Dozens of Newton residents weighed in Monday night on proposed rules to regulate gun stores and other firearms businesses, some making passionate cases to city officials about the role gun ownership and the Second Amendment should play in the city.
City leaders, including Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and City Council President Susan Albright, are moving quickly on the proposed rules after broad public outrage erupted last month over a gun shop that planned to open its doors in Newtonville.
The zoning rules for firearms dealers, proposed late last month by Fuller and all 24 city councilors, would impose strict limits on the location and operation of firearms dealers, gunsmiths, and gun ranges in Newton, according to the plan. Currently, there are no such rules on the books.
“I was shocked when I first learned there might be a gun store in Newton ... because the culture of Newton as being a safe place to be was threatened,” said Ilene Solomon, a Newton real estate agent with Coldwell Banker who called on officials to impose restrictive rules on firearm businesses.
“I feel threatened by this. I feel sick about it,” Solomon told officials Monday night.
But critics of the city’s efforts such as Tom Mountain, vice chair of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, challenge the proposal as an affront to constitutional rights. Mountain quoted part of the Second Amendment at the hearing, reading aloud “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
“What you people are trying to do, by putting in this draconian, illegal ordinance, is exactly that,” Mountain said. “You are infringing upon the rights of our fellow citizens. You are infringing upon the rights of small businesses. You are infringing upon the rights of gun owners. You have no right to do that.”
Debate over the gun store has heated up over the past few weeks, after news that Newton Firearms LLC sought to operate from a vacant storefront at 709 Washington St.
In January, business owner Joseph Kammouj filed an application with Newton police to open the store. Police completed a background check and inspected the location as part of the state review process for Kammouj to become a licensed firearms dealer, according to Ellen Ishkanian, a city spokeswoman.
On April 20, the state approved a license for Kammouj to sell guns at the Washington Street location. That same day, the city issued a stop work order against the business after inspectors saw workers renovating the interior without a permit. As of Monday, work was still stopped and no one had applied for a building permit, Ishkanian said.
The proposed gun store has drawn the ire of many residents who have criticized the location’s proximity to schools and residential areas.
About 9,300 people have signed an online petition urging officials to “take a stand” against the store, while nearly 2,000 people have joined a “Stop Gun Stores in Newton” Facebook group. A separate online petition supporting the store has about 800 signatures.
Monday’s virtual public hearing on the proposed zoning was attended at one point by more than 500 people, according to Deborah Crossley, chairwoman of the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee, who also serves as a councilor-at-large for Newton’s Ward 5.
According to the city’s Planning and Development Department, zoning regulations for firearm businesses are not common, and the only nearby communities that now regulate them through zoning are Dedham and Westwood.
Newton’s proposed gun store zoning would limit firearms businesses to certain areas and require a special permit approved by a two-thirds vote from the City Council. The zoning draws from existing rules regulating adult businesses and marijuana shops.
The Planning Department’s recommendation would impose a 150-foot buffer between firearms businesses and residential areas. It also would include other provisions, such as a requirement that firearms businesses be located at least 1,000 feet away from K-12 schools, child care and religious uses, parks and playgrounds, colleges and universities, libraries, hospitals, and nursing homes.
Those recommendations would essentially limit firearms businesses to a portion of Route 9 in Chestnut Hill and an area near the Waltham line at Rumford and Riverview avenues, according to the planning department. Those potential zones do not include the proposed shop on Washington Street.
The zoning regulation also would tightly control a firearms business’s day-to-day operation with measures such as prohibiting display of firearms, gun accessories, or their images that would be visible outside; granting City Council authority over signage; limiting hours of operation; and requiring criminal background checks of workers.
Fuller and other city officials have said they believe an outright ban of gun businesses would ultimately be deemed unconstitutional by a court.
More than a dozen members of the Newton Interfaith Clergy Association have opposed gun stores in Newton in a letter printed in the Newton Tab.
“As leaders of diverse religious communities, we know first-hand the toll that our nation’s alarming rate of gun violence has on our citizens. Our children, who grow up under the threat of mass shootings are particularly affected,” they wrote. “That this store would be located close to not only one, but several schools causes us even graver concern.”
During Monday’s hearing, many speakers opposed the Washington Street gun store and called for restrictions or an outright ban. But some said the city should not stand in the way of firearms businesses to open up shop in Newton.
Lucas Stilianos told officials he supports the gun shop and criticized the proposed local regulations, which he said are being used to block gun businesses from Newton. “This is hand-wringing by those who hate guns in any capacity,” he said. “This is anti-gun sentiment pushed under the guise of safety.”
Michael Lange said laws should not target individuals, and he criticized the city for trying to change regulations to prevent Newton Firearms from opening.
“Our zoning shouldn’t depend on popularity or your personal biases,” Lange said. “Here, it’s being driven by an online mob.”
Critics of the planned gun store focused on issues of public safety, particularly for students.
Ariana Foster, a fifth-grade teacher at the Lincoln-Eliot Elementary School — which is less than a mile from the proposed store — read from a prepared statement backed by a group of Newton educators that called on officials to impose strict zoning rules on gun shops and keep them far from schools and student walking routes.
“Having a gun store in the vicinity of a school will inevitably make students feel unsafe,” said Foster, reading from the statement.
Constantinos Zacharakis, a junior at Newton South High School, also opposes having a gun store in the city. He said he and other students have had to practice lockdown drills in school for years.
“They’ve really made us numb to the fact that it’s so likely that we might have an incidence of gun violence at one of our schools,” he said. “Having a gun store in our city literally makes it easier for a gun to be purchased and used nearby.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.