For years, Philadelphia's antiviolence groups made weekly pilgrimages to Colosimo's gun shop on Spring Garden Street to protest its lax sales practices. The tiny store was notorious for providing more weapons to street criminals than any other shop in Philadelphia. More than 425 crimes were committed with a firearm bought at Colosimo's, including 10 homicides, during a seven-year stretch in the 2000s, according to Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
So when the U.S. Attorney's Office finally shut down the store in 2009 for selling guns to straw buyers, those groups hailed the event as a watershed in the struggle to make the city a safer place.
The same people, however, were back on the street again Sunday afternoon with their microphones and their signs and their testimony from survivors of gun violence. This time, they were protesting a proposal to open a new gun shop inside a shooting range that was once part of Colosimo's operation.
Yuri Zalzman, who acquired the Gun Range when Colosimo's closed, plans to ask the city's Zoning Board on Wednesday for permission to sell firearms in his building, a windowless garage at 542 N. Percy St. that faces the Reading Viaduct near Ninth Street. Colosimo's was located around the corner, at 933 Spring Garden.
As the thwack-thwack-thwack of bullets could be heard from inside the shooting range, one speaker after another expressed disbelief that the nuisance they thought they had eradicated six years ago might be brought back to life.
"When I heard it was going to reopen, I said, 'Don't tell me all my work was in vain,' " said Cherie Ryans, who lost her 18-year-old son, Terence Ryans, in 1990 when he was shot leaving a West Philadelphia movie theater.
The rally, organized by Heeding God's Call and CeaseFirePA, attracted more than 40 people, many of whom had lost loved ones to gun violence.
"A gun shop doesn't belong in a residential neighborhood," said Susan Murray, a lawyer who moved to the area in 2008. Putting Colosimo's out of business had an instant impact on the neighborhood, she said.
In the six years since the shop's founder, James Colosimo, agreed to surrender his dealer's license, the North Philadelphia neighborhood has changed profoundly. Dozens of new homes have sprouted up nearby, and hipster bars and Buddhist temples have opened in the area. A house located just steps from the gun range recently sold for $400,000.
The area has become particularly popular with members of Philadelphia's Chinese community, who have spread north from Chinatown in search of bigger homes.
John Chin, head of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., was surprised that Zalzman even wanted to stay in the area.
"I was expecting the gun range would eventually move out," Chin said.
"The last thing this neighborhood needs is a gun shop," agreed Lawrence Rust, a local developer who lives in the area. He has built two dozen homes on Green Street, and is planning to break ground on 10 more Monday.
Zalzman's request to reopen the gun shop also comes just as Philadelphia and the nation are deep in a conversation about the easy access to guns.
"Many people don't realize that Pennsylvania is a major supplier of illegal guns," said Bryan Miller, head of Heeding God's Call. He estimates that 80 percent of the guns used in crimes in the state were purchased in Pennsylvania. And because New York and New Jersey have much stricter gun laws, Pennsylvania has become a major conduit of illegal guns, which are purchased by straw buyers and distributed to criminals.
Even though Zalzman's chances of receiving a variance are slim, Miller said, he believes Wednesday's hearing is just the beginning of a legal battle to legitimize weapon sales at the gun range.
Zalzman, who did not return calls for comment, is attempting to exploit a gray area in Philadelphia's zoning code.
Technically, gun shops are allowed only in industrial areas. Zalzman's gun range is located in a commercial zone - in a building still owned by Colosimo, according to city records.
But since the code makes no distinction between "gun range" and "gun shop," Zalzman intends to argue that the city effectively approved a gun shop on Percy Street when it legalized the gun range in 1985.
"Under the current interpretation of the zoning code," said Zalzman's lawyer, Dawn Tancredi, "I believe they have a permitted use."
At the same time, the code says that a gun shop may not be located within 500 feet of a residence or church. There is a Buddhist temple across the street from the gun range, and St. Paul's Baptist Church is also nearby.
"We're not against people having legal guns," said St. Paul's pastor, the Rev. Leslie Callahan. "I grew up in West Virginia and my father hunted. But if they don't follow the zoning rules, why would they follow the gun rules?"