by Lou Mancinelli
In August, when an 87-year-old Navy vet was murdered at his home on a family street in Cedarbrook by two teenagers the man did not know, a group of Northwest Philadelphia residents started talking.
They were more than aware of the prevalence of gun violence in the area. According to CeasefirePA, the state’s leading gun violence prevention organization, Philadelphia has more gun homicides than any other city in the nation, and Pennsylvania is a bigger source for crime guns recovered in New York City than the State of New York itself.
In the name of making what they say is valid social change, Chestnut Hill resident Bob Fles and other Northwest neighbors came together over the past few months to form Neighborhood Partners To End Gun Violence, a new group that will target gun shops as a way to reduce illegal gun sales in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The Partners will host a kickoff rally to introduce themselves and their mission and to meet other interested individuals from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13, at the First Presbyterian Church of Germantown at 35 W. Chelten Ave. There will be music, refreshments, speakers whose lives have been affected by gun violence and other groups like Germantown’s Every Murder Is Real (EMIR).
Neighborhood Partners will work directly with gun shop owners to reduce illegal gun sales, or straw purchasing (when an individual purchases a number of firearms and resells them on the street). In 2006, Philadelphia police confiscated more than 5,300 handguns from prohibited persons on city streets, according to Ceasefire.
Thus far, eight local churches and synagogues have joined the group, including Chestnut Hill United Church, Mishkan Shalom Synagogue and the Germantown Mennonite Church.
Fles said his group would ask gun shop owners to sign and adhere to a pledge to follow principles put forth in the Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership Agreement, drafted by the Mayors Against Illegal Gun Sales coalition.
That agreement seeks to uphold the Second Amendment, but holds accountable and punishes sellers and buyers of illegal guns, as well as to strengthens the city’s abilities to share tracing data. It calls for the videotaping of all gun sales transactions, employee background checks and forbids sales without background check results.
If a shop owner does not sign the pledge, “our organization and others like it will demonstrate at that shop and over a period of time bring public pressure and attention to the gun shop owner,” Fles said in a telephone interview last week.
“Reducing gun-trafficking is really our number one goal, not changing any laws [about the right to bear arms],” he said. “I wish there were stronger limitations, but we try to stay away from discussing that. If every gun shop owner would sign on, there would be no demonstration. We’re really just looking to make a valid social change.”
At first, Neighborhood Partners will work with one shop, Delia’s Gun Shop on Torresdale Avenue in the Northeast. If that shop signs on to the pledge, the organization will move on to one of the other half dozen or so gun shops in Philadelphia, Fles said. He noted there were none in the Northwest corridor.
In Pennsylvania, there are no state restrictions on gun trafficking, such as a limit on the number of handguns that can be purchased at one time. There is no state requirement that handgun buyers obtain a handgun license or undergo any type of safety training prior to buying a handgun.
State law also forbids local city or county governments from enacting any local gun laws, and there is no state requirement that gun owners register their firearms. Lastly, there is no state requirement for a waiting period for gun sales beyond the instant check in federal law.
In 2008, there were more than 5,000 firearms recovered from robberies that were traced to Philadelphia, compared to 994 to Pittsburgh, according to data from a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) 2008 firearms trace study.
Fles said there are many different approaches to take in the movement to reduce gun violence. Some groups work with victims, others with schools and local communities.
Members of Neighborhood Partners To End Gun Violence based much of their group’s model, and learned a lot about how to organize and catalyze action through a New Jersey-based group, Heeding God’s Call.
Heeding God’s Call is a faith-based initiative to prevent gun violence. In January 2009, a group of 12 of its members were arrested and charged on various misdemeanor and criminal offenses on trespass and conspiracy counts when they attempted to enter Colosimo’s Gun Center at 9th and Spring Garden Streets in center city Philadelphia to ask the owner to sign their Code of Conduct (identical to the document Fles’ group will use). The owner refused.
Their protests drew public attention that led federal authorities to revoke Colosimo’s firearms license in September 2009. The shop’s owner, James G. Colosimo, pleaded guilty that month in federal district court on behalf of the gun shop to charges that it had made false statements and had failed to maintain proper records involving the purchases of 10 firearms between Aug. 4, 2004, and April 18, 2007.
A 2009 Catholic Standard and Times article reported that, according to data from the ATF, Colosimo’s was one of five of the worst stores in the country in terms of firearms recovered from crimes.
A phone call made Jan. 7 to Colosimo’s old telephone number, 215-236-9292, was answered by Al Schulke, who now owns Al’s Lock and Load at 933 Spring Garden St., the same location of the former Colosimo’s. While the shooting range is still operating, no firearms are sold.
“Everything is the same, except [we don’t sell] the guns,” said Schulke, who said he expected to be approved for his license to sell firearms “in one or two months.”
In Pennsylvania, business owners must apply for a license to sell firearms through the County Sheriff, in this case, Philadelphia and the State Police.
If a previous owner at one location had its license revoked, that has no effect on a new owner’s ability to apply and be approved for a new license to sell.
“That would be like my buying a house where someone used to sell narcotics, and people assuming I was going to sell narcotics,” said Officer Jillian Russell with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Public Affairs Office. She said that whether or not Schulke applied for a license is not public information.
William Carter, director of legislative affairs for City Councilman Darrell Clarke, whose district includes the former Colosimo’s shop, said the councilman’s office was unaware that a new owner had acquired and opened a new store at the old Colosimo’s, when the Local spoke with him on Jan. 7.
Carter said Schulke might be able to apply for a license as of right because of the zoning of the location.
“Obviously, [another gun shop] is not something we want,” Carter said.
“Our ultimate goal is that every gun shop owner in southeastern Pennsylvania operates in a very responsible way,” Fles said.
“The alternative is doing nothing,” he said about the possibility that the concept of cutting out supply might not eliminate demand, and could spur black-market transactions. “How can we do nothing?” he asked. “It’s not just about our own neighborhood. You’re part of a bigger loop.”