At a notorious gun shop, the end of an era

Jeff Gammage - Philadelphia Inquirer - 09/30/2009  

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This week a small sign appeared on the front door of Colosimo's Gun Center, three handwritten words that said, "Closed for inventory."

A knock drew owner Jim Colosimo, nearly 80, a stogie pinched between his fingers.

"My attorney said not to talk about anything," he said, offering a polite goodbye.

But his gun shop, for decades a fixture on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia, wasn't merely closed - as of today it was officially out of business.

That's cause for joy or disappointment, depending on your view of gun sales.

If the firearms dealer wasn't quite a Philadelphia institution, its wares and operations lately reviled, it was nonetheless longstanding. Conveniently located a few blocks north of the Police Administration Building, and a few blocks east of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge, Colosimo's became the one-stop shopping source for city police officers during the 1960s and 1970s.

"The first gun I ever bought, I bought from Colosimo's, 43 years ago," said Michael Chitwood, superintendent of the Upper Darby Police Department and previously a city homicide detective. "My son, his first gun, my father bought him at Colosimo's."

Jim Colosimo closed the shop as part of a federal plea agreement last month over "straw" purchases, where a person with clean record legally buys a gun, then passes it to someone barred from making purchases, such as a convicted felon.

The store had been in business for so long, and in recent years survived such controversy over gun sales, that even those familiar with the business were surprised it would actually shut down.

"I don't think people thought it was possible in January, when they first sat out on the sidewalk," said Rob Stuart, a documentary film maker who followed antiviolence protests that were held outside the store. "Colosimo's has been a fixture in the gun trade in Philadelphia."

Long before the demonstrators took up residence, before Philadelphia streets became awash in blood and handguns, before the federal government sent informants inside to buy, Colosimo's was a well-known, respected business - and its owners part of the color of the city.

In the late 1960s, Jim Colosimo cruised to work on a Honda 450 motorcycle, boasting of its fun and convenience at a time when people thought only Hell's Angels rode bikes.

He and his brother, Dominic, identified motorcycles as the next big thing and started Colosimo's Honda Sales Inc.

Dominic was politically connected, a close friend of Frank Rizzo, involved not just in the gun and motorcycle trade but in a food company and a Florida restaurant. Rizzo made sure that Colosimo became treasurer of the Democratic City Committee, and appointed him to the city Planning Commission.

It was Jim Colosimo who in 1970 proved the adage that every dog has its day - in Common Pleas court.

It started when neighbors sued Colosimo over what they said was the constant, late-night barking of his dog, a German Shepard named Misty.

On the day of the trial, Colosimo brought Misty into the courtroom. That way, he said, the dog could show she was well-mannered and quiet, barking only to scare off burglars.

The 9-month-old pup followed the testimony with what The Inquirer described as dogged resignation, and didn't bark once during the half-hour trial.

Case dismissed.

By that time, Colosimo's 9th and Spring Garden store was thriving, the place for police to get guns and gear.

One reason officers flocked to the store was they had few choices; there weren't many gun shops back then. Another was that Colosimo treated officers special, offering discounts and outfitting their guns with custom grips.

If a cop got into trouble and was fired, Colosimo would give him a job at the store, veteran officers recalled. That way the officer had money coming in while he filed an appeal to get his job back.

Not everybody liked the place. Some thought the premises tight, dark and unwelcoming. And, over time, as the city became more violent and the body count rose, people began to worry about guns that seemed easy to get.

Twenty percent of all guns recovered at Philadelphia crime scenes were originally bought at Colosimo's, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The heat was on.

In 2003, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranked Colosimo's as the nation's fifth-worst gun dealer, as rated by guns traced to crimes. Last year, in a legal filing, City Solicitor Shelley Smith wrote that, "Colosimo's values profits over the lives of others."

This year the demonstrations started.

Twelve activists from the interfaith group Heeding God's Call were arrested in January, charged with conspiracy, defiant trespassing, disorderly conduct, and obstructing a highway.

Their defense? They committed the lesser crime of trespassing to prevent the larger crime of gun-related bloodshed.

In May, the defendants were acquitted of all charges at trial. The protests continued - even as officials dedicated a historical marker to honor Milton Hershey, the chocolate king whose first candy business failed at the same Spring Garden address a century before.

Meanwhile, the ATF moved to revoke Colosimo's license to sell guns. And last month the U.S. Attorney's Office charged the firm with knowing, or having reason to believe, that it sold to straw buyers.

"I'm the martyr, because I've been in the business the longest," Colosimo said in an interview for "Heat," the film being made by Stuart. "It's not the way I'd like to go out, but I'm tired. I want to retire."

Colosimo may have planned to retire, but the fact is that the federal plea agreement formally put him out of business today.

ATF officials said Colosimo planned to sell his inventory to another, licensed dealer. Scores of other dealers operate in the region.

The closure followed Colosimo's guilty plea on Monday, entered on behalf of his business, to federal charges of making false statements and failing to properly maintain firearms-transaction records.

The agreement stipulated that the company's firearms license would be revoked. The store cannot seek a new license, nor can Colosimo apply as an individual.

Chitwood, the former Philadelphia cop, recalled returning to the area in 2005 after 17 years as a police chief in Maine, and being surprised by the change at Colosimo's.

"It became a center for these straw purchases," he said. The sometimes deadly results make it hard to feel sentiment over the closing.

"One less," Chitwood said, "in the world of gun trafficking."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.