Ashley Singleton never thought of herself an activist until a gun store opened next to her son’s elementary school.
While the nondescript brick storefront was under construction, she passed it twice a day in the school car line. She’d assumed it might be a doctor’s office; it looked like many other small businesses in Madison, a middle-class suburb in North Alabama known mostly for its good schools and proximity to the city of Huntsville, a tech hub that’s become the state’s fastest growing metro.
But one morning in the school drop-off line, Singleton saw the business had a new sign: Rocket City Armory.
After dropping off her first-grader at school, Singleton went home and looked up the business.
It was a firearms customization and repair shop that would also sell guns. Its property line sits less than 500 feet from that of Midtown Elementary, which has nearly 900 students in pre-K through fifth grades. Around the corner, about the same distance away, is Primrose School, a private preschool and child care center. The armory has four large front windows and its sign bears a rifle crossed with a Saturn V rocket, a nod to Huntsville’s history in NASA’s Apollo space program.
“My son can see (the gun store) from the school playground,” Singleton said. “He’s 7. If the store was anywhere else, I would not care. But who in their right mind would put anything to do with guns almost directly between a preschool and an elementary school?”
It’s a question more communities have begun grappling with as parents and policymakers look for solutions to combat a rising tide of gun violence and school-based shootings. More than two-thirds of American parents say they’re concerned a shooting could happen at their children’s school. Late last year, gun violence surpassed car accidents as the leading killer of children and teens in the United States. Active shooter drills are as common as fire drills in American schools.
At the state and federal levels, debate over gun violence prevention remains intensely partisan and mostly gridlocked. Democratic lawmakers push for tighter restrictions around guns while Republicans refuse to support policies they see as infringing on Second Amendment rights.
But in some communities, pockets of parents like Singleton are pushing for change at the most local of levels: municipal zoning ordinances. In the past few years, dozens of towns across the country, from California to Nevada to Massachusetts, have enacted local laws to ban gun stores from operating near “sensitive areas” like schools and child care centers.
“I would say these efforts have been mostly successful,” said Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy at GIffords Law Center, a nonprofit focused on ending gun violence. “We zone lots of businesses away from sensitive areas because they pose heightened risks: cannabis shops, adult businesses, even car repair shops. There’s no reason sellers of lethal weapons could not also be included.”
But success for parents who don’t want gun stores near their schools often depends on a variety of factors: the political climate in a town, state firearms laws, buy-in from local officials. Opponents say restrictions harm small businesses or potentially infringe on Second Amendment rights.
For Singleton and a group of fellow Madison city parents, their ultimate goal is to get the armory moved somewhere else. They’ve contacted the mayor’s office, their city council members, local police, spoken at city council meetings, done spots on local TV news and circulated petition that’s garnered more than 800 signatures. They also hope to push the city to create zoning restrictions that would prevent gun stores from opening near any other schools in town.
“I’m an introverted person; I’m not a social justice warrior,” said Singleton. “But I can’t take a backseat on this one because not only could this affect (my son’s) physical safety, but for me it’s also about his mental health. School shootings have such an impact on our kids’ lives, and their learning, and how they navigate their campus.
“Now they can see a visible reminder while they’re outside playing basketball.”
Lauren Zack, whose 4-year-old daughter attends Primrose, first noticed the Rocket City Armory sign as she was dropping off her daughter at preschool. As soon as she got home that day, she said called the Madison Police Department and asked what the active shooter protocol was for her daughter’s school.
“That’s not something I ever thought I would need to do,” she said. “My biggest concern is that somebody could stand in that parking lot and shoot up the Primrose playground and be gone before anybody could call the police.”
A 1990s-era federal law bans guns within 1,000 feet of a school, but the law has several exceptions, including for private property that isn’t part of a school campus.
The owner of Rocket City Armory, Jared Hill, acknowledged parents’ concerns about the proximity of his business to the schools in an emailed statement to Reckon.
“When Rocket City Armory opens, we promise to uphold all firearm laws including the requirement that all firearms are to be unloaded before entering and leaving our establishment,” he said. “We will not allow unaccompanied minors to enter our store without adult supervision. The safety of children and neighbors in Madison is critically important to our Rocket City Armory family.”
The storefront is not yet open, but its Facebook page currently has more than 1,300 followers. Hill said in his statement that he wants his business to raise awareness about firearm safety standards in Alabama, as well as teach about the history and artistry of the trade of gunsmithing, which involves the repair, design and modification of firearms.
Last year in North Carolina, state Sen. Natalie Murdock proposed legislation that would have created a statewide study to determine whether banning gun stores within 1,400 feet of schools or child care centers would improve safety of school-age children.
“The idea was to put forward a new, out-of-the-box solution,” said Murdock. “I still support universal background checks, red flag laws and safe storage laws. But what if we can also not make it convenient for someone to go to a gun store, then walk up the street to a school? If that’s not common sense, I don’t know what is.”
Research is scant on the impact of gun stores operating near schools. One 2020 study in California found the proximity of gun stores to schools was “significantly associated” with an increase in students bringing guns onto school campuses.
Most states have a state law that specifically restricts how local municipalities are allowed to regulate firearms, including firearms sales. California is one state that does not, and Anderman said at least 29 jurisdictions have enacted local laws banning gun sales near “child-sensitive areas” like schools, daycares, libraries and parks.
More are starting to follow that lead.
In February, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called for an ordinance that would require a 1,000-foot buffer zone between gun stores and “child-sensitive areas” like schools. In March, after several months studying potential gun safety regulations, officials in Redwood City, Calif., proposed an ordinance that would create a 300-foot buffer between gun stores and “sensitive facilities” like schools, daycares, libraries and parks.
Anderman said guns and gun stores can be high value targets for theft. Last year, she joined her neighbors in Phoenix to oppose the city granting a permit to a gun dealer to sell weapons from his home near an elementary school.
“At the hearing a police officer spoke,” she said, “saying it’s a terrible idea (to allow a gun dealer to operate near a school), citing the number of times he had to chase a suspect who’d stolen guns.”
“In that case, the gun dealer actually withdrew his request for a permit.”
Hill, the armory owner, told the public at the city council meeting that he was committed to upholding strict firearms storage and handling requirements for his customers, and had installed “state-of-the-art” security systems.
But some Madison parents who spoke with Reckon said they worried that an incident at the armory – such as an accidental discharge or a disgruntled customer making threats – could send the nearby schools into lockdown.
“The bottom line is, how close would you want your children to be to an area where guns are handled regularly, without you there?” said Alex Vaughn, the parent of Midtown Elementary students, at the city council meeting. “Would you want oversight of that area? I think you would.”
Other parents said they worry more about the mental and emotional impact of their children seeing a gun store so near their school campuses.
“My third-grader is at an age where she’s really taking in information and able to process things like this,” said Rebekah Faris, who has three children at Midtown Elementary. “She told me she and her friends were talking at school about the Nashville shooting” in which three students and three staffers were killed by an armed assailant at Covenant School in March.
“She and her friends know what’s going on, they know about school shootings and they express their fears and anxiety,” Faris said. “Of course we want them to be physically safe, but it’s also troubling for them, mentally, to drive by this every day and see a gun store right next to their school.”
Nationally, efforts to create buffer zones around schools tend to succeed when community stakeholders can generate support among enough local leaders, including local law enforcement, said Anderman. Getting zoning laws revised is less likely when the new restrictions would displace an existing small business, she said.
Singleton acknowledged the chance of getting the armory moved isn’t high, but she’s determined to keep pushing: “My new goal is to ultimately do something about zoning like this in the future so we don’t have this same situation.”
Meanwhile, the city of Madison recently approved the construction of Big Blue Marble Academy, a 12,000-square-foot child care center scheduled to open this autumn, just across the street from Rocket City Armory.
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