Community groups push back against plan for gun shop in Spring Garden area

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A proposal to open a gun shop near Philadelphia’s Spring Garden Street is confronting a growing resistance from neighbors and community groups.

The plan calls for selling weapons inside an existing shooting range, and the city’s zoning board intends to debate the proposition Wednesday.

The Rev. Leslie Callahan was among area residents and gun-control advocates who held a small rally around the site over the weekend to direct attention to something that might have otherwise gone unnoticed: a variance application by the operator of the shooting range.

Callahan is the pastor at St. Paul’s Baptist Church, about 450 feet away from the range.

“We don’t want to be the point of entry for additional guns on the streets of Philadelphia,” Callahan said. “The other piece of this is that site was a site where a lot of straw purchasing went on previously.”

Colosimo’s, a gun shop that once operated near the shooting range seeking the variance, was shut down by federal authorities in 2009 over sales to straw purchasers — those who buy guns for someone else, often to traffic the weapon on the underground market.

Callahan, who has no proof the new store would feed the illegal trade, said she doesn’t want to leave it to chance.

“I don’t buy the idea that someone whose job, or whose livelihood, is selling guns, is most concerned with where the guns end up,” she said.

Yuri Zalzman, who operates the shooting range, said there’s “tremendous demand” among his shooting range customers to purchase guns. Over the last three years, around 25,000 customers have fired at the range, he said.

It’s a fallacy that gun sellers attract thugs and felonious residents, Zalzman said. Instead, many of his customers are veterans, members of law enforcement and shooting hobbyists.

“If you were a criminal, I’d stay away from an area where guns are sold. By implication, the people in that area are going to be armed,” he said.

Plus, he said, refusing to sell people bullets and guns is something he would do regularly, if he had reason to believe the forearms would be put to illicit use.

Pennsylvania requires gun buyers to pass state and federal background checks, including a check on mental health records.

Differences of opinion

Some area residents and passers-by, such as Calvin Taylor, are in favor of the gun shop opening.

The professional bouncer, who was riding an Indego bike along Spring Garden, said he has a license to carry a gun.

“I’m carrying right now. I go to the shooting range all the time, and I actually asked them to open the shop myself,” Taylor said.

Another area resident, Graham Wolfe, has lived around the corner from the proposed gun shop for eight years. After seeing a lot of businesses come and go, he said a gun seller wouldn’t unsettle him.

“I can go buy a car. There’s a million things you can buy to hurt somebody. I can go buy a baseball bat,” said Wolfe, a personal trainer.

“I think a lot of people seek outrage with the situation, and rightfully so, because people are dying at the hands of individuals who have weapons. But I really think it’s more so about how are people getting weapons, not where are people getting weapons.” 

Many others, though, have grave concerns. A dozen civic associations from neighborhoods across the city sent letters urging the zoning board to reject the plan.

“The Spring Garden community has been undergoing a dramatic revitalization for many years; however, we still suffer from the plague of drug dealing and violent crime, much of which is carried out with guns.

“Indeed, most of our known neighborhood drug dealers carry guns; and they do not hesitate to use them,” wrote Justino Navarro of the Spring Garden Civic Association to the zoning board. “We are working hard to root out drugs and crime in our community, and the last thing we need is a nearby gun shop, to more conveniently arm the drug dealers.”

Callahan agreed. In a city where more than 1,000 people are shot and nearly 300 die every year from gun shots, another seller could only exacerbate street violence, she said.

“I don’t think those individuals go home at night and say to themselves, ‘I am the cause of senseless violence,’ they don’t sit down at table with their families thinking about that. But they also vehemently and consistently oppose the things that keep that from happening,” Callahan said.

That includes measures such as videotaping customers buying guns, she said.

A matter of zoning

Now, the matter in front of the zoning board has more to do with the technicalities of city law than gun-purchasing regulations.

In Philadelphia, gun shops are permitted only in industrial neighborhoods. But the one in question is an increasingly residential area that is zoned commercial.

There isn’t a specific zoning category for firing ranges, only one for “gun shops,” which Zalzman’s site secured in the ’80s. He plans to argue that his proposed store should be grandfathered in.

The city is expected to counter that a gun shop in that neighborhood is not allowed under existing rules. Among them, that a gun shop can’t be within 500 feet of a residential district.

Bryan Miller, whose group Heeding God’s Call organized the rally opposing the gun shop, said what ever the zoning board decides, this is likely just the beginning of the fight.

“That’s why we are continuing to build opposition to the gun shop,” Miller said. “And, we will continue to, and, frankly, shine a light on it. “

Plan Philly’s Jared Brey contributed reporting  to this story.

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