in 2010, but Malkowski says they jumped 30 percent in 2011 and another 60 percent in 2012.
In a business built on swagger and machismo, Malkowski comes across more as a softspoken engineer than soldier of fortune. In creating Stag, he said, he gave no thought to the contentious political history around AR-15s, including state and federal efforts to ban them.
Connecticut passed an assault weapons ban in 1993, when Malkowski was 14. It banned some rifles by brand, others by characteristics. Malloy would ban the sale of any semiautomatic rifle with one “military characteristic,” such as a pistol grip, flash suppressor or bayonet lug.
Even before Malloy’s proposal last week, the industry was preparing to raise jobs as a defense against broader gun controls. Malkowski and Stag Arms will be part of that story, as will more recognizable names, such as Colt, Sturm Ruger and Mossberg.
According to testimony submitted to the legislature by an industry trade group, firearms and ammunition generated $1.7 billion in economic activity in Connecticut last year, employing nearly 2,900 residents and supporting another 4,400 positions in related businesses.
“The tension is real, and it’s going to be there,” said Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the Commerce Committee.
LeBeau is a supporter of gun control measures, including a ban on large-capacity ammo magazines, such as the 30-round magazines that come standard with every Stag rifle. They are made in New Britain by Ammunition Storage Components, one of Stag’s suppliers.
“I don’t think we’re trying to destroy the industry, just as we’re not trying to destroy the Second Amendment,” LeBeau said. “I think we would look at this culturally. Look at what we did on cars. We put in seatbelts. We put in airbags. We made them safer with reasonable regulation. I don’t think we put Detroit out of business.”
But there is no airbag or seatbelt to make an AR-15 safer. A ban would outlaw Stag’s entire product line in Connecticut.
Should the impact on jobs figure into the debate?
“Should is a very interesting question. Does it? I think it has to be considered,” said House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “You consider it, but it doesn’t dominate the process.”
Connecticut invented the modern firearms industry, a piece of history Malloy has tried to preserve with his support for the repurposed Colt factory complex in Hartford.
Malloy has been to the Colt complex to lead the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on a tour, climbing narrow stairs up to its iconic blue dome, touting its role in producing the “Peacemaker,” the six-shooter that tamed the West.
But the AR-15 also is part of the Colt legacy.
A designer named Eugene Stoner created the “AR platform,” a reference to a versatile system of interchangeable components common to the semiautomatic AR-15 and the military’s automatic versions, the M-16 and M-4.
Stoner designed the lightweight new rifle for ArmaLite — the AR designation is derived from the company name, not assault rifle. It sold the design to Colt, which convinced the military to adopt the M-16 as the standard infantry rifle of the Vietnam War.
With the patent long since expired, other companies began manufacturing their own semiautomatic versions for law-enforcement and sporting use. Bushmaster manufactured the rifle used by Lanza.
In 2003, Malkowski developed a model geared to left-handed shooters, an entry into a growing civilian market developed by the firearms industry with decades of heavy marketing. Standard semiautomatics eject spent cartridge casings to the right, subjecting lefties like Malkowski to hot brass that flies across their field of vision, sometimes tumbling into open shirt collars.
“For us, it was our foot in the door,” Malkowski said, talking about his early approaches to distributors and retailers. “We’d send them the lefty, because it was something they didn’t have on their shelves, it wasn’t available at all. Pretty quickly they were impressed with the quality and the service they received from us.”
Only 20 percent of his weapons are lefties.
His weapons get good reviews in the trade press. They are machined by Stag from solid pieces of aircraft-grade aluminum forged by Bourdon Forge in Middletown.
Malkowski had a family advantage. His father owns Continental Machine Tool, which already was a supplier of components to other firearms companies, including Colt in West Hartford and Smith & Wesson in Springfield.
He developed the lefty AR-15 while working for his father after graduating from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, but he soon felt the need to launch his own company, for personal fulfillment and family peace.
“Having an entrepreneurial spirit and working for an entrepreneur doesn’t always work out,” Malkowski said, smiling when asked about his decision to leave Continental. “I think my father was happy, too. We have a very peaceful Thanksgiving now.”
Stag operates out of a complex stretched along John Downey Drive, a street named for a local hero, the CIA agent from New Britain who served 20 years in a Chinese prison after being captured trying to extract an agent in 1952. Malkowski now owns four buildings, giving him 120,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
“I’d love to be under one roof,” he said, but only if the right building became available. “I don’t want to leave New Britain.”
Continental is his neighbor. Malkowski said Stag is its biggest customer.
Follow Mark Pazniokas on Twitter @CTMirrorPaz