Arguments continue over Spring Garden shooting range’s right to supply and sell arms

Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment didn’t make a decision today over whether a gun shop can open in a shooting range close to Spring Garden Street, but the debate previewed what sorts of legal posturing is to come.

A central question raised during the three-hour hearing was whether Yuri Zalzman, who has operated the Gun Range the past three years, must apply for a variance in order to sell firearms from his shooting range.

That’s what most thought the meeting was about – reasonably so, given that it was billed as a variance hearing. But shortly into deliberations, Zalzman’s attorney, Dawn Tancredi, waived her right to seek a variance.

Some in attendance looked noticeably befuddled by Tancredi’s statement. It prompted the Board members and attorneys from both sides to meet in a corner of the room for a quick huddle to hash out how the hearing was going to move forward.

Then lots of technical arguing ensued.

The gist of Tancredi’s argument: The shooting range already has the right to retail guns, and the rebuttal offered by city officials: That’s not true. Selling guns entails applying for and successfully winning a new variance.

After the hearing Bryan Miller with Heeding God’s Call To End Gun Violence said he’s now more hopeful than ever that the gun shop will never open.

“They did a bait and switch and brought up some legal theories and constitutional theories. They don’t have a case on those, either. I think we’re closer to getting it done. I was hoping it would be today, but they’re not going to win this case.”

By way of background, Zalzman’s shooting range, under different ownership at the time, received a variance in 1985 to operate as a site in which customers can fire weapons at targets. There’s no specific zoning category for a shooting range in the code.

Being listed as a gun shop in the city gives a business the right to sell and lease “guns, firearms, or ammunition.”

Tancredi said because the old variance was technically an addition to the gun shop category, Zalzman already has the legal right to sell guns.

Not everyone bought that logic.

“I can have a speedway where you can race cars. That doesn’t give me the right to sell cars. It’s just that simple,” said longtime land use attorney Joseph Beller, who is representing some of the protesters.

Almost every gun range in Philadelphia also sells guns, Zalzman said. In an interview on Tuesday, he said the two operations fit well together.

“The simplest way to explain the sales of guns here would be, if you were to own an ice cream shop, and you were only to offer ice cream, but not offer any containers, no cones, no cups, nothing,” Zalzman said. “It’s a unified business.”

Why then did Zalzman apply for a permit from Licenses and Inspections to sell guns if he thought he could already do it?

He wouldn’t talk after the hearing, but at an interview at the shooting range he responded: “I’m not sure I can answer that. But I would say, vaguely, that I was instructed by the city to do so.”

Attorneys with the city said selling firearms means obtaining a separate variance, since retail activity would go beyond its current zoning status.

There even was some question as to whether Zalzman can sell bullets, which his firing range currently does, under its current zoning status.

Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, viewed the dispute as the gun lobby’s latest line of attack: trying to expand the sale of guns through local zoning boards, something she said that’s becoming increasingly widespread across the state.

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