An unusual showdown is set to take place this morning, when a coalition of high-level faith leaders – including bishops, an imam and a representative of the Baltimore Jewish Council — confronts the owner of a Baltimore County gun store as part of a new campaign to call attention to “straw” handgun sales.
Vowing to do more to end gun violence than just pray about it, the “Ecumenical Leadership Group” has been pressing the owner of Clyde’s Sport Shop, of Lansdowne, to sign the Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership.
Among the provisions of that voluntary code of conduct, promoted nationwide by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and already signed by Wal-Mart: gun dealers would agree to videotape firearm sales transactions and participate with other retailers in the use of a computerized log of crime gun traces.
(If a customer who has a prior trace at that retailer, under this system, then attempts to purchase a firearm, the sale is electronically flagged.)
Clyde’s was targeted, organizers said, because the faith groups concluded, after reviewing data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms and a 2008 Abell Foundation report, that Clyde’s is among the largest local sellers of guns traced to crimes in Baltimore.
“This is something everybody can get behind, it’s about keeping guns (that were) obtained illegally off the streets,” said Deb Milcarek, associate for mission and justice of the Presbytery of Baltimore.
Well, not everybody. The owner of the 53-year-old sporting goods shop, Clyde Blamberg, has so far rebuffed the group, which has been asking for a meeting since September.
“We are not breaking any laws, we have never made an illegal sale, we have never made a straw purchase sale,” said Blamberg, in a phone interview yesterday. “We abide by all the laws . They are trying to shove this down our throats and we do not appreciate it.”
In yet another attempt at peaceful discussion – and, clearly, to call media attention to the issue – the religious leaders plan to gather outside the store and send a delegation inside to talk to Blamberg.
They will not find a receptive audience, judging by this email Milcarek said they received on Oct. 17 from Blamberg:
“Clyde’s Sport Shop abides by all federal, state, and local laws and regulations with regards to the sale of firearms. We have no interest in meeting with you people. Frankly, we do not appreciate being threatened or coerced into signing ANY agreement that you are supporting.
Our premises are private property and we are requesting that you refrain from coming onto that property. If you ignore our request, you will be considered trespassers and treated accordingly.”
In spite of the owner’s frosty stance, a virtual Who’s Who of Maryland religious leaders plans to visit him today, among them:
Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Maryland)
Rev. Dr. Peter Nord (Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Baltimore)
Rev. Jack Sharpe (President, Central Maryland Ecumenical Council)
Rev. Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane (Synod Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)
Imam Earl El-Amin (Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore)
Rev. John R. Schol (Baltimore-Washington Conference United Methodist Church)
Bishop Douglas Miles (Koinonia Baptist Church)
Dr. Arthur Abramson (Executive Director, Baltimore Jewish Council)
Rev. Dr. John Deckenback (Central Atlantic Conference United Church of Christ)
The Most Rev. Denis Madden (Auxilliary Bishop, Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore)
The action may be dramatic for clergy more accustomed to delivering their messages from the pulpit than the street, but organizers say extreme action is needed to shut off the flow of guns to Baltimore and help stem the tide of bloodshed. The city’s homicide total for this calendar year stood at 174 yesterday.
“We believe it’s our sacred duty to do everything we can to save lives,” said Bryan Miller, director for public advocacy for Philadelphia-based Heeding God’s Call, whose mission of combating gun violence with direct action the Maryland interfaith group has taken as their own.
In Philadelphia, the less-than-two-year-old group succeeded in shutting down one of the city’s worst sources of handguns used in crimes.
After months of protests outside Colosimo’s Inc., the U.S. Attorney’s office accused the shop in Sept. 2009 of selling 10 guns to people they “knew or had a reason to believe” were illegal straw buyers fronting gun traffickers, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. They also said they would revoke the shop’s federal firearms license which led to its closure.
Miller said the faith-based group’s strategy, to help religious communities take action against the sellers of guns, is just one approach to preventing gun violence. “Police and others try to address the demand side, we take the supply-side approach,” he said.
Heeding God’s Call Maryland includes the membership of the largest interfaith groups in Maryland: Central Maryland Ecumenical Council (CMEC); Baltimore Interfaith Coalition (BIC); and, the Ecumenical Leaders Group (ELG).
The problem with “straw sales”
A straw purchase is when a buyer with a clean record hands the gun over to someone prohibited from making such purchases, such as a convicted felon. The first sale of a gun, Morris said, is usually a legal sale. Gun dealers are pretty much on their own when it comes to identifying and refusing to sell to these proxy purchasers.
In looking for localized information on how those guns wind wind up being used by criminals on the streets of Baltimore, the coalition relied heavily on the 2008 Abell study. That analysis looked at the guns seized by Baltimore City Police Department and traced by the ATF from January 1, 2006, to March 31, 2007. (The department sought traces on 3,131 firearms, of which ATF was able to trace 1,990.)
The traces yielded a list of Maryland stores selling the largest number of guns that were seized by police in Baltimore City during that 15-month period. At the top of the list, with 108 sales, was Valley Guns, of Parkville, which is no longer licensed to sell firearms. The second on the list was Clyde’s, with 64.
Morris admits it’s just a start, “but it makes sense to start with the worst actors.”
Milcarek said she wished the interaction with Clyde’s had not been so confrontational. “We would like to have been working with him on this and holding a press conference to congratulate him for doing the right thing.”
Path to protest
Presbyterian leadership about four years ago, Milcarek said, decided to get involved in reducing violence in the city. Sutton testified at the Maryland General Assembly this year on behalf of toughening gun laws in the state. The seeds of interfaith cooperation on the gun issue. she said, were sowed in January at a massive interfaith gathering held at Baltimore’s Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, a vigil where religious leaders prayed for peace and spoke out against violence.
Speakers decried not just the violence but the apathy of those who fail to act because they see that the weekly death toll is so much greater in poor communities of color.
“We had 1,800 people who left, saying ‘Now what?’” Milcarek recalled. “‘We need something to say, we need something to do.’”
Finding Heeding God’s Call and the idea of persuading gun sellers to adopt best practices, turned out to be the solution, in part because it seemed so mainstream, people from a wide range of political perspectives could embrace it.
“The ministers are on fire with this,” she said. “It’s so easy to see it’s the right thing to do.”
“A gun pointed in my daughter’s face”
Asked yesterday if any of those involved in the action today was personally touched by gun violence, Milcarek paused and then laughed drily.
“Today is the arraignment of the man who held a gun to my 17-year-old daughter’s face in July,” Milcarek said. “It’s just a weird coincidence.”
“It happened on a Sunday night . . . right near the Presbytery office,” she said. (It’s located at 5400 Loch Raven Blvd.) “She was with her friends. They were coming out of the McDonald’s.” Milcarek said her daughter, trying to get away, turned her car into an alley and came face to face “with a person who turned out to be the shooter.”
And what about the gun?
“The detectives,” she said, “told us it was (a gun purchased through) an illegal sale.”