Anderson: Going great guns

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 3, 2013 - 11:28 PM

Known nationwide for its gun repair work, Ahlman's is a shooter's destination year-round in rural Morristown.

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With a gun showroom with thousands of guns, gunsmithing, multiple ranges, and events year round, Ahlman's Gun Shop in Rural Morristown has been a fixture in the gun industry since 1943. Here, Mike Ahlman, who is taking over the daily operation of the business from his dad Larry, stands among some of the thousands of guns in their Morristown shop.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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MORRISTOWN, MINN.

Since before the turn of the last century, someone named Ahlman has lived on the same 200 acres where Minnesota's most storied gunsmithing shop and gun salesroom sits today.

Known nationwide for its gun repair work, gun modifications and customizing, Ahlman's receives more than 100 pistols, revolvers, shotguns and rifles daily from the local UPS driver -- and each day ships a like number of firearms back to their owners.

"If it wasn't 100 out every day for every 100 we take in, we'd be behind in our repair work in a hurry," said Larry Ahlman, 68, the family patriarch who took over the business in 1965 when his father, "Cap" Ahlman, died suddenly.

"I was just getting out of the Navy when Dad died," he said. "I had a lifelong interest in guns, so it was a natural fit for me."

As Larry spoke, his son, Mike, 41, heir apparent to the business, joined perhaps 10 customers on the showroom floor.

This was one day last week, and some of the patrons hoisted shotguns or rifles to check the firearms' feel and finish. Others moved casually among the 5,000 sale guns that Ahlman's stocks.

All the while in a room not too far away, 11 gunsmiths plied their craft, while a cash register calculated gun prices and taxes, ringing up one sale, then another and another.

So casual were the establishment's pace and attitude that instead of a gun buyer's Mecca, it could have been a shoe store at the Mall of America.

"We're in the middle of nowhere, so people don't get here by accident," Larry Ahlman was saying. "They have to want to be here."

That's particularly true in August each year, when thousands of shooters descend on Ahlman's from throughout Minnesota and around the nation, some dressed in Western garb for competitive cowboy matches, others intent on watching trick shooters or test-firing the latest sporting guns.

Still others come to discharge weapons they otherwise never could, including a .50 caliber long-range rifle, a machine gun, a Browning A-4 (blast a Chevy! Ahlman's advertises) and a 25mm anti-tank gun (knock out one of Saddam's tanks!).

The point?

Recreation, plain and simple.

"I love shooters," Ahlman said. "They're the salt of the earth and, in my opinion, the high rung of society. They camp out here. But we never have any incidents, and they clean up after themselves. There's never any trash. The off-duty deputy we hired last year to patrol said he hopes he gets the assignment next year."

Serious topic that guns are, particularly to those whose awareness of them is limited to what they read on a newspaper's front page or see on TV, humor underpins Ahlman's operation.

How else to explain the talking moose that greets customers outside the showroom?

Or a sign near the entrance that reads, "AHLMAN'S BANS people who ban GUNS ON THESE PREMISES."

Then there's the "zombie shoot" Ahlman's hosted last summer for owners of AR-style modern sporting rifles, otherwise known as assault-style rifles or, incorrectly, assault rifles.

"We were overwhelmed," Ahlman said. "We had 1,000 shooters come from all over the country. It was a lot of fun. They fired about 400,000 rounds a day."

'More gun laws won't help'

Gun shops nationwide, including Ahlman's, have seen changes since Dec. 14, when a lone gunman killed 26 schoolchildren, teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Where, for example, Ahlman's previously showcased spanking-new AR-15s and similar semiautomatic rifles for purchase, now only a relative handful of these modern sporting arms are displayed.

Each is a consignment, owned by someone else but offered for sale by the shop, usually at prices two or three times the original.

"We can't get many new ones any more, the orders are so backed up," Mike Ahlman said. "So some guys are selling theirs at marked-up prices. The same thing happened during the Clinton ban" in 1994-2004.

The possibility of reconstituting gun bans of any type disturbs Larry Ahlman.

Not because he might lose business. But because throughout his life, he's used sporting rifles and shotguns as prisms, in effect, to monitor -- and grow close to -- the natural world.

In southern Minnesota, for example, foxes were once plentiful and the subject of many long-ago Sunday afternoon hunts for him and his family.

Now coyotes have replaced foxes -- critters that are themselves targets of new generations of gun-owning hunters, many of whom employ .223-caliber AR-style rifles.

Similarly, the ducks Ahlman once hunted so successfully near Morristown have yielded to plentiful populations of Canada geese. And with them new generations of gun-owning goose hunters.

And the jackrabbits he once chased?

"The last one hopped around here 10 years ago," he said.

Similarly slow and subtle attempts to change gun laws are coming, Ahlman fears.

"I call it 'creeping conversion,'" he said. "Gun opponents know the way to make changes is to do it over a long period of time.

"But in the end, when the dust settles, the general public is going to be more educated about guns, and they're going to be more pro-gun than anti-gun.

"People will come to realize, as I have, that the problem isn't guns, and more gun laws won't help.

"The problem is a general degrading of society."

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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