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Westminster Council introduces bill to allow sale of firearms downtown

Westminster Council introduces bill to allow sale of firearms downtown
The Westminster Mayor and Common Council at their second November council meeting. From left: Councilman Benjamin Yingling, Councilman Tony Chiavacci, Council President Dr. Robert Wack, Mayor Joe Dominick, Councilwoman Dr. Mona Becker and Councilman Gregory Pecoraro. (Alex Mann / Carroll County Times)

The Westminster Common Council voted unanimously Monday, Dec. 10, to introduce an ordinance that would allow the sale of firearms as permitted use under special exception to the city’s Main Street and historic downtown area.

Similar legislation passed in February reopened the door for tattoo parlors in the Downtown Business Zone. Ordinance 903 would do the same for the legal sale of guns in Downtown Westminster. Firearms are the only item that remains forbidden from the city epicenter, said Councilman Tony Chiavacci.

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Geared Up Firearms Training and Accessories Inc., located on North Court Street, approached Chiavacci and expressed an interest in expanding their Westminster business to sell guns, the councilman told the Times.

“I think they were probably ordinances that at one point in time people I guess felt like that’s not what they wanted downtown,” Chiavacci said of the laws banning gun sales and tattoo parlors from downtown [the latter has been reversed]. “The reality is that in other business districts that we have you can sell them, for instance Dick’s Sporting Goods [off Md. 140] sells them in one of our zones, so it’s not like we don’t allow it in other places in the city, we just were prohibiting it [in downtown].

“I think, frankly, it puts them at a disadvantage.”

Council already passed on Feb. 26 an ordinance that allowed “schools for firearms safety training not including discharge of firearms or handling of live ammunition” — presumably to accommodate Geared Up — according to a city staff report concerning the ordinance.

No members of council spoke in opposition of the bill. However, Mayor Joe Dominick, who does not get to vote on the matter, suggested that it may be better to hold off on the ordinance until the city undergoes a comprehensive rezoning.

“A lot of times under special exception it’s easy to look shallow into things and say, ‘Well, it’s not a huge deal because we’re going to have to approve it anyway,’ but you’re putting something in place that future councils are going to approve and you just don’t know what that’s going to mean,” Dominick told the Times. “You approve something to go into a place and you don’t always know what’s going to go in around it as the years go by.”

The bill includes a variety provisions specific to the sale of firearms. For a facility to be approved it must have an advanced alarm system; industry-standard video surveillance system; beefed up doors, gates, glass and commercial-grade locks; any walls backing up to other buildings must be made of bullet-resistant material; and the building must have a loading and unloading station “comprised of heavy steel enclosures.”

Councilman Gregory Pecoraro, who told his colleagues and city staff that he appreciated the extensive safety measures outlined in the ordinance, inquired about the purpose of the loading and unloading area. “Why would there be loaded firearms in this facility?” he asked.

“You would have police officers going in and out of there potentially, if they’re going to handle firearms there, [the officers] may choose to unload theirs to make sure there’s no live ammunition in the area,” Chiavacci chimed in. “That’s a pretty common safety standard. Any time you’re handling firearms, you don’t want any live ammunition anywhere where it could be mistakenly inserted into the weapon as you’re doing things with it.”

Those with concealed carry permits, allowing them to wield a firearm, would also need to unload their weapons in the facility, Chiavacci added. “It’s good to have a specific designated area to do that because if you do have an accidental discharge it goes into a safe repository. … If you’re doing it properly into an unloading barrel or unloading device, it goes into that instead of someone’s foot.”

The loading and unloading of live rounds supports the mayor’s point, said Dominick, who added that he owns a gun.

“[What] if this were to go in next to the Boys & Girls Club, or it went in somewhere where it was perfectly safe and a Boys & Girls Club type of thing went in next to it,” the mayor said. “I think the idea isn’t necessarily a bad one, but our zoning is outdated. … The Downtown Business Zone is a big zone: It probably shouldn’t be one zone.”

If the ordinance was postponed until the comprehensive rezoning process, there could be a smaller, perfect zone that allows for the sale of firearms, Dominick added, “but it probably isn’t all of downtown business.”

Councilman Benjamin Yingling said after the meeting that he agreed that comprehensive rezoning would be the ideal time to address the downtown gun sale ordinance. Yingling added that he seconded Pecoraro’s perspective that the spelled-out safety measures were solid and that the bill was carefully crafted.

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“Maybe we should look at this in a bigger, 30,000-foot view of comprehensive rezoning, which is a monumental task,” Yingling said. “It comes down to time and resources.”

The fact that there is not timeframe for a comprehensive rezoning complicates matters — a reality Dominick acknowledged. The planning department is swamped by a growing city, Yingling and Dominick agreed. Postponing the downtown gun sale legislation until comprehensive rezoning would seem like postponing it indefinitely. And because of that Chiavacci said he sees the mayor’s suggestion as an unfitting plan.

“I think what this ordinance really does is give our downtown businesses a chance to be competitive with big-box businesses on [Md.] 140,” he told the Times. “Currently, with firearms, we aren’t giving those businesses that opportunity.”

The ordinance is scheduled to be addressed by the city’s Planning Commission at its meeting Thursday, Dec. 13.

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