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On the front lines of gun purchases in Philadelphia

Mayor Nutter says some gun shops are part of the crime problem. One owner deflects the comments.

Same old, same old.

Leaning up against the counter in his second-floor gun shop in South Philadelphia, Gregory J. Isabella just sighed.

On Tuesday, his business, Firing Line Inc., and the business of a competitor, Colosimo's Inc. in Center City, found themselves in the crosshairs of Mayor Nutter, who referred to them as "gun traffickers."

"These gun traffickers are not going to stop us from keeping the citizens of Philadelphia safe," Nutter said.

What else is new?

Isabella's been in the gun business nearly a quarter of a century, and it's always the same. Politicians are constantly squawking about guns. Lots of squawk, not a lot of real action.

"You look at all these politicos and all these bureaucrats," Isabella said. "They are hypocrites. They want to do something about crime. They know the issue, and they don't do anything."

The issue, according to papers filed by the city in a court procedure yesterday related to Philadelphia's proposed gun laws, is that guns used in crimes often come from dealers like Firing Line and Colosimo's, who sell multiple guns to single customers.

"At worst, Colosimo's knowingly traffics in crime guns," city solicitor Shelley Smith and outside counsel Susan Burke wrote in the court documents.

James Colosimo said he was willing to talk about his business, but he was unable to yesterday because he had to undergo medical testing.

Isabella sees the crime issue a little bit differently than the mayor's people. The issue, he said, is that repeat offenders, who should be locked up, are out on the street. They get guns, illegally. And they use them because they are desperate. That has nothing to do with him and his business.

So let the politicians squawk. If Nutter and the others slandered him Tuesday - and his attorney is looking into it - he will sue, Isabella said.

Meanwhile, Isabella's got a business to run. There are eight employees to pay. He needs to ship out two semiautomatic rifles ordered by a university police department. He has to deal with the rising price of ammunition, up 70 percent in four years.

"It's the Pacific Rim, mostly China," he said, with its tremendous growth gobbling up all the aluminum alloy and brass needed for ammunition at higher prices. "And then you have the war effort."

Worst of all, there is just too much paperwork and too many regulations.

Here's the bottom line:

"We're going to operate the same way we've done for 24 years," he said. "If I were doing anything illegal, I would have been shut down years ago. State and federal law enforcement aren't stupid. They know who the bad dealers are."

So, does that make sense for a businessman who suddenly has a PR problem?

That is not a bad approach, said Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, a retailing and marketing professor at Rutgers University School of Business in Camden.

"I don't think I'd confront his [the mayor's] remarks directly," she said. "There are a lot of people who may not have seen the story, so taking the high road and talking about what you have done [well] is a more reliable strategy."

But, she said, it may not hurt to talk to the mayor or his people separately about good practices in the business. "Any type of problem also opens up an opportunity," she said.

Gregg Feistman, who teaches public relations at Temple University, said that the risk in saying or doing nothing is that "you leave a vacuum of information out there, then you have other parties controlling the message instead of you controlling the message."

Isabella's not too worried. Business is actually up since Nutter started his campaign.

"When all this nonsense started with Nutter, people got up and shook off their guns and started to shoot" at the Firing Line's indoor range. "We've actually gotten busier both in sales and range use," Isabella said.

Housed on the second floor of a nondescript warehouse on Front Street, the Firing Line is a company outgrowing its quarters.

The entrance is a plain, somewhat scruffy door off a parking lot overgrown with weeds. Just inside the door are a couple of plastic buckets filled with spent shells.

Posters are tacked up along the walls of the staircase, including one from the National Shooting Sports Foundation - "Don't Lie for the Other Guy," which is part of the organization's push to educate gun dealers about straw buyers, people who buy guns legitimately, then sell them to others illegally.

"They're never prosecuted," Isabella said, proof to him, that once again, it's just more squawking, especially by local law enforcement officials. "Occasionally you'll get an initiative by the federal government," he said, adding that sometimes the state will try to track down straw buyers.

Inside, unloaded rifles are mounted on paneled walls, handguns are locked in the case below the counter and related equipment hanging on the Peg-Board behind the counter. Underfoot, shipping boxes crowd one another in a jumble near a computer and in a back office.

A table with a couple of chairs offers a good view of an indoor pistol range. Shooters, who wear ear protectors, stand separated by concrete walls, shooting at paper bull's-eye targets. The targets hang on a line and can be brought in closer or pushed out farther, just like laundry hanging on a clothesline with a pulley.

Forty percent of the business is wholesale, Isabella said. The rest comes from retail sales over the counter and from an indoor firing range. In about an hour yesterday, five people came in to shoot, buying the bullets they would need for their round.

The sound startles at first, but soon, it's a steady ignorable noise, like a distant jackhammer. Isabella doesn't blink.

Three of the five who shot yesterday were undercover law enforcement officers, and the fourth was a Temple student graduating today who wants to be a police officer.

"I think they are blowing smoke," said Paul LaBruna, 22, the graduating senior from South Philadelphia who came in to shoot, talking about the city politicians. He spent about $17 for 50 bullets that he would use up in 15 minutes.

"A lot of the [gun] laws are ridiculous," he said. "The only way to do something about crime is a bigger police presence." And by the way, he's taking the city police exam next week.