Nearby residents target gun shop Store: Art Harris wanted to attract gentlemanly hunters, but he's drawing unwelcome attention in Bethesda. Montgomery County Council is considering a bill to force him to move.

March 22, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Art Harris' store attracts the kind of customer Bethesda merchants covet: scientists, doctors, congressmen. It's also the store the Montgomery County Council wants closed.

For beyond the burgundy wing chairs, the racks of $400 coats, the wildlife prints, behind the 8-inch-thick bank vault door, Art Harris sells guns.

Welcomed by the business community when he opened The Gentleman Hunter in November, Harris is now the target of residents who say downtown Bethesda is no place for a gun shop.

"I do not want guns sold in my community," Molly Peter, a mother of four children, told the County Council. "I do not want to normalize the sale of guns."

A majority of the nine-member council apparently agrees and is poised to pass a law that would ban gun shops within 100 yards of a "place of public assembly" -- in Harris' case a sliver of green with benches called Veterans Memorial Park.

If the bill becomes law, and Harris believes it will, The Gentleman Hunter would have two years to move.

Opponents of the law say it is just another example of a government with an address on Fantasy Island.

"No one can cite a single incident where the law would have made a difference," said Christopher Conte, who represents the Maryland chapter of the Izaak Walton League, a conservation group. "This is a mindless, shrill assault on legitimate gun owners."

At a meeting Thursday on the legislation, County Council member Nancy Dacek called her colleagues' efforts "a solution looking for a problem."

Opponents believe The Gentleman Hunter was targeted by anti-gun Bethesda residents who pressured council members for the bill. They cite the timing of the legislation -- two months after Harris' opening -- and the fact that county officials can't name another shop that would be affected by the measure.

"This is so bad, I can't believe it," Dacek said. "This is an outrageous way to get rid of one store, one man, one business."

With its green awning and woodsy window display, The Gentleman Hunter hardly earns a second glance in the neighborhood of small shops just off Wisconsin Avenue. And once you are buzzed inside by an employee, nothing screams of death and destruction -- well, except perhaps for the animal heads on the walls.

Display cases hold leather-covered whiskey flasks, adventure books and videos. Chairs circle a coffeetable, perfect for a discussion of "how I bagged the big one."

If you want to see a gun, you've got to ask.

Then, you'll be taken down a hallway to a steel-reinforced vault in the back of the store to view rifles and shotguns that range in price from $800 to $50,000. Each weapon is disarmed by a trigger lock.

"Someone who's going to commit a crime isn't going to buy a gun here," Harris insists.

Why? The Gentleman Hunter doesn't sell ammunition, handguns assault weapons.

That assurance isn't enough for opponents such as Margaret Engel, the wife of a former County Council member.

"What kind of a message are we sending when a gun shop is next door to the shop selling ice cream?" she asked at a recent hearing on the measure.

Other parents say the threat posed by The Gentleman Hunter means they will no longer allow their youngsters to visit a nearby comic bookstore.

In its window, the store displays magazines such as Stray Bullets, Cereal Killings' Big Brawl Issue and HATE.

Harris, a bear of a man who wears the upscale hunting clothes he sells, is puzzled by the hostility and calls his opponents "well-intentioned, but misinformed."

The Gentleman Hunter, he said, has its roots not in a John Wayne movie, but in a childhood memory.

"I went to Abercrombie & Fitch in New York City," he recalled. "It was the neatest place I'd ever seen."

After a stint in the Air Force and working at gun shops, Harris returned to his hometown and selected a site on Fairmont Avenue. His grand opening Nov. 6 was attended by several hundred people, including former Oklahoma Rep. Bill Brewster and a representative of the county's economic development office.

The next day came a different kind of welcome.

"I got a phone call from a woman who said, 'I'm going to make your life a living hell as long as you're in Bethesda,' " Harris said.

Then came the petitions, the legislation, the public hearing.

Harris has his supporters, from the Izaak Walton League to the Greater Bethesda/Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce to fellow businessmen.

"They say guns and children don't mix. Well, they're not mixing," said Mike Copperman, who runs a nearby insurance firm. "Why aren't they going after the comic books? They're filled with mayhem and violence and terror."

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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