Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Gun sellers in the crosshairs

Randy Farmer stood silent amid the gunshots, and it was just as well. Had the Kentucky native and Air Force veteran tried to speak, he’d have been overruled by the bang of bullets escaping muzzles and echoing through his gun range in Middle River.

Randy Farmer

There in front of him, no more than a half-dozen middle-aged men and women shot at paper targets mounted up to 25 yards from where they sat or stood, bullet casings spitting to the floor behind them with each trigger pull.

“Do these people look like criminals?” he asked during a brief silence, before renewed shooting swallowed any possible answer. No matter; Farmer is aware that if state lawmakers agree on gun control legislation (and signs are saying they will), the firearms used by some of those taking practice shots at FreeState Gun Range would be illegal, potentially making their owners criminals after Oct. 1 — and costing Farmer a great deal of business.

Farmer, after selling a $30 million-a-year computer company with 125 employees, opened the gun range in 2011, hidden away at the far end of a warehouse-like office building barely within view of a quiet stretch of Maryland Route 43 in Baltimore County. Internet maps and GPS devices are confounded by the businesses’ address — but Farmer says his customers find him anyway, so dedicated are those who own and shoot guns.

“It’s an expensive sport,” Farmer said. “They’re very passionate. … It’s just fun to come shoot.”

He designed the 14,000-square-foot range and shop as a club, he said — a flat screen television, pool table and Xbox video game console are immediately to the right when one enters — but primarily as a place where gun owners could buy and shoot firearms ordinarily not allowed at indoor ranges, including the popular AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

That business model is threatened by Senate Bill 281 and House Bill 294, which would ban the sale of firearms deemed assault weapons, and others that carry more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The bills’ passage would effectively eliminate the niche market Farmer has catered to for the past two years.

“I don’t think I can stay in business,” he said, putting the jobs of about 20 people in jeopardy. “They’re trying to legislate out of existence an entire industry.”

Frank Krasner, who for the past 23 years has run the Silverado Gun Show at locales that include Frederick, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, said the political climate is such that his portion of the industry was already in trouble. Shows he operated in suburban Washington, D.C., have been canceled, and Krasner has begun looking to West Virginia to fill out his schedule.

The Maryland native said he isn’t giving up — not yet, anyway.

“Rumors of our death will be greatly exaggerated. There will be legal trade, and we will continue with trade so long as it’s legal,” Krasner said. “I know that it’s going to affect my business. How it affects it, I don’t know. Right now, anything that’ll put a round down the tube is a hot commodity.”

Right now, gun sales are humming. The Maryland State Police have been unable to keep up with the flood of background checks, and seven-day waiting periods have swelled to 30 days in some cases. Farmer says he can’t keep guns on the shelves, as a desperate public buys up inventory more quickly than shop owners can cut deals with suppliers.

“They’re buying [guns] like crazy. The federal and state government hasn’t really done a great job in helping the economy and unemployment, except for one industry,” Farmer said. “Business is great, better than it’s ever been. But it’s for the wrong reasons.”

Farmer, admittedly an optimist, is fighting against a tide that rose immediately following the December massacre of school children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. O’Malley and powerful members of the General Assembly — including Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, who is mulling a run for Maryland attorney general — are guiding lawmakers toward accepting what would be the nation’s strictest gun laws.

“This legislation may save lives,” Frosh said immediately after the Senate gave the bill its stamp of approval. But Sen. David R. Brinkley said Frosh and other Democrats in the legislature were ignoring the potential business impact of the legislation.

“When you don’t have a viable industry, like this, you end up with only a black market,” said Brinkley, R-Carroll and Frederick.

That helps the criminals while hurting honest businessmen and responsible gun owners, Krasner said. Even the state Department of Legislative Services notes that the legislation would have a “meaningful” impact on small businesses that sell guns.

“This is affecting the staple of the industry, the local gun shop, the one that’s owned by a family, a family-owned business,” Krasner said. “The gun business, because of the way it’s regulated, unless you’re a mega-chain, it’s pretty much the classic mom-and-pop.”

Even the optimist wasn’t willing to predict what would happen to those shops — or his — if the legislation goes into effect this fall.

“I don’t really know where the path is at the moment,” Farmer said.