Richard Catts says guns are good business. That's why he is opening a new gun shop in West Rehoboth.
Catts said the Rehoboth area needs a gun shop; the nearest one is on Route 9 west of Lewes, too far for gun collectors and owners to travel.
The shop he plans to open in a commercial zone on Hebron Road is his first effort to open a gun shop, but he says most of the phone calls he's received are supportive of his plans.
Community groups disagree; they say a petition has been sent to the Attorney General's Office, and letter writing campaign seeking assistance to prevent the shop from opening.
Catts said it took six months to get all the necessary permits and licenses to open the shop. He has received county permits and state approvals, including a business license and license to sell firearms through U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Catts said he saw a business opportunity when the Legislature passed House Bill 35, which requires residents to go through a licensed gun shop to transfer ownership of guns.
"The new law makes it difficult to transfer firearms from person to person," Catts said. "There are no gun dealers east of Route 1. People here need more options; they need a place to do commerce in the eastern part of the county."
The gun shop will occupy about 1,000 square feet of a commercial building Catts owns. He said he would install security features and an alarm system to prevent theft.
Catts is waiting for gun suppliers to boost inventory so he can stock his gun shop; he expects to open in September.
"After Newtown, everyone bought guns, so the suppliers don't have any to sell me," Catts said. "Once the market is back, I hope to open up."
Lawrence Lank, director of Sussex County Planning & Zoning Office, said the gun shop is a permitted use in a commercial zone. He said when Catts gets closer to opening, he has to submit a final site plan, but all the other requirements have been met.
Community pushes back
Mable Granke, a citizen activist and member of West Rehoboth Community Land Trust, said officials need to be more thoughtful when it comes to land use decisions.
Granke said while the gun shop is in a commercial district, officials should take the community surrounding the location into consideration.
"We have sent letters to the Attorney General's Office to remind him that he visited this community, and although it is a permitted use, there has to be some legal aspect that says even though it's allowed, it is not appropriate," Granke said.
The Village Improvement Association and others have also sent letters to officials and to the Cape Gazette protesting the gun shop.
Carolyn Billingsley, president of the VIA, said the group is writing letters and hoping public officials will intercede, but she said they are not getting involved in lobbying or a legal fight.
"This community has already had to take certain steps to make it safe," Granke said.
In the past several years, West Rehoboth received a grant to install security cameras in an effort to prevent crime and drug traffic. The community has also received funding for programs to promote healthy children and prevent bullying, Granke said.
"This is a residential community, and we will continue to look for legal options to prevent the opening of this shop," Granke said. "We keep hoping the safety of the community will be taken into account."
In a letter from the Department of Justice to Granke, Timothy Mullaney, chief of staff, writes, "Your concern for such a business to be located there is quite understandable. However, it is not possible for the Delaware Department of Justice to intervene in this matter."
Mullaney said land use issues and zoning laws are not handled by the state. In this case, they are overseen by county officials, he said.
Portrait of a community
West Rehoboth is a historically black community tucked between Rehoboth Beach and Holland Glade Road.
Catts said as a child, he spent his summers in West Rehoboth, helping his father, Dick Catts, in the family's beach chair warehouse on Hebron Road. He said he wants to help the community; he proposes building a laundromat and convenience store on an empty parcel next to West Side New Beginnings, a community center that hosts children's and youth programs.
Several years ago, the Catts family and West Rehoboth organizations were planning to build a playground on the grassy parcel, but plans fell through. Now, Catts said, he would be interested in working with the community to go to county officials and have the property rezoned for commercial use, which would allow the construction of a laundromat and convenience store – amenities West Rehoboth lacks.
Ada Loper, a longtime resident of West Rehoboth, said she would be happier if Catts would open the laundromat in the gun shop building instead of selling guns. She said the community doesn't need a gun shop.
"I've been here since 1960, and the community has changed a lot," Loper said. "People here used to get along, and we used to get lots of people coming in. Now no one comes."
Loper, who lives across the street from West Side New Beginnings, said she is worried about someone breaking into the gun shop and stealing the guns.
Granke agreed, telling the story of a Seaford gun shop robbed in May. Granke said she was told one of the guns stolen from Seaford was used in a West Rehoboth shooting.
Delaware State Police spokesman Paul Shavack said the May 8 robbery of Delmarva Shooting Supply in Seaford included the theft of 35 handguns, 17 long rifles and ammunition. He said one of the handguns was used in a May 10 shooting in West Rehoboth.
Shavack said Rakeem R. Conquest, 18, Derrick Sewell, 23, and Precious I. Tiggs, 22, were arrested in connection with the May 10 shooting. The 18-year-old victim was treated for a gunshot to the leg at a local hospital.
Still, not all residents are opposed to the gun shop.
Thomas Porter lives across the street from the gun shop, but he said he didn't know anything about it.
Porter, who lives with children, said he isn't sure what to think about the gun shop. He's lived in the community for about a year and said he didn't know what effect a gun shop would have on the area.
The gun shop, called Delaware Firearms, is at 19849 Hebron Road in West Rehoboth. For information or to make an appointment, call Catts at 302-542-4508.
To find out more about community organizations aiding in West Rehoboth, contact the West Rehoboth Community Land Trust at 302-260-9519 or West Side New Beginnings at 302-227-5442.