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Taxpayers Rescue The Gun

Civilian versions of the AR-15, with the pleasant-sounding name "The Sporter," were available almost from the start. In fact, Colt rolled out the Sporter in January 1964, even before its first M-16 delivery to the Army.

But it would be decades before sales of Sporters and copycat brands would take off. A cultural revolution had to happen first, and it would take nearly 30 years.

The best time and place from which to examine the fate of the AR-15 is the morning of March 28, 1990, at the historic Colt armory in Hartford. On that day, Colt ended a bitter, four-year strike by United Auto Workers employees with a triumphant parade back into the factory.

The company was reeling not only from the strike, but also from the loss of the Army M-16 contract two years earlier. Some hoped the AR-15 Sporter might put Colt back in the game. At the very least it was part of the company's rebuilding strategy, a plan that didn't come cheaply.

To end the strike and save 1,200 jobs, the state had brokered a deal. Colt Firearms, part of a sprawling parent company called Colt Industries that would be reborn as Colt's Manufacturing Co., would be owned by the union, managers, private investors and the state itself — which kicked in $25 million from the public employees' pension fund.

The new Colt was in position to benefit from large-scale, commercial sales of the Sporter. Not only was the strike over, but a year earlier, a school shooting in Stockton, Calif., had led to a ban on imports of AK-47s and other military-style weapons.

Colt voluntarily suspended sales of the Sporter to the public after the Stockton shooting, and that created an angry backlash from some in the gun world. Other companies, including Smith & Wesson, would feel the same pressure over the next decade: Appear to compromise, and pay the price.

The new Colt quickly introduced the Sporter with several variations — ensuring that taxpayer money was being used to help sell military-style weapons to the public. Francisco Borges, then the state treasurer, didn't like the idea, but went along to protect the company's 1,200 jobs.

"I used to fight with Frank," recalled Tony Autorino, the Wethersfield investor and former United Technologies Corp. executive who led the complex deal creating the new Colt. "He would say 'Well geez, what are we doing? We're making [guns],' and I would say 'Frank, it's a gun company.'"

Civilian sales were not huge, but they were growing. In 1990, Colt Firearms didn't even see the need to patent it, a decision some in the company would later regret.

"Colt corporate management decided for a period of 10 years that patents weren't worth taking out," said the retired company engineer, who asked for anonymity. "And it was a big mistake."

That year, 1990, Colt's Manufacturing Co. made 36,000 AR-15s that were not for export or military use. All other companies combined made about the same number, according to federal records and surveys by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Colt's needed to ramp up to save itself. Sales of the AR-15 were there for the taking. Military-style weapons had burst into the public consciousness in movies, including the Rambo series, TV's "Miami Vice," increasingly violent computer games and images from U.S. invasion of Iraq in Desert Storm.

And the gun itself was now more accurate and more reliable. The U.S. Marines, using Colt's new version (the M-16 A2), started to compete in civilian target-shooting events.

"Within nine months of the first production of the M-16 A2 in '83, there were at least three companies making components that copied the design," the former engineer said. "The older generation of people, who didn't believe anything was really a gun unless it was made of steel and walnut, started to disappear, and they were replaced by younger people. ... Someone would buy one of these, bring it to the range and say 'This thing really works well.'"

Colt's dominated the market for the next several years, with AR-15 production rising to 48,000 in 1995. But many, perhaps most. of those guns were sold to law enforcement agencies, not civilians. Any hope of capturing a future market was thwarted by the company's 1992 bankruptcy and reorganization two years later.

Ultimately, the Sporter simply wasn't a priority. "We were so used to dealing with the military and police with that type of weapon, that a lot of the Colt people didn't think of it" as a potential blockbuster, said a former longtime Colt's executive.

"The problem was we needed to retool and regroup the company," Autorino said, "and the Sporter was, quite frankly, almost a pain."

It was a "pain" not only because of the military-style weapons controversy in Congress and state legislatures. With so many parts interchangeable, gun enthusiasts would devise and sell kits for converting the Sporter into a machine gun, illegally. That angered the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and led to an expensive "cat-and-mouse game," according to the former engineer.

"We would find out about it and we would design something to prevent it from happening," then people would find a way around the design, he said.

The federal ban on semi-automatic, military-style "assault weapons" from 1994 to 2004 stoked demand like nothing else, and other companies stepped up with redesigned versions that met the strict, new definition of allowable rifles. Several states, including Connecticut, have kept the ban in place, forcing manufacturers to assemble separate "Connecticut versions" of the AR-15.

Connecticut adopted a ban in 1993 and Colt's fought hard to stop it, then as now saying it would be ineffective, then as now saying hundreds of jobs could be at stake. and at the state Capitol, the leaders included then-state Reps. Martin Looney and Mike Lawlor — who are still leading the charge today, Looney as senate majority leader, Lawlor as the governor's chief of criminal justice.

Colt's, however, had a new plan for the AR-15, far bigger than chasing sales to civilians: The M-4 carbine, a shorter variant of the AR-15, designed for urban warfare, became the version all the other companies copied. Colt's never stopped selling Sporters to the public, but it would be up to other companies to lead the revolution., Site News Today\\\'s world Presenting Daily News Latest News and Latest Regarding News Politics, Business, Sports Up Celebrity Gossip.

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