Ken Baye sells guns, including assault-style rifles.
But sometimes when a customer comes in Stoddard’s Range and Guns to buy a firearm or shoot at targets, Baye and his team go beyond what gun control laws require and turn down the sale if they think the person seems off.
If a patron acts distraught, smells like weed or booze, or mentions something like wanting a gun because they just had a fight with a significant other, staffers are empowered to politely decline service, Baye told me. They’ve taken that step at least a dozen times a year at his locations in Midtown Atlanta and in Douglasville.
Yeah, he’s a supporter of the Second Amendment. “We don’t view ourselves as police, and we don’t want to restrict anybody’s rights.”
But “we don’t have an obligation to sell anybody anything,” said Baye, a Connecticut native who co-owns the business and spent much of his career as a lawyer for Home Depot. (A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also told me that firearms dealers are under no obligation to sell guns to any individual.)
I called Baye because I’ve wondered about the responsibilities of gun store owners and what it’s been like for them in the wake of another dismaying mass shooting, in this case the one that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The suspect used an assault rifle he bought at a gun store.
Baye talked to me about the importance of providing firearms for the personal safety of his customers, many of whom are women, some of them first-time gun owners.
“I don’t presume that any of them are criminals…. Do I worry that by being in this business that somebody is going to buy something and do harm to someone? Sure.”
But he said he imagines a bar owner might have a similar worry about a patron becoming a drunk driver and harming innocents.
The carnage in Parkland focused debate on gun control laws, mental health care, missed or unheeded warning signs and missteps by law enforcement.
Those are all crucial issues.
Here’s another: what can gun shop owners do to protect their communities beyond what the law requires?
Like it or not, small business owners who sell firearms are on the front line of our national defense against the wrong people getting access to hefty firepower. They need to make sure they are up for the task.
That’s asking a lot.
If police, family members and mental health professionals haven’t prevented enough mass shootings, what can a small business owner do?
I don’t fully know the answer, but I suspect it includes retailers at least asking prospective gun buyers lots of questions. You know, the kind of thing any protective parent might ask of someone coming over to date their kid. “So, tell me about yourself…. What are your intentions? Where are you heading? What are you involved in? What drew you here? Why should I trust you?”
It certainly means doing more than having customers fill out information for the government-required background checks that continue to have serious gaps.
Fla. gun shop owner’s view
Apparently a couple in Coral Springs, Fla., is thinking along the same lines, though for them it comes a bit too late.
Michael and Lisa Morrison own Sunrise Tactical Supply. It’s the small store where Nikolas Cruz bought the AR-15 that he later allegedly used to kill people, mostly teens not much younger than himself, according to police.
Attorney Douglas Rudman, who said he represents the Morrisons, told me his clients made sure that background paperwork was filled out and submitted for Cruz’s purchase.
Their brief conversation with Cruz aroused no suspicions, their attorney said. “They saw absolutely zero red flags.”
The Morrisons, who closed their shop after the shooting but have since reopened, are frustrated that the background check didn’t include information that would have blocked Cruz’s purchase, Rudman said. But he said they also now believe that gun store owners should do more themselves.
They say firearms shouldn’t be sold to anyone under 21 unless the buyer has served in the military or in law enforcement, Rudman said. (Walmart and Dick’s recently announced policies for similar age limits in their stores, and Florida is being sued by the National Rifle Association for newly forbidding gun sales to people under 21.)
The Morrisons also believe sellers should engage patrons in extra conversation, asking more questions so “you can better ferret out red flags,” Rudman said.
“Be aware for America”
Extra diligence from gun shop owners is essentially the same kind of effort we expect of some other business owners.
We want bartenders to look closely for signs that drunk customers aren’t headed for their cars. We expect sellers of fertilizer to scrutinize anyone trying to buy ammonium nitrate that can be used for explosives. (The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shares a “Be aware for America” brochure that urges fertilizer sellers to jot down vehicle license plate numbers and call the ATF if they think “something’s not quite right.”)
Baye, at Stoddard’s Range and Guns in Atlanta, told me he hasn’t put in place any new policies since the latest mass shooting. He doesn’t pose additional questions to people solely because they express interest in buying assault-style guns — he calls them “sporting rifles.”
“I’m not going to ask 20 questions” of prospective gun buyers, he said. But if patrons do or say something obvious to raise suspicions — show signs of being distraught, for example — he said he’d ask a few questions before deciding whether to give them access to a gun.
“I don’t think my role is to prevent bad guys from doing evil things,” he told me.
He’s wrong on that point. We all share in that responsibility.
But figuring out what to look for may not be easy.
At Stoddard’s, a one-page sheet entitled “Signs that a customer could be suicidal,” is posted near range staffers. It has eight things to watch out for, none of which, it says, are guarantees that a patron is suicidal but are cause for extra caution. (Suicide on a gun range is a thing.)
There is no similar tip list posted for signs of a mass shooter.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an organization that represents gun retailers and others, has programs to help store owners reduce guns thefts, identify patrons who might be a suicide risk and look for signs of straw buyers for people who aren’t allowed to purchase firearms.
It doesn’t, though, have similar advice for shop owners wondering if there are tells of a potential mass shooter, NSSF spokesman Michael Bazinet told me. “It is do the best you can …. It is pretty hard to get into the person’s head.”
In a follow-up email, he wrote that “the most effective thing that we can do” is to ensure that background checks retailers rely on include all applicable records.
Baye told me he sees the potential benefits in going farther than that. He’s open to the idea of requiring background checks for private gun sales and allowing gun restraining orders to temporarily pull firearms from individuals that may pose a risk.
“It is as horrific for me as it is for anyone,” he said, “to see any innocent person, especially children, killed or injured.”