Gun issues are at the forefront in Branford with two divergent events—the proposed formation of a Community Coalition for Responsible Gun Control, and the upcoming opening of a gun shop in the heart of town.
Frank Carrano, who chairs the Board of Education, is spearheading the organizational meeting of the Community Coalition in direct response to the Dec. 14 tragedy at Newtown that claimed the lives of 20 elementary school students and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Carrano is inviting interested parties to meet Monday at 7 p.m. at the Community House on Church Street. “I hope Monday night will be the beginning of a discussion to set goals to talk to legislators or to try to get some kind of local ordinance,” Carrano told the Eagle.
“It might be about gun control issues and what can be done…or what other things we might be able to do in town,” Carrano said in an interview. He said the local coalition may also look at school safety and mental health. “There are many elements to the issue,” he said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy this week named a 16-member Sandy Hook Advisory Commission to study issues of school safety, mental health and gun violence prevention. The commission is tasked with making specific recommendations to the legislators so that action can be taken this legislative year.
In the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, efforts are being made in other states and on the federal level to address gun control and mental health issues. Carrano said he hopes the Branford group can take their concerns to the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission and to state legislators.
Carrano said the coalition could also look at what shops are appropriate for the Town Center. He said he is concerned about a gun shop slated to open soon at 1156 Main St. near the Town Green. “It’s a concern of mine, having a gun shop so close to schools. As far as I know there’s no restriction on a shop that sells guns and ammunition so close to the high school and Sliney Elementary School. It’s something to discuss with the legislature,” he said.
The new gun store, originally to be named the Gun Stock, is owned by Michael Higgins and Brian Owens. The shop, which is now named TGS Outdoors, will open sometime this month. The owners discussed the store with the Eagle and said despite the negative reaction from some residents, they have received “overwhelming support” from others.
The shop, the former Arabella clothing store, is located about a block from the Green.
When asked about the upcoming coalition meeting regarding guns, the shop owners said they are concerned about responsible gun use. “Who wouldn’t be?” Higgins asked. “We’re not the bad guys here.”
Carrano said he realizes that the shop has all the necessary approvals to open, but he would like to address the possibility of restricting what types of shops may open in the future in the Town Center. “It’s about what kind of outlets we want there,” Carrano said. “Selling guns doesn’t seem to belong there.”
First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos said he plans to attend the meeting Monday, as do local legislators with whom the Eagle spoke.
DaRos said in an interview: “There should be an absolute outlaw of high capacity clips as well as automatic rifles, particularly the assault rifles. Sportsmen and target shooters do not need those. …Three to five shots is more than enough. You are supposed to be sportsmen. That is what you are supposed to be. So if you are on the target range it just takes you a little longer. That’s all. But you are there to enjoy yourself. The fact is that the assault weapons have only one purpose and that is to kill people….Bambi is not shooting back. ”
THE TOWN CENTER VILLAGE DISTRICT
In the past few weeks, DaRos and officials at Town Hall have fielded numerous calls from people complaining about the location of the new gun shop.
“We have no ordinances against them, so we can’t tell people what to sell,” DaRos told the Eagle.
He said it might be time for the state to oversee the placement of gun stores like they do liquor stores. “We would not be stopping them, we would just regulate where they go.”
DaRos said a local zoning regulation could be enacted, but a town ordinance would have more teeth, like the ordinance regulating adult-oriented establishments.
In 1998, the Representative Town Meeting adopted an ordinance limiting where adult-oriented establishments could be located in relation to schools, churches, playgrounds and residential areas.
Other than that ordinance, Branford has a zoning provision that excludes automotive sales and services in the Town Center Village District.
In 2011, the Town Center officially became a Village District, a zoning classification that provides more control over structures, facades, landscaping, lighting, sidewalks, signs and general aesthetics. It applies to any new structure, modification of a building or change of use. The regulation refers to the Town Center as “the heart of the community, with a concentration of civic and religious institutions, a thriving retail and restaurant area, attractive residential neighborhoods, and an abundance of social and cultural activities on the Town Green.”
In the case of a retail store, a new tenant does not have to go before the Planning and Zoning Commission if the store remains retail, regardless of what is sold. But tenants in the area of the Green do need approval from the Center Revitalization Review Board for exterior aesthetics like sign usage. The gun shop was approved.
Branford Police Chief Kevin Halloran told the Eagle that in regard to the new gun store that “everything was done legally.” He observed that the town has no regulations regarding where a gun shop may be located. “There is nothing on the books.”
The chief added, “If Newtown had not occurred, it would be a non-issue.”
The owners of TGS Outdoors told the Eagle in a recent interview that they recently changed the name of the store out of sensitivity to people’s feelings and to better reflect the nature of the business. “We are an outdoorsman store,” Higgins said.
The owners said the inventory will include guns and equipment for shooting sports, archery equipment, binoculars and scopes, knives, and hand-made axes from Sweden. Since the owners are still setting up shop, there were only minimal items on display this week, mostly scopes.
The owners say the store is appropriate for the Town Center, and they have taken steps to help ease people’s concerns.
“Absolutely no firearms will be visible from the street,” Higgins said. “No one under 18 is allowed in here without a parent.”
Higgins said the age stipulation is their rule, not a state regulation. The shop and its owners have been approved by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the FBI and local authorities, a process which took about six months.
Higgins said they have taken measures “far beyond” what is required by federal, state and local officials to ensure the physical security of the building.
“We’re trying to be sensitive and still conduct a legitimate business,” Higgins said.
Both owners are certified pistol permit instructors, and have set up a classroom in the store. They will be offering classes for pistol permits to meet the state requirements that anyone wanting to purchase a handgun must have eight hours of classroom instruction. Purchasers are also subject to a background check by state, federal and local authorities that typically takes 30 to 60 days to complete.
The owners will also offer free gun safety courses to anyone interested in learning the proper handling and storage of firearms. Higgins said no shooting will be done on the premises.
The owners said their store will be like a smaller version of North Cove Outfitters, which recently closed after 23 years on Main Street in Old Saybrook. Owens worked there as a manager. Higgins said they’re “looking to grow into” a store like the North Cove. “We’re starting with the most popular departments at that store.”
“Shooting sports was one of the top departments in that store,” Owens said, adding that another popular one was flyfishing.
“My favorite thing to do is flyfishing,” said Higgins. “Flyfishing will be one of the next departments we add.”
The owners said there are no plans to add the other departments the North Cove had, such as canoes, kayaks, clothing or footwear. The Old Saybrook store also featured camping gear, and a line of gifts and books.
“Our long-term goal is not to stay this size,” Owens said, indicating that a move to a larger venue is possible.
Higgins said there is definitely a market for the store’s merchandise. He said there are numerous shooting sport clubs in the area, and thousands of people who are interested in hunting, target-shooting, and trap and skeet shooting. Both owners are avid hunters and fishermen.
“There’s a gap along the shoreline that doesn’t have a store like this,” Higgins said. “There isn’t an outdoor store along the shoreline (since the closing of North Cove) …Folks in those towns now have a need to come to downtown Branford.”
In regard to the meeting Monday night, Higgins said it is important to include people who have an understanding of current gun laws. “Everybody had to come together as a community and take a look at our culture,” including mental health issues, he said.
Branford State Rep. Lonnie Reed said it is important for the community to have a conversation about gun control, “what tone you want to establish in your community, what you want your community identity to be.” She plans to attend the meeting and is particularly interested in hearing from responsible gun owners.
“I grew up around hunters and guns. My father and his brothers, there were six of them, had been in the military and we were taught to shoot at an early age. We went to target ranges, shooting ranges and we were taught how to shoot. We felt an enormous amount of responsibility around guns.
“My Dad and my uncle were appalled by the demand for semi-automatic weapons. Those are weapons that only should be used by law enforcement and military personnel….Those were not the type of guns you would ever use for hunting. That is something you use to kill people. So I want to hear from a lot of responsible gun owners. Those are voices we want to hear in this conversation.”
As for the new gun shop about to open near the Green in Branford, she said while it is legal it is perfectly legitimate for communities to think about their future and about what stores they want and don’t want near schools and near the Green.
“I think perhaps local zoning should take care of that,” Reed said, adding that on the state level, the idea of what stores go where is also under consideration. “It is something we are talking about, certainly near schools and day care centers. It is enormously inappropriate … even though a lot of gun owners are really responsible people, the idea of having commerce of that nature close to little kids or older kids who might find it more interesting than they should or beyond their skill set, doesn’t seem like a good idea.” Click here to read a recent story where the zoning issue was raised.
Reed has signed on to an ammunition control bill that Democratic Majority Leader State Sen. Martin M. Looney is advocating. “I believe that high capacity magazines and semi-automatic assault weapons need to be banned. I also want to look at sawed off shotguns because these can be retrofitted to develop a more treacherous fire power.”
State Sen. Ed Meyer told the Eagle he, too, will attend the Monday evening meeting. He said he has signed on to the proposed legislation but had also written his own gun bill that he described as very dramatic and extreme. “It has the most extreme restrictions that I think you will find in the country that is still consistent with the Second Amendment. My bill prohibits the sale, purchase or possession of any magazine or clip and only allows guns that have one bullet so you can fire a gun but you will have to put a round in every time you want to fire.”
As for placing gun shops in certain sections of a town, Meyer said he thought there were precedents for towns and cities to examine with regard to how far liquor stores or stores that sell pornography are to be placed from a school or a church. “I would tilt toward that being a local issue,” Meyer said.
Marcia Chambers contributed reporting for this story.