It is early morning. Mennonite Pastor J. Fred Kauffman is handcuffed, standing in a dingy holding cell between Spring Garden Avenue and Ninth Street, divulging his personal information to a judge through closed-circuit TV.
“What are you in for?” the judge asks.
“Oh, I was sitting in front of Colosimo’s [Gun Center].”
“Oh, really? You were in the paper! See here!” the judge says, holding up a copy of that day’s edition of the Metro.
“Listen, brother,” she continues. “We are living in the last days and we need to take a stand against this violence!”
Kauffman says later, “I felt like I was in church.”
The judge would continue to speak with Kauffman for “about half an hour about pastors and religious leaders having to do what they are called to do to confront this violence,” Kauffman recalls.
Kauffman, 61, was arrested along with two others for sitting in the doorway of the Colosimo Gun Center at 933 Spring Garden St., a brick storefront with a large, white sign above the narrow, sunken entrance way. Kauffman and company were protesting the store owner’s refusal in January 2009 to sign a memorandum discouraging purchases of guns by someone other than the actual user, a practice known as a “straw purchase.” And like the owner had done to five of Kauffman’s cohorts on Jan. 14, he called the cops.
Since being released on his own cognizance and found not guilty on all charges, Kauffman has continued to confront violence and, more specifically, those who illegally sell dangerous weapons that can lead to unnecessary violence.
Today, Kauffman and the organization he is affiliated with, Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based movement aimed at reducing gun violence, continue to push for cooperation with local gun sellers in preventing firearms from falling into the wrong hands. If the religious group cannot convince gun store owners to sign and abide by the 10-point memorandum, the organization stages protests, sit-ins and prayer vigils for the sake of safety.
Colosimo’s owner, James G. Colosimo, 77, pleaded guilty in federal district court on behalf of the gun shop to charges that it had made false statements and had failed to maintain proper records involving the purchases of 10 firearms between Aug. 4, 2004, and April 18, 2007. Authorities shut down the well-known Philadelphia gun shop for violations of federal firearms laws in connection with selling guns to straw purchasers.
The memorandum, which is identical to those of Walmart and the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, includes in the agreement specifically that gun shop owners videotape all sale transactions, administer employee background checks and secure firearms in locked areas. Heeding God’s Call reaches out to store owners and asks them to comply with Walmart’s standards.
The group most recently held a vigil in front of the Shooter Shop on the 2000-block of East Allegheny after the owner refused to sign the memorandum, calling it “illegal,” and plans on reaching out to Mike & Kates Sports Shopp in Fox Chase.
“Our purpose for doing this is to say that this is unacceptable, the way things are being done, this is outrageous,” says Kauffman, who was part of the Mennonite contingent that helped create the organization at a peace gathering in 2009. “If you’re not willing to slow the flow of arms to the illegal market, we’re going to do what we have to do.”
Heeding God’s Call’s mission, according to its website, is helping local faith communities organize advocacy campaigns to encourage gun shops to adopt a code of conduct to deter illegal purchasing and trafficking of handguns, as well as providing support and resources for faith communities to form multiracial, ecumenical and interfaith partnerships working together, on both social and legislative levels, to prevent gun violence.
Following that credo, the religious group has targeted Mike & Kate’s, a gun shop in the Northeast.
“You know, it’s like saying to a car dealer whose cars get used in crimes every day to rob banks and jewelry stores,” gun shop owner Mike Panamarenko says in his defense, “that they are held responsible for the [robbers’ actions]. It’s the same mentality.
“If a customer passes through the background checks, the federal and state police-required background check and passes it, we can’t be held responsible for what the customer does with the fire arm. If they decided to sell that gun on the black market, we are no more responsible than a culinary shop selling knives that were used in a murder. What the customer does with the product is their own business,” he says.
Heeding God’s Call is preparing to reach out to Mike & Kate’s and come to terms with the group without a need for protest.
“For Mike & Kate’s gun shop, the first step is to identify people in the neighborhood who are concerned,” Kauffman says. “We need to start having a conversation that sort of grows from the neighborhood up. You know, it’s not a template that Heeding God’s call is kind of imposing. It’s not the point. It’s like, who here in this neighborhood hears a call to address this particular piece of gun violence prevention.”
In 2006, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, people with guns murdered 27 people in Australia; 59 in England and Wales; 60 in Spain; 190 in Canada; 194 in Germany; and 10,177 in the United States.
“We got a problem,” Kauffman says. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
This is the section of a two-part series documenting gun violence in Northeast Philadelphia. You can find the first story of a vigil held in honor of a jewelery store owner killed during a robbery earlier this year, here.