Transforming Guns into Bicycles
By Drick Boyd
On a cold January afternoon five years ago, I was arrested along with seven others for sitting down and blocking the entrance to Colisimo’s Gun Store on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. Over the course of two days, 12 people in all were arrested for civil disobedience; another 300 or so rallied outside the store. At the time Colisimo’s was believed to be the fifth largest source of illegal guns in the country and the major source of illegal guns in the Philadelphia metropolitan area through the process known as straw purchasing. Straw purchasing involves a person with no criminal record buying guns on behalf of someone else who pays them for their services and then turns around and sells those guns on the street where they cannot be traced. Straw purchasing is the major source of guns used in most street crimes and is a major problem in communities with high rates of gun violence.
Members of the group that came to be known as Heeding God’s Call approached Mr. Colisimo on three different occasions, asking him to sign the Responsible Firearms Retailer Code of Conduct developed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns; three times he refused. In our action against the store we still sought to get Mr. Colisimo to sign the Code; in fact I had a copy of the Code in my pocket when I was arrested. All to no avail.
For nearly nine months following this action, members of Heeding God’s Call picketed twice a week in front of the store. The 12 who were arrested were charged with criminal trespass but were acquitted in a highly publicized trial. Yet guns kept being sold at the store. Several of us were in the process strategizing ways we might “up the ante” on Mr. Colisimo, when we received news that the U.S. Attorney Office had charged Mr. Colisimo with making false statements and failing to keep accurate records; eventually his license was revoked and his shop closed. As I wrote at the time, the action seemed like a vindication and affirmation of all the work we had done in the previous year. Heeding God’s Call has gone on to witness in front of other guns shops in Philadelphia, continuing to call attention to the practice of straw purchasing.
One disappointment in the Colisimo’s story was that when the store space was reopened, it opened as another gun shop under a new name. So while we had put a nefarious dealer out of business, we had not reduced the number of gun shops in the area.
So imagine my excitement when Kristyn Komarnicki, my friend and the editor of PRISM magazine, sent me an article indicating that the space formerly occupied by Colisimo’s had become a bike shop—Firth and Wilson Transport Cycles! I was so excited that I had to see for myself, so I visited the shop and spoke with co-owner David Wilson. After introducing myself, I thanked him for being in the space and then briefly related my story.
Because the employees of Colisimo’s had locked the door when I and the others came that cold January day, I had never actually been in the shop. Today it is a long space with bikes out front and against the wall and a repair area in the back. David told me they specialize in transport cycles, that is, bikes that can be used to get around the city, transport children, and generally be used in place of a car. They also have a shop in Fishtown where they build custom-made bikes of all kinds.
He was aware of the shop’s previous history and informed me that he actually rents from Mr. Colisimo. There is a special irony in knowing Mr. Colisimo is still indirectly involved. The prophets Isaiah and Micah speak of a day when people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” In spite of himself Mr. Colisimo, with the help of Firth and Wilson, has transformed his guns into bicycles.
If you live in the Philadelphia area I encourage you to take a trip to 933 Spring Garden Street, stop in the shop, say thank you, and even purchase a bike or accessory. I think I may go back and get a Firth and Wilson bike shirt as a reminder that God has a sense of humor and that faith and hard work can give us glimpse of the beloved community we all long for.
Drick Boyd is an associate professor in the Urban Studies Department of Eastern University.