Who's Packin' Heat in Philly?
More and more young urbanites join the right-to-carry movement.
By Jon Campisi
Posted May. 25, 2010 ..
Photo by Jeff Fusco
Dan Pehrson rolls up to 1 Shot Coffee, a cafe in Northern Liberties, on two wheels, much like many of his environmentally conscious urban peers. He’s just the type of patron this establishment is accustomed to serving. The 28-year-old computer programmer is cool, calm and collected. And his look—blazer, jeans, sneakers, black-rimmed eyeglasses, hair tussled and neat at the same time—say hipster all the way. Pehrson, who lives in the Art Museum area, appears and acts much like everyone else at the coffeehouse. The fact that there’s a deadly weapon under his shirt seems to have no bearing on the way he carries himself. Truth be told, he wears his gun about as well as he rocks his navy blue blazer.
The upstate New York native has lived in Pennsylvania for the past decade and says one of his favorite things about the Keystone State is the relative ease with which law-abiding citizens can obtain a license to carry firearms. “It goes across all boundaries that you could possibly imagine,” Pehrson says of gun ownership, and more specifically, of carrying a pistol on a daily basis. “Most of the people I know who own guns are doctors, lawyers, programmers and photographers.”
The rise in gun ownership by urban dwellers has been well-documented over the past few years. In August 2007, the late Steven Wells penned a PW cover story about the diverse crowd of Philadelphians arming themselves for in-home protection. And the numbers continue to rise: It’s no secret that gun sales in this country began skyrocketing the day after Barack Obama became president.
But Pehrson represents a gun-owning demographic not often discussed: Young, professionals packin’ (legal) heat on Philly streets. As Pehrson tells his tale, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s a gun under his shirt. When asked to reveal his weapon, he politely declines. “Concealed means concealed,” he says with a smile.
Pehrson didn’t always pack a pistol. Back in 2004, he was looking for a hobby, and his quest led him to the Philadelphia Archery and Gun Club on Ellsworth Street in South Philly. There, he met friendly and knowledgeable staffers who taught him how to properly shoot. He was hooked. “If everybody is more educated, less people are going to get hurt due to accidents,” he says.
Soon, Pehrson was making regular visits to the gun club, carrying his weapon strictly to and from the range. But without a carry license, gun owners who transport their guns must adhere to a host of laws: keeping ammunition separate from the gun while in the vehicle, no stops between home and the range. Pehrson figured it was just easier to get a carry license. As time went on, carrying a gun became a part of his daily life. He even carries his gun to work, and says it’s not an issue for the Center City company that employs him.
Pehrson says that carrying a gun makes him feel safe, and points to one incident in particular that reinforces his decision.
It was late June 2008 about 10 p.m., and Pehrson found himself walking from North Bowl on Second Street in Northern Liberties to his then-girlfriend’s house near Front Street and Girard Avenue. He was followed, he says, and subsequently surrounded by three teens wielding a stun gun—he later found out the boys had been zapping people and robbing them. Pehrson says he drew his firearm, never pointing it at anyone and keeping it angled toward the ground the entire time, and the youths dispersed.
“They realized they weren’t going to get to roll some hipster kid in Northern Liberties,” he says. Pehrson called 911 to document the incident. “What it underscored is this concept that I’m responsible for my own safety.” Pehrson says he believes statistics show most people who carry a gun for protection never have to draw their weapon, let alone fire it. “I really am probably one of the few people who have had to,” pull his gun in self-defense, he says.
As his love of guns grew, so too did Pehrson’s need to become more involved in the legalities of gun ownership. “I always had in the back of my head that it could be political,” he says.
And political it is: Pennsylvania has been a “shall-issue state,” meaning authorities must award carry licenses to applicants with clean records who meet certain criteria, since 1988. At the time, only five other states had the designation. But while licenses have been available to residents for over 20 years now some Philly residents say police often drag their feet on the applications, making the process more restrictive than allowed by law.
In Philly, there were approximately 5,890 LTCFs issued in 2008 and 5,043 last year, according to Lt. Lisa King of the Gun Permits Unit. There are currently about 23,500 active licenses in the city. LTCFs are good for five years. By comparison, Bucks County issued about 5,618 licenses in 2008 and 5,771 in 2009, according to a spokeswoman at the county’s Sheriff’s Office. There are more than 28,000 active licenses in that county at this time. Considering Philadelphia’s population soars above 1 million, and Bucks County’s hovers around 600,000, the disparity in the numbers of licenses issued raises some questions for those who complain that police are delaying their right to carry.
Pehrson’s thirst for gun owner information led him to conduct extensive research, but the more he searched, the less satisfied he felt. “There were 18 different websites that all said something slightly different,” he says. So in 2006, he started the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association, pafoa.org, a site that today has 30,000 registered users. “It’s part education, part ... politics,” he says of PAFOA. It was a way to help change people’s views of guns, or at least help them open their minds to the possibility that firearms can be used for good instead of misery, he says. Despite the negativity surrounding guns, Pehrson asks people to be open-minded, and realize that “self-defense is ultimately a personal choice.”
These days, Pehrson meets fellow gun owners in unlikely places, including trips to the bank. (Carrying a firearm in a bank is not prohibited by law in Pennsylvania, although, like any business exercising private-property rights, individual banks can have a policy against it). “I’m depositing a check and I meet another gun owner,” he says. “It’s one of those things—gun owners are everywhere.” One teller asked him for information about PAFOA, now a registered nonprofit organization. Pehrson handed him a card.
One amazing thing about PAFOA, he says, is membership diversity. While gun owners are often stereotyped as “rednecks,” Pehrson says this couldn’t be further from the truth. One member on his site, he says, is an extreme leftist, a card-carrying socialist labor organizer. Others are Libertarians. Still others are conservatives. There’s the firearm dealer, the teacher and the journalist. The computer programmer, the cop and the stay-at-home-mom.
Then there’s Al, a 33-year-old IT guy, and his wife, a 28-year-old project manager for a corporate company in Center City. Al can’t be more than 5’6, sports long hair pulled back in a ponytail, struts around in flip-flops and dons thin-rimmed glasses. And he’s a practicing Buddhist, prayer beads and all. His wife, who requested anonymity, rocks a necklace with handcuff charms, sports a bob haircut, blond with purple streaks, and has the air of punkishness. The mild-mannered couple love living in Northern Liberties, and are otherwise unassuming. They also both carry a firearm for protection on a regular basis. “I always carry wherever I can,” Al says. “She does the same thing.”
The couple got into guns after a home scare three years ago. They had just moved to the neighborhood when one night a banging on their front door woke them up. They figured it was a drunk who mistook the place for home. “As soon as I woke up I realized we had nothing to defend ourselves,” Al says.
They had talked about getting guns before, but only in passing. The incident prompted them to act. First thing was a trip to the range to learn about gun safety and proper shooting techniques. What developed was an obsession. They won’t say how many guns they own, but it’s a lot. Mostly for educational purposes, since Al takes neighbors out to the range for shooting instruction, requests he says seem to be increasing lately. “For me, guns become very academic,” Al says. Based on the number of people who contact him for lessons, Al surmises gun ownership, and in particular those who legally carry on public streets, may be on the rise in Philly.
Surprisingly, Al’s wife says there definitely seem to be more women taking up arms, as is evident by those who have reached out to her husband for shooting lessons. Self-admittedly afraid of guns in the past, Al’s wife warmed up to the idea after taking a few lessons. “You kind of just have to open your minds,” she says. “You need to practice, get comfortable with it.” She adds: “A lot of times, women are better first-time shooters than men because they actually listen.” Al chuckles in the background.
Al sees a need to carry a gun because of the unforeseeable. “When you carry, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that’s the reason why you carry,” he says. “You carry because from your home to the office is where everything happens.”
Al says Northern Liberties seems to be a hot spot for burgeoning gun enthusiasts. After a spate of recent home invasions, Al posted invitations for gun lessons on the neighborhood Internet forum. He received a number of responses. “Even in the nicest neighborhood, anything can happen,” he says. His wife points out that carrying is insurance in a sense.
The couple make it clear that carrying a gun doesn’t give one the right to quick-draw. There’s a social responsibility to be reserved when tested. “If you’re in a situation, and you have the ability to retreat, that would be my first choice,” Al’s wife says. Al continues: “You don’t have these things because you plan on using them. We know that the threats are there. It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it ... It’s kind of hard to practice Buddhism when you’re dead.”
Josh Dillon refuses to be a blurb in a yellowing obituary. The 33-year-old Northern Liberties resident, who operates a solar-energy company, and lives an urban life much like his peers, is another gun owner who constantly has a firearm at his side. Dillon understands how guns can be demonized in a city like Philadelphia, where firearms, especially the handgun, have become a symbol of neverending pain. But he says it’s important not to blame an inanimate object for society’s problems.
“Do you blame the drug on the person who died from an overdose, or do you blame the person who put the drug into their body?” he asks. Dillon says he’s not “pro-gun,” he’s pro self-defense. He likens it to the abortion debate; it’s not “pro-abortion,” it’s pro-choice. And he wants the option to pack his piece.
Someone else who enjoys having that option is a 33-year-old Germantown man who has his gun with him 24/7. “Dave,” who requested anonymity, decided to seek out firearms as a means of protection after being body-checked by a stranger on the street while walking to his job at a Philadelphia university more than a year ago. Today, Dave carries a gun everywhere he goes, though he’s never had to use it. “It’s made me a lot more responsible, quite frankly,” he says. “I think I’ve grown up a little bit since I started to carry. You kind of think twice when somebody in traffic messes with you.”
Dave says most people assume in a city deemed liberal that it’s hard to find folks who share this protectionist outlook on firearms. But they’re out there.
During a visit to a South Philly gun range some months back, less than a dozen young people, probably in their 20s and 30s, spent a sunny Sunday afternoon shooting away at paper targets. One young woman who was with a group of male companions appeared uneasy at first—she was jumpy and lacked confidence—it appeared as though this may have been her entry into the shooting world. As for general gun ownership in the city, Dave suspects it’s on the rise for a number of factors. “It’s only a growing movement as far as I’m concerned, with the economy, and the city’s inability to protect people,” he says.
With the rise in armed citizens walking the streets of Philly, one might expect police officers—who see rampant gun violence everyday—to be offended that people are looking to protect themselves. But a canvassing of city streets shows they’re the first to admit they can’t be everywhere at once. One Northwest Philly bike cop who spoke anonymously says he sees absolutely nothing wrong with a citizen carrying a handgun for protection. As long as he or she is properly licensed, he says.
During an April rally in front of the Shooter Shop in Kensington, where religious protesters gathered to decry urban gun violence, and specifically call for firearm dealers to sign a code of conduct that would aim to cut down on straw purchasing (the act of someone who can legally buy a gun doing so for a prohibited person), another police officer said that carrying a gun was a right, and who was he to deny that to average citizens? Asked for his opinion on everyday folks carrying, he said: “I really don’t think it matters what our feelings are ... you have a right to bear arms.” The officer, Cpt. William Fisher of the Civil Affairs Unit, stressed he was speaking as an individual, and not as a representative of the Police Department.
David Laden, a West Mount Airy resident who has been carrying a gun since the ’90s, claims he was integral in helping to pave the way for Philly residents to obtain carry licenses more easily than they had in the early years of shall-issue legislation. Laden, 67, says he applied, and was subsequently turned down, for a carry license after shall-issue first took effect. So he sued. “After a five-year court battle, my permit was issued, and I like to think my egregious case had something to do with the subsequent change in state law that removed the Philadelphia Police Department’s ability to arbitrarily deny permits to law-abiding citizens,” he says.
Act 17 also had something to do with the change.
Actually, it had everything to do with it. The law led to the creation of Pennsylvania’s Uniform Firearms Act. While addressing licensing, the law also instituted changes to the way firearms are dealt with in the commonwealth. Most notably, the act led to the creation of “preemption.” To this day, municipalities are forbidden from enacting their own gun laws. But this hasn’t prevented them from trying to do so, as is evident by Ortiz vs. Commonwealth. In 1996, a year after the UFA’s creation, then-City Councilman Angel Ortiz joined other Council members, and their counterparts in Pittsburgh, in a lawsuit that centered around their respective municipalities’ desire to regulate so-called “assault weapons.” Ortiz and the others lost, and their case is the most commonly cited example of preemption remaining the law of the land in Pennsylvania.
Laden says the case is more relevant than ever, “because the City continues to piss away tax dollars enacting stunt gun laws that can never be enforced,” he writes in an email. Just as the Police Department has been known to make the licensing process more difficult than necessary, it is also known as the issuing authority in Pennsylvania that revokes the largest number of licences.
Jon Mirowitz, an attorney specializing in Pennsylvania gun laws, has drawn the ire of the Police Department more than once. He has sued, numerous times, on behalf of clients who have had their LTCF’s revoked under what they term illegitimate reasons. He’s won some, he’s lost some, but Mirowitz says the fact that he has gotten even one license reinstated shows the department is pulling licenses for questionable reasons at best, illegal ones at worse.
One example is revocation for having a firearm stolen from a vehicle. While some say it’s not the smartest thing to leave a gun unattended in a car, it’s not illegal, Mirowitz says. More importantly, however, it’s not spelled out as a valid reason for license revocation in the Uniform Firearms Act.
Police cite a provision in the UFA giving them certain leeway where revocation is concerned. “It’s not specifically stated, but it falls under the discretion of ‘good cause,’ and we’ll exercise that discretion,” says Lt. Francis Healy, a special advisor to Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
Meanwhile, soon after the creation of the UFA, Laden says, there was little reporting on the fact that carry licenses were now more easily available in Philly, and virtually no mention in the media of how to go about getting one. So Laden and some friends printed out fliers, (in pre-Internet days), and began passing them around. He also compiled statistics that showed a drastic drop in Philadelphia murder rates between 1990 (503 homicides) and 2001 (309 homicides), which coincided with the issuance of a greater number of carry licenses for private citizens. All of this happened after the Police Department was forced to start issuing LTCFs after years of not complying with shall-issue regulations, the basis for Laden’s lawsuit in the first place.
Laden says he is glad to see the existence of many other gun-rights groups, such as the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Club, of which he is a member, and says it’s always good to see more interest generated, especially among younger people. “That might be the future of activism,” he says referring to Dan Pehrson's PAFOA.
Regardless of the specific organization, Laden says the important thing is to make people see firearms in a more positive light, like they were viewed when he was young.
“Times were not always like this,” Laden says of the anti-gun culture, especially in Philadelphia. “Propaganda works. You’re seeing 30 or 40 years of propaganda and it has an effect.”
Laden says that when he was in college, students kept rifles in dorms, since they would go shooting together for fun. But despite the presence of guns, there were no mass shootings and murder sprees. “Nobody shot anybody,” he says.
As for carrying, Laden says it’s a right. “I always thought it was normal to carry,” noting his grandfather holstered a revolver while running a local taproom in the 1950s. “Basically, I carry a gun because, unlike Nutter et. al., I can’t carry a cop. ”