The manufacturer of the leading American-made assault rifle has quietly resumed production of the semiautomatic weapon after a voluntary one-year halt prompted by public concern over the use of such guns in crimes.
Federal officials said that a new version of the AR-15 reached gun-store shelves in some states this week. The investors who acquired Colt Industries' firearms division last month decided to put the paramilitary rifle back on the market.
The redesigned rifle comes equipped with a smaller ammunition magazine than the original model--one of several modifications that the new owners say eliminated most assault weapon characteristics.
But outraged gun control advocates charged that the rifle is essentially unchanged. A Connecticut police chief bolstered that claim Wednesday, reporting that he easily attached a 30-cartridge clip to the new AR-15, known as the Colt Sporter.
"It looks the same and it acts the same," said Michael Green, a top official of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Assn. "It's basically the old gun with a new twist."
"There is no doubt that this gun is an assault weapon," said Sara Brady, who heads Handgun Control Inc. "I challenge Colt's new owners to act responsibility and immediately stop further production of this killing machine."
The Bush Administration last spring banned imports of most assault guns in response to the public outcry that followed the January, 1989, massacre at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif. Patrick Edward Purdy used an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle to gun down more than 30 people, killing five children and then himself.
Although Bush approved the ban on imports, he decided to permit continued production and sales in the United States. Only California moved to outlaw the weapons altogether.
Administration officials, who last March praised Colt's decision to take the AR-15 off the market, said Tuesday that they had been resigned to the fact that the new manufacturer would exercise its right to resume production of the popular rifle. They expressed relief that the maker had taken some steps to redesign the weapon.
The reappearance of the AR-15 has sparked a major controversy in Connecticut, where the state, through an employees' pension fund, owns about 47% of the new manufacturer Colt's Manufacturing Co.
After Handgun Control publicly denounced that arrangement, a spokesman for the Connecticut treasurer's office said Wednesday that the state had been assured the Colt Sporter was not an assault weapon. The spokesman said the state would consider selling its interest in the company if it had been misled.
Colt's Manufacturing president Richard F. Gamble was not available to comment Wednesday, an assistant said. Gamble was quoted in the Hartford Courant as saying that the new rifle was designed to be used by target shooters and hunters.
There is no single definition of an assault weapon, a problem that has long stymied efforts to legislate against them. In taking action against the AK-47, the Uzi and other foreign-made rifles, the Bush Administration enforced a law banning imports of weapons deemed to serve no legitimate sporting purpose.
But while a common definition is elusive, the guns have generally been distinguished from other semiautomatic weapons by their paramilitary design and large ammunition capacity--features that are of little use to sportsmen.
The AR-15, the most widely sold American-made assault weapon before it was pulled off the market last year, is modeled after the M-16 combat rifle used by the U.S. Army.
In its new guise, the AR-15 has been stripped of its bayonet mount and its standard 20-round ammunition magazine has been modified to hold no more than five rounds.
But federal officials and gun control advocates said the Colt Sporter has the same paramilitary appearance as the old AR-15. They also acknowledged that the weapon could still accept magazines of up to 90 rounds, which are available by mail order and at many gun stores.
"This is basically the same gun," said Green, the Connecticut police chief who examined the weapons Wednesday. When he removed the five-cartridge ammunition clip and tried to install a 30-round magazine, he said: "It snapped right in."
It was unclear Wednesday whether the modified AR-15 would be legal in California. The AR-15 is banned by name, but gun experts said the design change and new name might make the Sporter eligible to be sold in the state.
Handgun Control chief Brady, in Los Angeles, accused the gun-maker of seeking to circumvent the California law.
"The AR-15 is a cop-killer," she said. "The gun makers are once again putting profits ahead of public safety."