The city office that issues gun permits sits directly across the street from the Philly Firearms Academy run by Jose D. Morales.
It would seem to be an ideal location for Morales, who opened up shop in 2013. But it’s been less busy than he anticipated.
“If I get one or two people a day saying, ‘I want to learn about the firearm,’ that’s a lot,” Morales said.
When people do come in to take one of his many courses on gun safety, Morales will be in his signature black and red shirt, emblazoned with his name and the symbol of his business. On the left, they’ll see an organized bookshelf with books and pamphlets on guns and safety. Further down are displayed his many certifications from the NRA and other agencies in different disciplines.
Greeting everyone with a handshake and smile, he said he has never turned anyone away because of money. Whenever necessary, he works with his customers on payment plans.
“I (would) have to go to bed at night knowing that you came to me as a wife whose ex-husband is stalking you and I turned you away for x number of dollars,” Morales said.
Morales grew up in the Bronx section of New York with his sister and mother, who owned a handgun in a city that he described as very anti-gun. Though he was thankful it never needed to be used, save for one brandishing when he was an adolescent, it helped his mother sleep easy at night.
When Morales first moved to Philly at 19, in the Hunting Park neighborhood, he enjoyed the vibe.
“Growing up in the Bronx, this was like the suburbs, or the country,” he said and laughed. “Only with TastyKake and cheesesteaks.”
After serving in the Army, Morales earned his associate’s degree in mental health and social service from the Community College of Philadelphia in 1995. Over the next decade, he worked in a variety of roles for the Jewish Employment and Vocational Services, including helping young people find jobs and providing therapy.
He would later earn his bachelor’s in digital media at Temple, teach himself HTML coding, and run a part-time business in that field as well as teach it in summer programs.
Through all of these different transitions, he would teach firearms safety on the side, but never out of a shop.
“Before I had a brick-and-mortar business, I considered myself a Ronin instructor,” he said and smiled. “It is very difficult to do without a range. You have to be a wandering soldier going from range to range, developing relationships, so you can qualify your students.”
In the mid-1990s, he met and fell in love with his partner, Merle Carter, who now works as an emergency department physician at Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia. She occasionally helps Morales with his safety classes but works mostly behind the scenes of the business.
“He’s a gifted educator,” said Carter.
As a bonus, she added, Morales is a great cook.
Another aspect of Morales’ shop that students have noticed is that Hello Kitty, decked out in camo gear, is present on his pistol magazines and his protective gear.
He explained that when he would go to shooting ranges, his gear would disappear because everyone’s ear muffs and magazines looked similar. So he used the cartoon feline to mark his equipment.
“I enjoy the whimsical quality of it,” he said. “Not taking myself too seriously. You have a juxtaposition of ideas. An innocent cartoon character and a tool of destruction.”
In early 2015, Morales met local hip hop artist Maj Toure, who walked into the shop and asked about concealed carry. The conversation ended up going on over two hours.
“It encompassed the Civil Rights movement, minorities and crimes, apathy of government,” Morales said. “We were kindred spirits.”
Last April, Toure presented the idea of Black Guns Matter. According to its Facebook page, the movement aims to teach people in urban communities about their Second Amendment rights and responsibilities through firearms training and education.
“People on the front lines are concerned and want to be able to protect themselves,” Morales said. “But they are not offered avenues to education or are not encouraged to be educated.”
Three free safety courses had been conducted as of early October, covering safe gun handling, responsibility of gun ownership, dispelling of myths and nonviolent conflict resolution.
Morales said there was an equal level of public interest but the class size had to be scaled down from 100 individuals in the first class, to 75 and then to 50.
“It’s been hella productive,” said Toure. “There has been not one pushback from the community. No one has said, ‘We don’t want this.’ They’re showing up in droves.”
Morales is interested in more collaborations in the future, even with people who are ideologically on the other side of the issue. The goal would be to have a discussion and reach common ground.
“The gun doesn’t know what your political views are,” he said. “It only knows that if you interact with it incorrectly, you’re going to hurt somebody or yourself.”
Moving forward, Morales would like to enhance his social media presence and do more programs to raise awareness and educate people.
One program in the works is tentatively called Gun Safe Philly. He wishes to host it at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and have it be free to the public, supported by sponsorships.
“Guns are a part of American culture,” he said, “and all the legislation in the world is not going to make them go away.”
– Text, photos and video by Robert Tierney and Hongrui Zhang