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October 5, 2009

Call Heeded

A remarkable victory was achieved by grassroots activists in Philadelphia last month when one of the most corrupt gun dealers in America was forced to permanently shutter his business. The activists’ campaign, known as “Heeding God’s Call,” relied on one very powerful “weapon”: faith.

The Heeding God’s Call campaign unites 39 churches, synagogues and mosques in the Philadelphia area that are frustrated with the high level of gun violence in the city and the refusal of Pennsylvania legislators to address the problem. "[We need] a reduction of violence, a reduction of homicides that are affecting Philadelphia," said Allen Bartlett, assisting bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia in 2008. "It's getting worse. Guns have to be acquired somewhere and so we're going to the source."

It turns out the primary source of Philadelphia’s crime guns was Colosimo’s, a prominent gun store in Philadelphia. 2003 data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives (ATF) data showed that from 1989 to 1996, Colosimo’s sold 425 guns traced to crime (10 homicides, 85 assaults, 30 robberies and 300 additional gun crimes). Colosimo’s ranked fifth among federally licensed dealers in the U.S. in terms of having the highest number of guns traced to crime. Additionally, ATF data showed that 20% of all the guns recovered at crime scenes in Philadelphia were originally purchased at Colosimo’s.

Naturally, I have more traces,” said James Colosimo, the store’s owner. “I’m the oldest gun dealer in Pennsylvania. I’ve sold more guns.” Bryan Miller of Ceasefire New Jersey saw it differently. “All of the bad guys in Philadelphia and Camden know they can straw-purchase guns at Colosimo’s,” he said. “Colosimo’s values profits over the lives of others,” added Philadelphia Solicitor Shelley Smith.

The members of Heeding God’s Calls met with Colosimo in December 2008 and asked him to sign a Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership 10-Point Voluntary Code to reduce the amount of straw purchases and “irresponsible” gun sales taking place at his store. The code was based on one that had been adopted by Wal-Mart at the request of Mayors Against Illegal Guns in April of that year.

After Colosimo refused to sign the document, members of Heeding God’s Call began a series of protests. Twice a week for nine months, they gathered in front of the gun shop to demonstrate and pray. On January 12, members of Heeding God’s Call were arrested after entering Colosimo’s and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct. At their trial in May, their attorney argued that their behavior “was justified because they were trying to prevent a greater evil”—deadly shootings in Philadelphia. Defendant Kemah Washington, from the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, told the judge, “Being arrested in January was never my intention. I did not go to be a nuisance nor did go to engage in any tumultuous behavior, but I hear the cries from our children and knew I had to react to their cries, I knew I had to stand up and be a voice for those who have been killed or maimed by gun violence.” The 12 defendants were acquitted of all charges.

Probably not coincidentally, the store began to draw intense scrutiny from federal agents during the demonstrations and trial. On September 22, U.S. Attorney Michael Levy charged Colosimo’s with making false statements and failing to properly maintain firearm transaction records. The ATF found that Colosimo’s had sold at least 10 guns to three people in straw purchases between 2004 and 2007, including through “controlled buys” that had been set up by the agency. On September 28, James Colosimo pled guilty. His federal license to sell firearms has been revoked and as of October 1 a small sign appeared on the front door of his shop that said “Closed for inventory.”

After hearing that news, Cherie Ryans—a Philadelphia mother who spent Saturdays outside Colosimo’s in memory of a son she had lost to an illegal gun—said, “I will never find the person who took my son’s life, but another life will be spared because this shop has closed.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer opined: “Activism of the Heeding God's Call variety—as well as the increasingly vocal Mayors Against Illegal Guns campaign in Pennsylvania –is the best hope for pushing back against National Rifle Association opposition to commonsense trafficking safeguards.” We agree, and hope the efforts of these courageous activists will serve as a model—and a source of inspiration—for other Americans trying to save lives in their communities.

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