This March, Kostas Kapasouris and James Gates quietly made a deal. Kapasouris, a landlord in the Cherrydale neighborhood of Arlington, Va., had been trying to rent a vacant storefront in a small shopping center. The adjacent businesses included a yoga studio, a salon, a florist, a framing store, and two restaurants: a Thai place and an American-fusion spot called Portabellos. Rather than offer risotto and expensive beers, Gates, a 28-year-old former Marine, planned to sell semiautomatic pistols and long guns at a store called Nova Firearms.
Gates ran a successful Nova shop in nearby McLean and was looking to expand. But Cherrydale seems like an odd choice for a growing gun business. It’s a quaint neighborhood of fewer than 4,000 people, lined with Craftsman homes and tucked within the liberal bastion of Arlington. In 2012, roughly 70 percent of its residents voted for President Obama, and while there is no mayor, four out of the five members who sit on the county board are Democrats. Locals call the area “The Socialist Republic of Arlington.”
Kapasouris and Gates signed a five-year lease. The landlord did not tell the other businesses on the strip about their new neighbor. In mid-May, when a local news site called ARLnow reported that Nova Firearms would soon move in, residents in the area were taken aback. The owner of the yoga studio, Annie Moyer, 49, recalls, “People were forwarding the article to us from all over the place. We were pretty angry, because everyone knew it was going to be a problem.” M.J. Hussein, the 43-year-old owner of Portabellos, remembers, “Someone walked into my establishment and was really pissed off. He’s been dining with us for 13 years. He said he wouldn’t be able to support us anymore if a gun shop opened.”
Within days, a petition popped up on change.org. It soon amassed over 2,000 signatures — more than half of the neighborhood. Because Virginia law says you cannot block a gun shop from opening in your area, the residents were appealing directly to both Gates and Kapasouris, essentially asking them to break the lease. “We are alarmed that the shop is within two blocks of an Arlington County Public School,” the petition states. “We call on the owner of the shop to exercise concern for the community, and most particularly its youngest and most vulnerable residents, and cease any action that would allow a gun shop to occupy that space.”
Cherrydale is the latest in a series of suburban areas that have tried to prevent firearms proprietors from coming to town. These efforts generally fail, mainly because of state laws. The mayor of Evanston, Illinois, recently tried to impose a ban on gun ranges in the Chicago suburb, but when it became clear that the measure wouldn’t withstand a legal challenge, the town adopted regulations this month that pushed ranges to the outskirts of town. Pleasant Hill, California, in San Francisco’s East Bay, tried to adopt a similar statute in 2013, and was sued by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group. The lawsuit is ongoing.
“Part of the strategy of gun-rights advocates is to normalize guns,” says Adam Winkler, a lawyer and the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms. “Having gun stores in every community makes them less odd” to non-gun-owners, Winkler says.
Around the time that Cherrydale’s petition went live on change.org, a meeting was set up between business owners on the strip and James Gates. (Both Gates and Kapasouris declined to speak with The Trace for this story.) On a Saturday night in late May, about 20 people gathered at Sun and Moon Yoga Studio on the strip, including a local police officer, members of the Cherrydale Civic Association, and, among other elected officials, State Senator Barbara Favola, whose district contains Cherrydale. Gates, for his part, was accompanied by a lawyer named George Lyon.
The attendees sat in a circle with their shoes off, and were served cookies and tea. Senator Favola said the goal of the sit-down, aside from learning more about the store, was to educate Gates about the community. “We wanted to very fairly and accurately depict that this business was not going to do well in this neighborhood,” she says. “People come here to go to the flower shop, get their hair done, that kind of thing. They don’t come to buy a gun.”
Gates was surprised by the backlash, according to one person who attended the meeting and asked to remain anonymous. He and Kapasouris happen to share the same accountant, and that was how he learned about the storefront. “We don’t want to hurt anybody,” Gates reportedly said. “We feel really badly about this thing.” He suggested that if he could recoup his losses — he said he had already sunk a lot of money into the space — he might be willing to take his business elsewhere. The meeting, many felt, ended on a positive note. “We were sure that they were going to accept some sort of offer and go away,” the person who attended says.
Instead, after several days of silence, Gates sent an email to his opponents saying that he was “contractually and financially bound to the space.”
“That’s when it got weird,” says another resident who requested anonymity.
As it turns out, Gates’s attorney, George Lyon, is not just any lawyer. He is one of the most prominent Second Amendment activists in the country. He was one of the original plaintiffs in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which ruled to reinforce protections on an individual’s right to possess a firearm. In another famous case, Palmer v. District of Columbia, he helped overturn the city’s ban on carrying guns outside of the home. The name of his Fairfax-based firm is Arsenal Attorneys, which, according to its website, “is a law firm dedicated to gun owners.” In his spare time, Lyon works a pistol instructor for the National Rifle Association. (Lyon did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
“People come here to go to the flower shop, get their hair done, that kind of thing. They don’t come to buy a gun.”
Suddenly, tiny Cherrydale became the target of a tremendous amount of ire from pro-gun activists. On May 29, the NRA attacked the neighborhood on three of its news channels. In one segment, a host named Jennifer Zahrn said that “a group of neighborhood busybodies is trying to run a small firearms dealer out of town before he even opens for business.” After noting several times that Gates is a former Marine, she announced that “bigoted smear campaigns against law-abiding gun owners and gun stores are nothing new. That’s why it’s important that the five million members of the NRA stand strong and fight these bullying tactics wherever they strike.”
In an interview on the NRA talk show “Cam & Co,” Gates suggested that his store would make the community safer. “It’ll bring a bigger police presence to the area,” he claimed. He also told the show’s host how he learned about the neighborhood’s opposition to his shop. “We had a customer who first tipped us off about [an] email listserv chain.”
Gates was referring to a Google group created for Arlington residents to discuss the gun shop. Several business owners on the strip say that they later learned that someone with an opposing viewpoint had surreptitiously joined it as a kind of spy. They made this discovery because, around the same time, they began to receive strange, angry phone calls from an Arlington resident named Steve Konsin. One by one, he called each proprietor and demanded to know whether they were for or against the gun shop. He said he wanted to be present for the next meeting, whenever it happened. When a worker at the Thai restaurant hung up on him, he called right back and insisted he speak with the manager. “I’m with my wife in the hospital,” he claimed. “She became ill from eating your food.” M.J. Hussein, the owner of Portabellos, says the caller told him that he and a bunch of others planned to boycott his restaurant. “I told him to go ahead and protest,” remembers Hussein, whose business was already suffering because his liberal clientele was scared off by the mere prospect of a gun store moving in.
Konsin was ultimately found out because he wasn’t very good at covering his tracks. He didn’t mask his caller ID, and soon the business owners on the strip realized they were being harassed by the same person. They then combed through the Google group and discovered Konsin’s name, which led them to promptly shut it down. I reached Konsin on the phone and explained that Cherrydale business owners had tied him to a series of hostile phone calls. “Hmm,” he told me. “That’s interesting.” Then he hung up.
In late May, trolls began to surface on the Yelp review pages of businesses on the strip. One person said of the flower shop, “AVOID AVOID AVOID. The owner is an antigun bigot. Take your business elsewhere.” Another commenter said of the yoga studio, “I learned that this business has joined with others to attempt to bully [the mall’s landlord] into refusing to rent space to a non-competing business. To me, yoga is not about bullying others into our wishes.”
By mid-June, it appeared there was nothing Cherrydale residents could do to prevent the opening of Nova Firearms. The store plans to open in August. For now, the opposition has trailed off with one final, desperate effort to stir up a backlash.
On June 17, Dylann Roof allegedly shot and killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, with a Glock .45 bought lawfully at a licensed gun store. The webmaster of another protest site, nogunshop.org, tried to tie the news to Nova’s planned opening in Cherrydale, pointing out that Nova’s McClean store sells Glock .45 pistols.
UPDATE: Since this story was reported, Kostas Kapasouris, the landlord, has backed out of his lease with Nova Firearms.
[Photo: Flickr user Ron Cogswell]