Villagers take anti-gun battle to the source

? Franklin Park gun dealer tagged as 'merchant of death' after 738 of his guns were used in crimes.

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By KEN TRAINOR

In the mist of a Monday morning, Mannheim Road, just north of Belmont in Franklin Park, looks even more desolate than usual. This is not a people-friendly stretch of road by any stretch of the imagination, but approximately 100 protesters, many from Oak Park and River Forest, are huddled along a narrow walkway, just outside the long, iron grate fence in front of Bell's Gun Shop to call attention to a "merchant of death."

Bell's is a low-slung brick box, clearly not interested in attracting its clientele with aesthetics. The sign overhead indicates that firearms are "bought, sold and traded." A black and white bullseye below is the only real adornment. They also offer a shooting range somewhere inside this mini-fortress.

Among the guns Bell's buys, sells and trades, 738 were used in criminal activity, making it the second highest "partner in crime" in the state (Chuck's Guns in Riverdale has the dubious distinction of being numero uno). That's according to an ATF study (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, department of), and those numbers are from 1996-2000, the most recent data available.

If Bell's track record has improved since then, the data isn't available, gun control proponents say, which is part of the problem. And the owner isn't exactly eager to talk.

So groups like this one, calling itself United Power for Action and Justice (UPAJ), resorts to publicity events in order to pressure establishments like Bell's to get out of the business of "making a killing off killing."

UPAJ describes itself as "an organization of organizations," mostly church groups, many of them located in Oak Park and River Forest. Ascension's Peace and Justice Committee is represented, as is the St. Giles Family Mass group, as is St. Luke's in River Forest, Oak Park Temple and Good Shepherd Lutheran.

A podium and sound system have been set up, but the only real audience are the truckers barrelling past and the smattering of media they've been able to attract.

State Senator Don Harmon is here, as is State Representative Deborah Graham, both of whom promise to reintroduce legislation to create a licensing system that will enable gun shops to avoid selling firearms to criminals.

Afterward, Harmon, whose district includes Austin, Oak Park, River Forest and Franklin Park, admits it's an uphill battle. They want to close what he calls "the gun show loophole" in current gun regulation. He also supports UPAJ's call for limiting individual purchases of handguns to one per month. But the licensing angle is the most important, he says. It's also the most vigorously opposed.

"The NRA," he says, "sees a black helicopter behind every bill that requires licensing information. But if we license automobiles more vigorously than we do guns, something is wrong."

Though the odds are stacked, he said, "we're taking the fight to them."

One after another, speakers take their turn at the podium declaring why this is important enough to make an issue of it on a cold, February morning. The speakers include Sgt. Jacques Conway of the Oak Park Police Department (he's also an ordained minister); Rev. Larry McNally, pastor of Ascension Church; and the parish's deacon candidate, Roger Vandervest.

McNally says he's here to support his parish's Peace and Justice Committee, but he's also a believer, based on his experiences in previous parishes. He's visited too many kids in hospitals and done too many funerals for kids caught up in gangs. He buried one 15-year-old from his last parish about a month and a half ago.

As if to punctuate the final speaker, a burst of muffled, semi-automatic gunfire resounded from inside Bell's firing range. As the crowd moved on to a rally at Resurrection Church, a woman pulled the grated gate shut. She identified herself as the manager and said, emphatically, "I have nothing to say."

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