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As Littleton gun vendors seek new home, towns erect barriers

Zoning becomes go-to defense against new weapons hubs.

The Gleasondale Mill houses wood workers and artisans, but if the landlord gets his way, 10 gun makers will move in.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

STOW — It’s postcard-perfect: a historic brick Greek Revival mill with a towering smokestack, nestled on the banks of the Assabet River, with apple orchards and rolling golf courses in the distance. Once a textile hub, the Gleasondale Industrial Park now houses woodworkers and artisans — and soon, if the owner gets his way, a crew of 10 gun vendors.

The owner, Chris Franklin, said the vendors are seeking to relocate there from another old mill building, in Littleton, which the Globe revealed last fall was home to more than 80 federally licensed gun manufacturers, the largest cluster at a single address in the nation. Many were openly selling firearms and parts that exploited loopholes in the state’s notoriously strict gun laws.


Littleton officials acted swiftly in response to the uproar. By February, they had recruited a developer to buy the building, which will eventually be razed to make way for apartments, and to enact zoning restrictions that effectively bar new gun tenants from moving into the mill in the meantime, or clustering elsewhere in town.

The ATF did a sweep of inspections of every gun vendor at the Littleton Mill in February.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Concerned they may soon get an influx of weapons purveyors, the neighboring towns of Acton, Sudbury, Westford, and Maynard began considering similar zoning restrictions on where and how many firearms businesses could operate. Acton’s bylaw was the first to pass, in May, and caps the number allowed within town limits at two.

Stow hasn’t taken any such measure so far. Town Planning Director Valerie Oorthuys said she raised the issue with the Planning Board in June, but some members were hesitant because the process of locating where gun stores potentially could operate could stir up controversy.

“It might be frustrating for residents if we say, ‘Gun dealers are allowed in your backyard,’” Oorthuys told the Globe.


Two weeks later, Franklin submitted his application to add the 10 gun vendors, along with 20 new artisan tenants, to his 5-acre complex. The hearing is Tuesday. Since the mill’s zoning already allows for gun shops, Oorthuys said, the board likely has no choice but to approve the plans, though it can add conditions.

The fraught considerations in Stow, 20 miles west of Boston, reflect the suburban tension that has arisen in recent years between a small but growing contingency of Second Amendment enthusiasts and the majority of locals, who favor strict gun control.

The Globe found at least six other municipalities, all in Middlesex or Norfolk counties, that enacted zoning restrictions on firearms businesses in the years before the Littleton controversy, either in response to a proposed gun shop or to preempt a proposal.

The share of Massachusetts residents 15 and older with permits to use firearms doubled from 2010 to 2020, to 13 percent of males and 4 percent of females, while the state’s overall population in that age group increased by 10 percent, according to a Globe analysis of US Census Bureau and state gun licensing data.

Stow has a slightly larger prevalence of firearms license-holders: 22 percent of males and 6 percent of females. But they are still a clear minority.

“If you took a vote, it would not pass,” a longtime Stow resident said of Franklin’s efforts to bring the Littleton gun vendors to her town. “We know what kind of people and activity they brought,” she said. “We don’t want them here.”


The resident, like many who spoke to the Globe, asked not to be identified because of safety concerns.

Gun shop owners were also wary about voicing their beliefs. One Littleton shop owner eying a move to New Hampshire said he’s experienced far more discrimination in Massachusetts for his Second Amendment beliefs than he ever has as a brown, Muslim immigrant.

Another vendor pleaded with the Globe not to print his name because his neighbors have already harassed his family after he expressed support for gun rights on Facebook.

Jim Wallace, executive director of Gun Owners’ Action League, a prominent state gun rights group, called the local opposition to gun dealers “pure bigotry.”

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a licensed firearm retailer in your town,” he said.

The Littleton mill has shed about 30 gun vendors since last fall, said a spokesperson for the building’s new owner, Lupoli Companies.

Several vendors lost or relinquished their licenses following mill-wide inspections by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in February, the Globe found in response to records requests to the ATF and Littleton Police Department.

Others settled into new digs in other towns or faced intense push-back when attempting to relocate.

Former Littleton gun dealer Jeffrey Steinbrecher told Westford's Planning Board in February that his shop, Legal Arms Co., doesn’t manufacture guns in the classic sense. “We collect high end parts from around the country and assemble them into high end dream purchases for our clients,” he said. The shop often displayed these weapons on its Instagram page, which is now private.Legal Arms Co/Instagram

When Jeffrey Steinbrecher sought to move his gun shop, Legal Arms Co., from Littleton to Westford, a Planning Board hearing on his application in February stretched more than two hours as residents took turns expressing alarm about the military-style weapons he sold.


Westford Select Board chair, Tom Clay, said the Planning Board had little choice but to approve Steinbrecher’s application since the zoning allowed it. But it spurred the town to draft a zoning bylaw that, if enacted, would limit where gun businesses could locate in the future, cap the number at four, and prohibit them from operating in the same building.

Steinbrecher, who did not respond to a request for comment, still hasn’t moved to Westford. The ATF said in response to the Globe’s records request that Steinbrecher and two other Littleton vendors are undergoing license revocation proceedings, but could not share further details.

Federal authorities arrested another Littleton vendor, Cory Daigle, in January for knowingly selling three pistols to a straw buyer, which were later recovered during the investigation of a Boston shooting. But that didn’t stop Daigle from trying to open a new shop in Lynn, where he, too, faced local opposition. Daigle eventually withdrew his application and the ATF revoked his license to manufacture guns.

The ATF said it found 95 guns in former Littleton vendor Cory Daigle’s apartment during a January search.District of Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office

For now, the Littleton mill still houses the nation’s largest group of gun businesses at a single address, with roughly 50. Massachusetts also claims the second- and fourth-largest hubs — a shopping center in Bridgewater, with 15 vendors, and another old mill building in Rockland, with nine — according to an analysis of ATF data.

If plans by Franklin, the Stow mill landlord, come to fruition, his building would be tied with a shooting complex in San Antonio as the nation’s third-largest gun hub.


All of the vendors in the Massachusetts hubs hold licenses to manufacture firearms, a product of the state’s strict gun laws that are also filled with loopholes.

The laws prohibit dealers from selling civilians many popular guns, such as Glock pistols and AR-15-style rifles, but don’t regulate the sale of gun parts. The state’s assault weapons ban has also been widely interpreted as allowing for their sale with cosmetic modifications. Dealers need the manufacturing license to modify guns or break them down to sell as parts.

A 140-page gun bill pending on Beacon Hill would close some of the loopholes used by many vendors. But House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano recently put the bill on hold for the summer.

Franklin said some of the artists in the Stow mill objected to his plan. But he assured them that they wouldn’t be sharing the same entrance with the gun businesses.

The gun vendors, he said, are ”just people running a small business, but the stereotypical — people might call them rednecks or rubes or whatever — they’re far from it.”

A painter and a woodworker in the building told the Globe that while they prefer not to share space with weapons purveyors, they recognize their right to operate.

But Colleen Pearce, a retired elementary school art teacher in Harvard who had planned to move her painting studio to the Stow mill, said she wouldn’t go there if guns were being built or sold out of the same building. The mass shooting drills she did with her young students were traumatizing, and she has had nightmares about failing to get them all to safety.

“I don’t want to go into a studio where I’m trying to create beautiful things and have a gun manufacturer that’s all about destroying, not just things, but humans,” Pearce said.

Colleen Pearce, a painter, said she won’t move her studio to the Gleasondale Industrial Park if guns are being built and sold in the same building.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Sarah Ryley can be reached at Follow her @MissRyley.