While gun rights have increased in many states, it’s no secret that several others are hostile to firearms. Nevertheless, tough and resilient retailers still keep their doors open despite burdensome and downright confusing regulations that govern everything from specific firearms features to outright bans.
So how does the shooting sports store stay in business in enemy territory? We take a look at some of the most difficult retail environments and speak with those who know how to survive and threat in a firearms hostile state.
NJ: The Guarded State
Pennsylvania resident Shaneen Allen, a single mom with two children, works two jobs and is often out at a late hour. She was robbed twice in 2013, and after consulting with some friends, she decided that she should take steps to protect herself. She completed a gun safety course, applied for a concealed carry permit and purchased a gun. All reports agree that this was all completed in an entirely forthright and legal manner.
In October of that year, she made what was to be a tragic decision: She drove from her home in Philadelphia into New Jersey. The simple act of crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey turned out to have consequences that bid fair to ruin her life. After a police officer detained her vehicle for making an alleged traffic violation, she cooperated fully in his request for her driver’s license, the vehicle registration and proof of insurance.
Then, Allen did something that changed the course of her life in mere moments: Acting in accordance with her concealed carry training, she informed the police officer that she had a CCW permit and had her firearm with her. She was promptly arrested, and the prosecutorial forces in New Jersey are now preparing to throw the book at her and incarcerate her for at least three years as a felon.
“Allen’s case illustrates an essential truth of gun control,” TheNewAmerican.com quoted an NRA Institute of Legislative Action source as saying. “By all accounts, [Allen] acted in good faith, unaware she was violating an unusual and totally arbitrary prohibition. Yet all that is irrelevant to the State of New Jersey, which is willing to ruin not just her life but the life of her two young children, to demonstrate just how unwelcome firearms are in the state.”
NY: The Imperial State
In January 2012, Indiana resident, CCW holder and former Marine Ryan Jerome was sightseeing in New York City, and one of his stops was the Empire State Building. When he got there, he did what he knew was the responsible and ethical thing to do: He approached a security guard and inquired as to where he should check his firearm.
In response, the security officer called the police, and Jerome spent the next two days in jail. After a couple of months of activity on both the defendant’s and prosecution’s parts, Jerome finally agreed to a plea bargain that avoided the at-least three years of jail time that an indictment and conviction would have meant. Instead he pled guilty to a misdemeanor weapons possession charge, which carried with it 10 days of community service and a $1,000 fine — all for being honest and forthcoming.
CA: The Coldest State
The year was 1970, and young Michael Merritt — now of Bakersfield, California — got into some trouble with the law. By his account, it was a marijuana possession charge, he never pled guilty, and he spent five weekends in jail. To the best of his knowledge, according to reports, the charge is no longer on the books.
Flash forward some decades, to November 2013. Merritt was at home, and state law enforcement officers came to his residence, apparently acting under the 2001-enacted California Armed and Prohibited Persons Systems program. The officers confiscated Merritt’s 18 firearms, citing the “1970 felony” that was reputedly under the code of 11910 in Los Angeles (the reporting news agency apparently tried, unsuccessfully, to find that designation in the penal code).
Within days, Merritt’s guns were returned; the agency admitted in the media that it had all been an error, and that the case in point had been reduced to a misdemeanor. Commenting on the program, Merritt was critical, stating: “I think if you’re going to do this, you need to get down and get dirty. Go find the guys that are robbing banks and killing people, and take their guns from them.”
All of these individuals have one mistake in common, a mistake shared by a great many others. They either reside in, or visited, locations behind enemy lines.
It’s no secret that the different states within our United States have varying attitudes toward gun ownership from each other, ranging from very accepting (like Arizona) to downright hostile (like New York; see sidebar “A Ranking of Firearm Friendliness”). For those retailers who operate on what many might consider the wrong side of that line, some of their daily experiences are often as one might expect.
“One of the toughest parts of selling in New Jersey,” says Manny Cerca of The Bullet Hole in Belleville, “is meeting all the requirements they keep laying on us.”
This can take any of a number of forms, from required paperwork, to staying abreast of allowed versus disallowed models, legal versus illegal means of product display, and much more.
“In one example,” Cerca recalls, “we inquired of the state police if a specific firearm model was compliant with state laws. At the time, they told us that it was. But then two years later they reversed themselves and said no. We reminded them that they’d originally said it was fine, but to no avail. The state police are on target three-quarters of the time, but the other times they kind of leave you dangling.”
“The paperwork and bound book requirements are definitely cumbersome,” adds Jim Kromka, who partners with Sam Palumbo in operating Kromka Sporting Adventures in their northern New Jersey facility. They describe it as a “boutique shop” specializing in high-end shotguns and rifles, and offering custom services in guided hunts to a wide variety of locations.
“New Jersey is one of the last states to require manual, rather than electronic, bound book sales records, and it’s very easy to make a mistake due to simple human error,” says Kromka.
California retailers face similar burdens, according to Patrick Kittle of Kittle’s Outdoor and Sport in Colusa.
“It’s tough keeping up with all the paperwork,” Kittle agrees. “Dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, everything the feds and state require. And California keeps trying to show the way for the rest of country. Plus this represents added costs, for the extra paper, ink, additional copies … it’s necessary for us to audit ourselves before any of the enforcement agencies show up.”
Even as simple a task as buying advertising space or time can present a challenge when the prevailing atmosphere is one of hostility.
“It’s almost impossible to get advertising,” states Anthony Colandro from his state-of-the-art facility Gun For Hire in Woodland Park, New Jersey. “Print or TV, it’s almost impossible. We depend a lot on word of mouth and social media … even though Facebook does not allow us to boost posts. (See sidebar: Forget Facebook Boosting).
“We also engage in a lot of philanthropic and community activities to help get our image out there, things like donating memberships or gift baskets, speaking for Second Amendment organization events, and we don’t say no to any fundraisers.”
New York is another state that frowns on gun ownership, and this attitude was made especially clear with the passage of the SAFE Act in early 2013. Tom Sweezey at Camp-Site in Huntington Station also spoke to us about selling firearms in that state.
“Learning all the rules and regulations of firearms here,” he says, “and keeping them all together, it isn’t easy. You almost have to be a lawyer before you can be a retailer.”
An important aspect of any firearms business is the ongoing interaction between the retail outlet and the local legal environment — both municipal authorities and law enforcement — and most sources agree that staying on good terms is absolutely critical.
“We haven’t had any real problems,” observes Cerca, whose store has been in place for more than three decades. “But other towns often resent new stores and make it hard for them to open up, often denying them licenses.”
In fact, most retailers reported good relations with local law enforcement, which makes sense if you consider that most police officers will need a retail source for firearms and other related accessories.
“We have no problems at all,” says Colandro, whose facility opened just a couple of years ago. “In fact, during the initial hearings surrounding the opening of our new store, local police appeared and spoke in favor of the business. And since then, the town has really embraced us.”
“We’ve found local authorities to be extremely cooperative,” Kittle observes of his 15 years in business. “Many of them are hunters; they understand and are very cooperative.”
Sweezey likewise reported few difficulties with law enforcement, but there can be the occasional rough spot.
“Our close proximity to New York City can sometimes cause some interesting things,” he told us. “One needs a permit to bring a firearm into New York City. A few years ago we sold a firearm to someone with property in Arizona where he was intending to keep it, but we had on file his New York City address, and it turned out that he hadn’t brought the firearm to Arizona yet. We ended up having to make a full refund.”
Dealing With The Feds
Regulatory authorities with whom all American dealers must interact include, of course, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Justice. A few retailers do not feel that they’re being treated any differently than their brethren in states like, say, Vermont or Arizona, but others have shared some misgivings with us.
Kromka says that they haven’t had any problems with federal inspectors, but admits to some anxiety.
“They come once a year,” he told us, “but haven’t been here for any spot checks. It can make you nervous; there’s a lot of accumulated paperwork that can build up, and we’ve been told that they sometimes bust your chops over things you might not expect, things like using two different colors of ink.”
“It’s always aggravating when the feds come,” said Sweezey, “but on the whole our experiences have not been unfavorable. I’ve noticed, though, with the advent of computers and such, that they seem to want to trace every gun that they find, and to comply we sometimes have to search back through years of paperwork.”
And Kittle’s store?
“We’ve had unpleasant experiences with audits,” he admitted. “Threats have been made to us by agents. And being here in California didn’t help.”
Dealing with the press also has the potential to be sticky and potentially damaging, and different retailers have their ways of staying out of trouble. One approach is to simply lay low.
“We haven’t had any interactions at all so far,” Kromka says. “We keep a low profile — we’re only open by appointment — and we try to stay out of the public eye.”
It’s not unusual for the media to contact local firearms retailers when some tragedy occurs, and of course it’s always best to be ready for that call.
“Sometimes the press calls us after a crazy shooting,” says Sweezey, “but we generally decline to comment.”
Colandro, however, is more forthcoming.
“When tragedy strikes, they call,” he smiled. “And when they do, I give them my opinion. I will say that the reporting in the smaller local papers have been largely favorable to us.”
But occasionally the press can be capable of perpetrating real problems, as Kittle reports.
“The Department of Justice came in once on a raid, focusing on some straw purchase events. They’d called the liberal media from Oakland, who arrived at the same time as the DOJ. This was within the first few years of our time here, so I let them in. They took pictures and ending up twisting the story that finally came out.”
Kittle also found, like Colandro, that not all news outlets are the same.
“The local media is fine,” he added. “Some of their reporters like to hunt and shoot.”
Keep Calm And Carry On
There several things that retailers operating in hostile territory can do to stay out of legal trouble and keep bad PR at bay. Sweezey says that he likes to have a local law enforcement officer on his part-time staff.
“It’s good to know the local people,” he says, “especially law enforcement … and little extra donations here and there are good too.”
Colandro also makes it a point to stay in touch with his colleagues who own and run other gun stores in the region.
“It’s good to have a rapport with other ranges in the area,” he points out. “We can help each other out.”
It can be easy to hunker down, settle in to a siege mentality, and continue doing business under less than optimal conditions in these locales on the wrong side of the political boundaries. But some believe that things can and will change, causing new winds to blow through some of these oppressed lands.
“More and more people are getting involved,” Cerca states emphatically, pointing out that the more civil liberties get curtailed or removed, the deeper the aggregate frustration gets.
Colandro expresses a similar sentiment, suggesting that the more one forbids an activity, the more attractive it becomes.
“If you tell people, especially affluent people, that they can’t do something, they will find a way to do it anyway,” he observed.
“The fact is,” Cerca continues, “more and more people don’t trust the government. People are beginning to open their eyes; the ongoing oppression continues to fuel more interest. And the politicians simply aren’t seeing the picture.”