Monica Yant Kinney: In gun-shop showdown, neither side blinks

Monica Yant Kinney - Philadelphia Inquirer - 01/18/2009

The first time the Rev. Isaac Miller was arrested at a civil-rights protest, he was a Morehouse College student at the 1960 Atlanta sit-ins.

The second time was Wednesday, after the rector of Philadelphia's Church of the Advocate entered, then refused to leave, Colosimo's Gun Center on Spring Garden Street.

"My knees aren't what they used to be," Miller, 65, mentioned as he began to stand (rather than sit) in civil disobedience.

Activists want Colosimo's to join the fight against straw purchases - the wink-and-nod practice of legally buying guns in bulk, then illegally reselling them to bad guys.

Owner James Colosimo, 77, insists he has done nothing wrong. "I've been here 57 years," he told me. "My reputation speaks for itself."

Some reputation. Colosimo's "values profits over the lives of others," City Solicitor Shelley Smith wrote in a legal filing last year. "At best, Colosimo's knowingly continued its abysmally poor business practices after repeatedly being notified by ATF of its guns flowing into the hands of criminals. At worst, Colosimo's knowingly traffics in crime guns."

Several sit-downs between Colosimo and representatives from the multidenominational group Heeding God's Call led to no meeting of the minds, though Colosimo's wife was kind enough to serve coffee and cake. So beginning Wednesday, the activists staged protests and a rally, seeking attention and arrests.

"At the very least," said organizer Andy Peifer, "no straw buying will take place while we're there."

Wrongs and rights

Miller and Narberth's Rabbi Yitzhak Nates approached the store at 2 p.m. Jerome James, a 20-year Colosimo's employee, buzzed them in as he would any potential customer.

Only these strangers weren't shoppers. They came clutching a 10-point code of conduct.

Nates reminded Colosimo that Wal-Mart, the nation's largest firearms seller, had signed the code. Videotaping transactions and checking customers against a list of buyers with past crime-gun traces are just two ways an honest dealer could stop straw sales.

"You're opening me up to lawsuits," Colosimo insisted, pushing away the pesky pledge. "You're telling me to deprive people of their constitutional rights."

(Mayor Nutter's usual response to this argument: "I have a right not to be shot.")

What would Jesus do?

Colosimo is used to being beat up by politicians, but was clearly annoyed by the religious occupation.

"I'm Catholic. I don't know why my church is taking part in this," the gun dealer muttered. "If I don't like what's going on in my church, I don't sit on the steps stopping people from going to Mass."

"People are dying," replied activist Mimi Copp, 34. "We have to take bold steps and personal risks to address the violence."

After calling police, James buzzed Civil Affairs Capt. William Fisher into the store. Fisher said refusing to leave could lead to criminal trespassing charges and up to 36 hours in custody.

"You'll be standing," he warned, "next to murderers and rapists."

Melissa DeLong was unmoved.

"I'd rather leave in a paddy wagon," the 28-year-old activist said between sobs, "than see one more child in a coffin."

When cops outnumbered agitators by 3-1, Colosimo started scolding his righteous judgers.

"You will never end this," he told the protesters. "It started at the time of Christ, and it will go on until the world ends. People are going to live, die and be murdered."

At 3:15 p.m., police escorted the protesters into custody, where they would remain until 5 the next morning. Colosimo took me upstairs to his office, where he looked longingly at a photo of his house on the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida.

Colosimo swore he supported "sensible" laws, such as requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons, but conveniently forgot to mention he's suing Philadelphia for passing just such measures.

"I'm the victim here," Colosimo cried before leaving to file formal charges against his trespassers.

"I would like to retire. I'd sell the business tomorrow. But nobody wants the headache."

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney