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All fired up

Yuri Zalzman is living the immigrant’s dream. So why do most of his neighbors hate him?

Yuri Zalzman has had heated encounters with anti-gun activists, likening them to speaking to "a 5-year-old who's screaming and plugging his ears."
Yuri Zalzman has had heated encounters with anti-gun activists, likening them to speaking to "a 5-year-old who's screaming and plugging his ears."Read moreJoseph Kaczmarek/For the Daily News

FOR THE STRING of neighbors, local store owners and developers living in and around Percy Street in the West Poplar section of North Philly, home is anywhere but on the range.

The Gun Range, that is.

Just a block away from where Percy Street meets Spring Garden, tucked away in a side alley, is The Gun Range, a wildly controversial indoor shooting facility.

On the second-floor of the range, visitors rent firearms (anything from handguns and rifles up to a .50 MG machine gun) and use them inside an orange-painted indoor range that has individual shooting lanes, all of which can be outfitted with target themes including mobsters, carnivals and home invaders.

Last April, owner Yuri Zalzman petitioned the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections to sell - not just rent - firearms.

Zalzman, 46, has a state license to sell firearms and had the range four years, but city regulations prevent him from opening a gun store in a residential area.

Some local residents are opposed to his petition, citing the national debate and outcry for gun control and the range's close proximity to a senior housing complex, a Buddhist temple, Baptist church and multiple schools.

"His request is so distant from public health and safety requirements that it's frankly outrageous that with such widespread opposition, he wants to still open a gun shop," said Bryan Miller, the executive director of the Heeding God's Call, an interfaith Philadelphia-based coalition that has protested many times outside The Gun Range.

For Zalzman, who compared not being able to sell guns at a shooting range to an ice-cream store prohibited from selling cups or cones, the expansion is a natural evolution for his business. Petty politics by extremists, he said, have complicated that process.

"Their arguments - their points - I try to understand them, but they are locked in a cycle of mantras and slogans," he said.

"It's idiocy."

Starting young

Long before he opened up a shooting range, Yuri Zalzman was just a 7-year old kid, growing up in Israel, who found what he thought was a toy lying on the table for him. His father, a member of the Israeli Army during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, had left something behind.

"My father came home, and he left his Uzi. Of course, I ran around the apartment with it. I wouldn't leave it alone," he said.

His parents eventually decided to no longer have guns in the house after they came home from the movies to find Zalzman taking apart his father's rifle. He taught himself how to clean the gun and remove all the parts to see how they fit together.

It's that adolescent curiosity, he said, that inspired him to get his pilot's license, teach in a private elementary school for three years, and become fluent in four languages (Hebrew, German, Russian, and English).

"Guns are just one part of my life," he said.

Upon immigrating to America just before his 12th birthday, Zalzman moved fast to make it big in business circles.

After graduating from George Washington High School in 1987, he earned a history degree from Temple University in 1998, then got a law degree from the University of New Hampshire.

In his early 20s, he was hired to run Theodore Saul International, a specialized scrap-metal business, and ordered around employees decades older than him.

He served as a financial adviser for nine years before opening up The Gun Range in 2010.

He said he averages 12,500 customers a year who each spend an average of $85 a visit, which includes the cost of renting a gun, a lane in the shooting range, and training from one of Zalzman's staff.

In Zalzman's mind, he became the personification of the American Dream.

But he says this country's freedoms and work-hard-to-succeed philosophy is now threatened.

"These people are trying to take away their fellow citizens' constitutional rights," Zalzman said.

"Where do we stop?"

The war on guns

As Zalzman sees it, to relegate gun stores to certain industrial zoning areas infringes on the constitutional right to bear arms and his state license to distribute guns.

After losing before L&I in April, Zalzman appealed to the Philadelphia Zoning Board. He lost again and is now appealing to Common Pleas Court in a case believed to go to trial next spring, according to attorney Joe Beller, who is representing Miller and others opposed to Zalzman's petition.

Part of the neighbors' bad blood stems from the memory of Colosimo's, a notorious gun store that operated around the corner from Zalzman's current range.

Colosimo's operated for years with a "variance" or exception from typical zoning code. But in 2009, authorities shut it down for violations of federal firearms laws in connection with selling guns to straw purchasers.

Zalzman, a professional acquaintance of former owner Jimmy Colosimo, was not permitted to continue selling firearms after opening his range.

"The criminals and the traffickers would be thrilled to have Zalzman open a gun shop there," Miller said. "It would be just like the old days of Colosimo's."

Residents of Simpson Mid-Town, a housing complex for seniors at 10th and Green streets, signed an informal petition to block Zalzman from selling guns.

On May 19, when the residents came to vote in the municipal elections, they were asked to indicate separately whether they supported the existence of a gun store in the neighborhood.

"Two-thirds of the people who came to vote signed against it," said Russ Alexander, the Simpson Mid-Town housing manager. Of the 91 residents who voted that day, 60 opposed the sale of guns at the range.

Even so, Zalzman appears bemused, even flattered, by activists' attention.

At an Oct. 22 protest outside his store, Zalzman sat on a pickup truck outside his shop, listening and occasionally clapping with the protesters. Afterward, he spoke calmly with two protesters.

"It's like trying to have a conversation with a 5-year-old who's screaming and plugging his ears at the same time," he said.

Zalzman had previously met with protesters in his attorney's office ("It cost me $700," he mused.)

The protest outside The Gun Range occurred shortly after "a man with a gun" was reported to have fled inside a building at the Community College of Philadelphia campus, placing the college and surrounding high schools on lockdown. Turned out, a gun was never found.

Only a day before, area colleges and universities received a threat of an apparent attack around 2 p.m.

Far from ignoring the national outcry over mass shootings, The Gun Range's Facebook page posted a video last week from gun enthusiast Colion Noir, where he criticized calls for gun control after the San Bernardino shooting.

Zalzman, too, is outspoken on the debate and believes the location of a gun store in a residential area near schools would not be problematic. He even advocated for a greater presence of guns within schools. He said it's not unlike the need for security guards in jewelry stores.

"If I was an objective watcher of the United States, I would say our moral compass has certainly drifted because we accept the fact that we have armed guards guarding things of value, but we fight against those very same guards when it comes to guarding our children," he said.

"Now I'm not the world's leading logician, but when you look at this logic through the eyes of a parent, it makes no sense."

Miller, whose coalition members include the chaplain of the University of Pennsylvania and the pastor of the Baptist church close to The Gun Range, decried that logic.

"[Zalzman's] assessment is based in his selfishness to make money and his emotions about guns," Miller said.

"It is absurd, incredibly selfish and greedy."