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A Philadelphia suburb is taking gun control into its own hands


Passing gun regulations on the national level is difficult, so some local officials are taking it upon themselves. One Philadelphia suburb has sparked a debate about what kinds of gun restrictions are possible for municipalities in conservative-led states. Here's Emily Rizzo.

EMILY RIZZO, BYLINE: Shot Tec is the only commercial firearms business in Lower Merion Township. It sits in a mostly residential area in a leafy suburb. Customers can order guns online - semi-automatic rifles, pistols, ammunition, pretty much anything a gun owner would need. And they pick up those orders at the storefront. But because those guns aren't sold there, owner Grant Schmidt says technically it's not a gun shop. In fact, he offers gun safety classes.

GRANT SCHMIDT: And we use advanced simulation technology to teach people how to shoot and defend themselves.

RIZZO: Schmidt greets a UPS delivery - a customer's order.

SCHMIDT: Just going to open that box. Inside's going to be a box, probably with a firearm. We're going to contact that customer.

RIZZO: When Shot Tec opened, neighbors worried because these guns were close to homes, close to schools. They organized a push for new gun sale regulations. Now Lower Merion has limited gun businesses to only certain commercial, mostly non-residential areas and not inside homes. It's risky because Pennsylvania has a law called the preemption statute, which says that towns can't pass stricter gun laws than the state. But this regulation passed unanimously in April.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The ordinance is duly adopted.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you, madam secretary.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I look forward, if it comes to that, to defending this and defending our right as a municipality to have self-determination in this state.

RIZZO: Schmidt and a Pennsylvania PAC that advocates for gun owners is now challenging the ordinance in court.

SCHMIDT: What the township did is they made it less accessible for people to access their rights and for people to access things like gunsmithing, etc.

RIZZO: Township Commissioner Mike McKeon says he feels the regulation will survive a legal challenge because it's a zoning law. Before this, gun stores could open anywhere in Lower Merion, which is one of Pennsylvania's largest municipalities.

MIKE MCKEON: So when you have that kind of size, we have the ability to try to zone it and put firearms in certain districts and not in others.

RIZZO: They can't say for sure that it will reduce gun violence, but they believe it's a start.

MCKEON: But what we can guarantee is we're trying to make everyone feel safer.

RIZZO: But Grant Schmidt argues safety doesn't come from limiting businesses or guns. For him, the solution entails armed security at gathering places like schools.

SCHMIDT: There's a variety of ways to do that, and that's where the discussion should be.

RIZZO: Schmidt's business, Shot Tec, is just a few blocks away from the home of Joe Oxman, who helped fight for the new ordinance. Oxman wants to make it harder for new gun stores to open. Gun violence isn't rampant in this area, but he's thinking of neighboring Philadelphia.

JOE OXMAN: The last thing I would ever want to hear is that a death was caused in Philadelphia from the sale of a gun in Lower Merion Township.

RIZZO: He says maybe it's symbolic, but it's more than the usual thoughts and prayers politicians often say.

OXMAN: We're not going to change the world here, but at least we're showing what this township is about.

RIZZO: The final word is expected to be settled in county court. A hearing on the lawsuit is expected to be scheduled in the coming months.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Rizzo in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "RIDDLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Emily Rizzo