After surviving 20 years despite hostility from city leaders, the last gun shop in Minneapolis has faded away.
Koscielski’s Guns and Ammo, which dueled with City Hall since its opening in 1995, turned out the lights in recent weeks. It was the last full-service gun shop in Minneapolis or St. Paul — where zoning has made such shops nearly impossible to operate.
Tucked between a nail salon and a Chinese restaurant on Chicago Avenue, just off Lake Street, the modest store was an unassuming speck on the Midtown streetscape save for a prominent “GUNS & AMMO” awning.
Its longtime proprietor, Mark Koscielski, grew up in Minneapolis and felt passionately about keeping his business there. “You have a right to go shop in your own city for what you want,” Koscielski said in an interview last week, “whether you want to go down to Cub Foods and buy a pound of hamburger meat or if you want to go buy a gun or a case of beer.”
Its closure comes despite a booming gun business in the suburbs. Suburban gun stores and firing ranges have been springing up regularly, according to the head of a local gun rights group. Koscielski’s current owner, O’Neal Hampton Jr., will soon join them with a new shooting range in Eagan.
“I just moved to a bigger and better place,” Hampton said, declining to answer further questions about the move.
Koscielski, who coined the term “Murderapolis” amid the crime wave of the mid-1990s, now lives with his three parrots in a six-bedroom house outside Phoenix. His shop was a popular destination for local cops, but also maintained a cozy atmosphere where people could take classes and chat about firearms.
Mark Steiger, a patron who taught concealed-carry classes there, described Koscielski’s as “your corner gun store.” “Guys would come in and they’d talk. It was a very friendly environment,” said Steiger, president of Pink Pistols, a gay gun group that occasionally hosted meetings and potlucks at the shop after closing time.
There are just seven federal firearms dealer licenses in Minneapolis, compared to 86 in suburban Hennepin County, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That includes gunsmiths, but excludes gun manufacturers, pawnbrokers and importers.
Several of those licenses are affiliated with residential addresses, but no one who answered listed phone numbers would speak about their business. Another is the Guthrie Theater, which said it has a license because its prop firearms — shooting blanks — were originally actual firearms.
By contrast, city officials in 1968 estimated that there were 165 gun dealers in the city — many operating out of their basements.
Changing times and rules
Koscielski’s survived unlikely odds when the city imposed a moratorium on new gun shops soon after he opened at the original location at 48th Street and Chicago Avenue. He filed suit to remain there and won.
In the 1990s, the city restricted new gun shops to a few zones at a distance from homes, churches, schools, day cares, libraries or parks. That became a problem when Koscielski’s was forced to move in 2003 and reopen in a prohibited zone.
The city told him to stop selling. Koscielski argued the rules made it effectively impossible to open a gun shop. He filed a lawsuit and lost, but the business remained open in an odd legal limbo.
Koscielski initially told the city he was no longer selling guns, just offering classes, but then stopped allowing zoning inspectors through the buzzer-operated door, said Steve Poor, the city’s director of development services.
When Hampton took over the business, the city asked for the records to see if it was selling guns. “He wrote back to us and said you don’t have the right under federal law to ask for them,” Poor said.
Koscielski drew some attention over the years for sniffing out “straw buyers,” who purchase guns for people prohibited from buying. He cooperated with federal agents tracking gang-affiliated sales in the 1990s, and reported a suspicious customer in 2011 who turned out to be buying and selling weapons to feed a drug habit.
Some buyers had other intentions. Andrew Engeldinger went to Koscielski’s to legally purchase the Glock handgun that he later used to kill six people at Accent Signage in 2012, according to the Associated Press.
Despite all the attention, Koscielski’s didn’t seem to attract many problems to the area. “I haven’t encountered anyone who’s really expressed a strong opinion about it,” said Don Blyly, owner of Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore down the street.
Occasionally, Koscielski had to take matters into his own hands. He recalled camping out in the store one night, with a .38 Colt revolver and an iced tea, after someone stole his keys. Soon someone tripped his motion sensor alert.
“I peek out through the peephole and there’s a guy with my keys in his hand,” Koscielski said. “Of course as soon as I unlock the door, I kicked the door open, he falls back, I took him down at gunpoint. And his friends jump off the roof and took off.”
Andrew Rothman, a carry permit instructor and president of Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, lamented that Minneapolis has effectively zoned away gun shops. St. Paul officials confirmed there are no full-service gun shops in the city.
That’s distinct from the suburbs, where Rothman said “stores and ranges are popping up all over the place. And they’re responding to market demand.”
“The interesting thing is that the folks who maybe most need access to self-defense tools tend to live in the areas where the local governments try very hard to deprive them of that access,” Rothman said.