Westminster planning commission approves downtown firearms sale bill, suggests council make adjustments

Westminster planning commission approves downtown firearms sale bill, suggests council make adjustments
Donna Dressel (pink jacket), owner of Geared Up Firearms Training and Accessories Inc. in Westminster, answers questions from the Westminster Planning and Zoning Commission Dec. 14, as the city considers a bill that would allow Geared Up to sell guns from its downtown location. (Alex Mann / Carroll County Times)

The City of Westminster’s Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday approved a bill that would allow the sale of firearms as a permitted use under special exception in the Main Street and historic downtown area.

After much deliberation and audience input, which veered toward a dispute about guns, the commission passed Ordinance 903 back to the Mayor and Common Council, suggesting that the lawmaking body consider adding provisions that would limit what kind of business could apply to sell firearms and that a business be approved only if it were a “reasonable” distance from other establishments — like schools.


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 items that remain forbidden from the city epicenter.

If passed, the bill “doesn’t mean just because you own a business in Downtown Westminster that you can start selling guns,” said Ross Albers, vice chairman of the commission. “It means you might be able to if we decide we’re going to let you do it.”

For a business to be approved to sell firearms, if 903 were to pass, the business would have to present its case to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, which would evaluate the case based on a set of criteria outlined in the ordinance.

“Special exceptions under Maryland Law, the idea is that it’s a use that is compatible by definition with the zoning district that it’s in, but it might not be compatible with every single location,” explained Bill Mackey, Westminster director of community planning and development. “The assumption is compatibility, but there’s a test to see if in this particular location, is there some issue, and then some of our special exceptions have specific standards and some do not. This one is proposed as having specific standards.”

The bill includes a variety of 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.”

The 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” — which paved the way for Geared Up Firearms Training and Accessories Inc. — according to a city staff report concerning the ordinance.

Ordinance 903, proposed by Councilman Tony Chiavacci and introduced by the Common Council on Monday, would allow Geared Up to expand its business to include the sale of firearms from its shop at 19 North Court Street.

With a Federal Firearms License, Geared Up already sells guns online, said owner Donna Dressel. None of the transactions take place at the brick and mortar shop, rather from Dressel’s home, which is not in Westminster.

The Westminster Planning and Zoning Commission (From Left): City Councilman Benjamin Yingling, the Ex-Officio member, Commissioner Thomas Rio, Chairman Kevin Beaver, Vice Chairman Ross Albers and Commissioner Tom Herb.
The Westminster Planning and Zoning Commission (From Left): City Councilman Benjamin Yingling, the Ex-Officio member, Commissioner Thomas Rio, Chairman Kevin Beaver, Vice Chairman Ross Albers and Commissioner Tom Herb. (Alex Mann / Carroll County Times)

Many in attendance at Thursday’s planning meeting testified on behalf of Geared Up.

“I grew up handling firearms and stuff like that, respectfully, I got a Red Ryder BB Gun when I was 7 [years old],” said Charles Fox, of Taneytown. “I heard from a friend about their shop and I visited and I will say it was extremely safe in there. Everything’s locked up, there’s no horseplay or anything like that. It’s a very professional workplace.”

Fox said he took a handgun qualification course at Geared Up, as well as a course for a Wear and Carry Permit.

“I even still learned stuff going to that class that I still didn’t know even after years of handling firearms myself,” Fox told the commission. “So it was quite beneficial having that place there to teach me about the firearms and all like that, and further my knowledge and make me a safer citizen as a result of it.”

Others echoed Fox’s remarks, highlighting a business they said operated with an abundance of caution.

“They do so much with safety,” said Michael Spindler, of Owings Mills. “You can tell it’s their number one priority.”


Regardless of the extensive safety precautions, some remained unconvinced that Downtown Westminster was the right place for a gun shop.

“I have no quibble with a business that sells firearms in Westminster,” said Bobbi Moser, a Westminster resident, who works for Carroll County. “I think Downtown Westminster is the wrong location for such a business. ... I would prefer to see this type of business in our Business District, Industrial District.”

Moser likened the search for an appropriate location for firearms sales to the city’s process of approving medical cannabis dispensaries.

“What the city did a number of years ago was research the entire city and determine what areas were appropriate for that kind of use and the idea was that people would come in with specific properties in mind within those areas for their dispensaries,” she said. “But if you look at a map of where these permissible areas were, they were all well outside the historic downtown area.”

Moser suggested the same for firearms sales, which are already being sold in different zoning districts.

“I think the sale of firearms is a little bit different than an ice cream shop or a bicycle shop or restaurant,” she said. “You’re talking bars and windows, high security, camera surveillance. I think it would change the character and ambiance of our downtown in a negative way.”

The commission decided to pass the bill along to Common Council and to allow the lawmakers to iron out the details. They did, however, suggest that language should be added that would limit what kind of business would be eligible to apply for a special exception — to be able to sell guns in downtown. A business asking to sell guns should by nature be related to firearms in some way.

“I think what we don’t want,” Albers told his peers, “is where the ice cream shop one day decides they want to sell guns.”