Guns in the City

John Monson owns Bill’s. He bought it from the original owner in 2003, and purchased another shop in Circle Pines last year. Monson looks like he’s in his early twenties, but is thirty-seven, and is dressed just like his employees. He’s tall and slim and his light hair is cut military short. He carries a small automatic on his left hip. Except for the many weapons certification diplomas on the wall behind him and a large safe which opens to reveal a machine gun and several other fully automatic weapons, his office is like any other executive’s: photographs of his wife and children on the top of a file cabinet, a computer screen displaying an Excel spreadsheet on the corner of the desk.

Monson was poring over the figures from his three-day “Spring Shooters Show” which concluded April 2. More than four thousand people came through the two stores on those three days, and more than two thousand people shot firearms. Upwards of a hundred thousand rounds of ammunition were expended. “No one was hurt and there was no conflict,” he noted proudly. He wouldn’t say how many guns were sold over the weekend, but the showroom display cases were packed on Friday morning and sparsely filled by Sunday evening. The new Springfield XD 45 pistol, which was the cover girl of April’s Guns and Ammo and Combat Handgun magazines, sold out by Saturday noon. More had to be rushed over from the distributor to satisfy the demand on Sunday.

The crowd at the show was an eclectic bunch. There were young kids and couples in their seventies. There were certainly more men than women, but there were enough women there to belie the macho image of the cliché gun enthusiast. As Monson said, “There isn’t a specific class of people who purchase guns. We have elementary school teachers, orthopedic surgeons, reverends, and even deaf and blind customers.” Blind? “Yes, they need some help to shoot; but they can do it.”

Bill’s has a lot of “blue collar” customers he added, but just as many “white collar.” He guessed that “the Republican demographic is heavier than the Democrat,” but, “in reality, our next customer is a guy whose neighbor or some acquaintance has had a crime in his life. Or his garage was broken into. And that reminds him that the criminal element is not that far away.”

Has there been an upsurge in purchases since the recent shootings in Uptown and Downtown? “We haven’t really noticed that,” he said, but opined it may be too early to tell yet. But, he added, sales jumped right after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. “People saw we were two days from anarchy. People saw the government couldn’t always protect you, and that sometimes you will have to protect yourself.”

Some people believe that stores like Bill’s are putting more guns on the streets, some of which invariably end up in the hands of criminals. Monson wouldn’t say precisely how many guns he’s sold in the past year, other than the number is in “the thousands.”

“There is a permit-to-purchase system in place. The state says it’s OK to purchase a handgun. The NCIC [the FBI-maintained National Crime Information Center] says OK. What more can we do?” But then he answered his own question: “Our sales guys have the authority to decline a sale at any time. We won’t sell a gun if we smell alcohol or chemical abuse, if we know there are gang ties, if we don’t like their behavior, or if we know it’s a ‘straw’ sale.” That happens when the purchaser—typically a woman who has a permit—comes in to get a gun, yet doesn’t know anything about guns or doesn’t particularly care what type of gun she buys. Often, she has to go out to the parking lot to ask the real purchaser the answer to a question asked by the salesperson. “Some get pissed when we refuse to sell them a gun,” said Monson. “But that’s too bad. We watch for straw purchases and will assist in prosecuting them.”

The store has good relations, Monson said, with the local police forces and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Many metro police departments train regularly at Bill’s. Indeed, when Monson and I were talking, a local SWAT officer was firing a fully automatic weapon in the adjacent rifle area of the range. Officers from the St. Paul office of ATF train at Monson’s Circle Pines range.

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