(A firearms dealer is renovating the former Burt Foster American Legion Post, shown here, for use as a retail store. Residents packed this week's city council meeting, saying the location showed insensitivity in a town fighting against handgun violence. Tube City Almanac photo.)
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Residents of McKeesport angry over a firearms dealer's planned expansion Downtown packed city council chambers this week to raise issue with what they called a lack of "transparency" and "consideration."
The store's owner, meanwhile, said Friday in an interview with Tube City Almanac that he hears their concerns, but is running a legal, responsible operation.
"I'm not here for scare tactics and I'm not here to sell guns to other people who shouldn't have one," said Jonathan Stark, owner of Pittsburgh FFL, which is renovating the former Burt Foster American Legion post to be used as a retail gun store to be known as "Legion Arms."
"I'm not a 'crazy gun guy,'" Stark said. "I'm a businessman. I think that's what allows me to understand both sides of the issue.
"We operate responsibly, but I do understand that there is a stigma," he said. "We provide a legal, lawful business and service, and I want everything we do to be positive."
Opponents of the store, including city Councilwoman Fawn Walker-Montgomery, on Wednesday night accused Mayor Mike Cherepko and other officials of withholding news about the gun store's expansion from the community.
"I think there's been a lack of transparency by this administration," Walker-Montgomery said.
Cherepko denied anything of the sort, and accused Walker-Montgomery of her own lack of transparency. The two argued back and forth until being asked to stop by city Council President Rich Dellapenna.
The operation of Pittsburgh FFL was not a secret, city officials said Wednesday. The business has operated at 627 Market St. for at least six years alongside two other businesses --- Compulsive Paintball and Lexmar, which makes countertops.
Tube City Almanac reported on Compulsive Paintball and Lexmar in 2009.
Pittsburgh FFL has had a Facebook presence since at least 2013 and a Google search for "gun store" and "McKeesport" brings up Pittsburgh FFL as the first result, where the store has three five-star reviews:
In addition, the store has sold or transferred firearms and firearms licenses for local law-enforcement agencies, including McKeesport and White Oak police, Stark said Friday.
"No one on the city council thought about it for more than five seconds," Cherepko said Wednesday. "We obviously do need to make a better effort to get the word out, and I apologize for that."
That apology did little to satisfy residents who have lost friends or relatives to gun violence.
According to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office, McKeesport has had eight fatal shootings in 2017, and neighboring Versailles and West Mifflin have each had one.
"With all of the gun violence and with all of the drug problems and with all of the murders going unsolved, it is truly insensitive --- culturally insensitive --- to put that gun shop where it is, in the heart of the city," Seventh Ward resident Leonard Reed told council.
"Behind it is a community center that will be used by children, in a neighborhood surrounded by churches," he said. "It may be legal, but it's not moral."
Reed suggested that gun shops should be required to post a public notice, as when a restaurant, store or bar acquires a liquor license.
But Solicitor J. Jason Elash said liquor licenses are regulated by the state Liquor Control Board. Only the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regulates firearms dealers.
"All that this man (Stark) had to do (from the city) was apply for an occupancy permit," Elash said. "I think everyone here is very, very sympathetic, but there is nothing in the law that would require public notice.
"In fact, if we started publicizing some new businesses and not others, we would probably be sued," he said.
Brent Robertson, a deacon at Bethlehem Baptist Church, which owns the building next door that was formerly R&J Furniture and Carquest Auto Parts, told council he's not against Stark or a firearms dealer in principle, but he was surprised and unhappy about the store's location next to the church's building.
Bethlehem has been raising money for several years to turn part of their building into a youth and community center.
"I even asked a couple of the workers (at the old Legion hall) what they were doing, and they wouldn't say anything," Robertson said. "I'm not speaking about the legality of it. It's a moral issue. It's the appearance of it, and how it looks" to the community.
Another resident, Joy Renee Burgwin of the Seventh Ward, told council more than 400 people have now signed up and "are ready to march" to protest the store's opening.
"I've lost eight men that I know to gun violence," she said. "I have gone to vigil walks with the mayor, and I had no knowledge of this gun shop. Why, when we have these open conversations outside of city council, did no one ever mention anything about a gun shop?
"Those who knew, knew, but those who didn't, should have known," Burgwin said.
"Who do we hold responsible?" Rosa Smith of Fawcett Plan asked council. "Why was the public not made aware that it was here for seven years?"
Stark said Friday there was no attempt by Pittsburgh FFL to hide or do anything in secret. The store has been open inside the Compulsive/Lexmar building, but just hasn't had a large retail presence.
"We don't have people walking down the sidewalk and coming into the store," Stark said. "We weren't inviting walk-in traffic. We have not had anything as far as people randomly walking in."
Most of their customers until now were obtained through word-of-mouth, he said. "People who are coming to us --- it's not by happenstance," Stark said.
When the Legion post is renovated, the store will have extremely tight security, he said.
Though he declined to give specifics, Stark said the security will include outdoor sirens and flashing lights, high-resolution cameras, glass-breakage alarms and double-entry doors that must be opened by store employees before someone can enter or leave. A tall fence also has been erected around the building's parking lot.
Stark is sensitive to concerns from residents who are worried that Legion Arms will put more guns on the street in a community already upset about gun violence.
"We have transferred thousands of firearms," he said. "If the ATF had one of our firearms show up in a crime, we would get a trace request. I'm not telling you it will never happen, but what I'm telling you is, to this point, it has never happened."
Legion Arms will reserve the right to refuse sales or service to anyone, Stark said.
"We're there to promote responsible firearms ownership," he said. "Just because you show up in the store does not mean I want to sell you a gun. Unlike some of other people, I am not telling people they should own firearms just because there might have been a shooting in McKeesport."
Stark was referring to a former dealer in Versailles, Pittsburgh Tactical Firearms, which advertised on Facebook and elsewhere that Mon Valley residents should arm themselves for protection when a gun crime was committed.
Earlier this year, Pittsburgh Tactical Firearms was shut down by the ATF for what federal prosecutors said were multiple violations of sales regulations, including selling guns to persons with criminal records who had been turned away by other firearms dealers.
The owner of Pittsburgh Tactical Firearms, Erik D. Lowry, 37, pleaded guilty in federal court in June to possession of illegal firearms, tampering with evidence and witness tampering.
Lowry faces up to 50 years in prison and a $750,000 fine when he is sentenced Oct. 23.
"It's a shame that he did that to himself," Stark said. "My feeling is that he deserved what he got."
Cherepko asked residents to give Legion Arms a chance to prove itself.
"That area is zoned for this use," he said. "Remember, this city took on a strip club that was trying to come in, but in that case we had leverage. This is a permitted use."
He noted that Cabela's, Dick's Sporting Goods and many other retailers also sell handguns, and also would be permitted uses in McKeesport's commercial zoning districts.
Of Stark, the mayor said, "This is a man who really is invested in your community. He is a really good guy."
No formal grand opening has been scheduled yet for Legion Arms, which will incorporate memorabilia from the former Burt Foster Post, which left the building in 2014 due to its need for expensive renovations.
"We were members at the Legion, so it's a little bit of a homage to them," Stark said. "I am a big roots guy --- I truly appreciate what things were (in McKeesport) and maybe what they could be again."
Among the memorabilia preserved will be the Legion crest in the floor, he said. "Frankly, we're putting a lot of money into that building," he said. "The feedback we've received has been overwhelmingly positive, from both men and women."
Originally published July 07, 2017.