A no­to­ri­ous gun shop falls ‘off the radar’

Slammed in a land­mark law­suit, Badger Guns in Wis­con­sin has rein­vented its busi­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DAN SIM­MONS na­tional@wash­post.com Sim­mons is a free­lance writer. Tom Held in Mil­wau­kee and Mark Berman and Alice Crites in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

west mil­wau­kee, wis. — Badger Guns, an unas­sum­ing gun shop set amid the strip malls and in­dus­trial sites just south of the ball­park where the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers play, was once Amer­ica’s most no­to­ri­ous pur­veyor of guns used to com­mit crimes.

The place ped­dled 3,000 guns a year and didn’t care much about who bought them, po­lice and prose­cu­tors say. In one twoyear pe­riod, six Mil­wau­kee po­lice of­fi­cers were shot and wounded with weapons pur­chased at Badger Guns.

“Ev­ery­body knew about . . . Bad­gers,” tes­ti­fied Julius Bur­ton, who was 18 when he per­suaded a 21-year-old friend to buy him the gun he used to shoot two Mil­wau­kee po­lice of­fi­cers in 2009. Bur­ton is serv­ing 80 years in pri­son. “This is where a lot of peo­ple go, so I was like, ‘I’ll go there.’ ”

Last week, a jury found the store li­able for Bur­ton’s ac­tions and awarded the griev­ously wounded of­fi­cers, Bryan Nor­berg and Gra­ham Ku­nisch, nearly $6 mil­lion. The land­mark rul­ing is the first of its kind against a gun store, and it has raised alarms through­out the firearms industry. The case is on ap­peal, but sev­eral other law­suits are in the works, in­clud­ing one against Badger Guns by two other Mil­wau­kee po­lice of­fi­cers.

“We may be at the thresh­old of some­thing,” said Mar­shall S. Shapo, a North­west­ern Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor and an ex­pert on prod­uct liability. “When you get a blip like this, it may sig­nal that there’s a tar­get of op­por­tu­nity.”

For gun stores con­tem­plat­ing whether to change their prac­tices to pro­tect them­selves le­gally, there’s a model for them to fol­low: the new Badger Guns.

“It’s not the place to go any­more,” said West Mil­wau­kee Po­lice Chief Den­nis Nasci, who has worked closely with store own­ers to im­prove the shop’s im­age. “Quite hon­estly, it’s off the radar.”

Much has changed at Badger Guns, start­ing with its name. Th­ese days, the store is do­ing busi­ness as Brew City Shoot­ers Sup­ply.

The own­er­ship has changed, too. Owner Mike Al­lan, a vet­eran of the Iraq war, took over the shop in 2012 from the pre­vi­ous pro­pri­etors: his fa­ther, Wal­ter, who started the busi­ness in 1987 as Badger Guns and Ammo; and his brother, Adam, who ran it as Badger Guns from 2007 to 2012.

Mike Al­lan’s first move was to adopt a mem­bers-only model that re­quires cus­tomers to reg­is­ter with the store and to pay a mem­ber­ship fee. Would-be buy­ers must also demon­strate pro­fi­ciency with a firearm.

Those changes, Nasci said, set the tone for driv­ing off un­sa­vory types.

“To make it more like a shoot­ing club, that re­ally was the turn­ing point,” Nasci said. With “so many ex­tra steps to get the gun, you’re go­ing some­where else if you’re a straw buyer” — the term for an el­i­gi­ble buyer who ob­tains a weapon for an in­el­i­gi­ble buyer, such as some­one with a crim­i­nal record or some­one like Bur­ton, who was too young to le­gally buy a gun.

The store now has a smaller cus­tomer base made up of gun en­thu­si­asts such as Joe Sch­warz, 34, a clean-cut sales­man who drives a Kia hy­brid. One day last week, Sch­warz showed up at the store with a case of 9mm pis­tols, in­tend­ing to get in his weekly round of tar­get prac­tice at Brew City’s in­door range.

The store is “like ‘Cheers,’ ” Sch­warz said. “Ev­ery­body knows you by name.”

The store’s trans­for­ma­tion is ev­i­dent in other ways. It still has plenty of stan­dard-is­sue gun­shop decor: An ode to the Sec­ond Amend­ment. A bumper sticker that de­clares, “Sup­port Pack­ing in Pack­er­land.” A sign on the front desk that reads, “Com­plaint Depart­ment” next to a toy gre­nade with a take-a-num­ber ticket at­tached to the pin.

But there are also signs lay­ing out strict rules for would-be buy­ers:

“Must be 21 to en­ter. Proper ID re­quired.” “No cell phones al­lowed.” And for the droopy-draw­ered set of pos­si­ble cus­tomers: “Pull your pants up or don’t come in. Try to have some de­cency and re­spect. No one wants to see your un­der­wear.”

The rules are se­ri­ous, Sch­warz said: Staff mem­bers “will ask you to leave” if you show up with a cell­phone. The pol­icy is de­signed to pre­vent straw buy­ers from tex­ting pho­tos of guns to friends out­side. Em­ploy­ees, too, stress safety. “We need to make sure you know what you’re do­ing with a firearm,” a clerk told a young man shop­ping for a pis­tol with a fe­male com­pan­ion.

“I need to check that ammo,” an­other clerk said to three young men who brought am­mu­ni­tion to use on the gun range.

“No mem­ber­ship, no gun,” an older clerk ex­plained to a long­time cus­tomer wear­ing blue over­alls and a black shirt.

Al­though the rein­vented Badger Guns is no longer a prob­lem, Nasci noted that all is hardly well in Mil­wau­kee. Gun shops can’t op­er­ate within the city lim­its, but many, like Badger Guns, have cropped up in bor­der­ing towns.

As Badger be­came Brew City and tight­ened its stan­dards, other stores, in­clud­ing chain out­doors re­tail­ers and smaller sub­ur­ban gun shops, have seen a trou­bling in­crease in the num­ber of guns they sold that wind up be­ing used by crim­i­nals, Nasci said. Mil­wau­kee is also strug­gling with a huge spike in homi­cides and other vi­o­lent crimes.

“We have a whole other group that now are the top crime-gun sell­ers in Wis­con­sin,” Nasci said.

Brew City is not im­mune. Nasci said po­lice have re­cov­ered some guns sold by Brew City dur­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions of re­cent crimes. Still, he said, the store has mostly stayed true to Al­lan’s pledge to clean up his fa­ther’s busi­ness.

Last week, Al­lan po­litely de­clined to dis­cuss the jury’s ver­dict against the store or an­swer other ques­tions. He merely noted that the place is un­der new man­age­ment and that the new signs went up “a few years ago.”

Wal­ter Al­lan hung up when a reporter called seek­ing com­ment. Adam Al­lan did not re­spond to mes­sages.

Store em­ploy­ees also de­clined to speak pub­licly, cit­ing a store pol­icy of not talk­ing to news me­dia.

Wal­ter and Adam Al­lan haven’t been to the store in years, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the store’s man­age­ment who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity. That’s partly out of ne­ces­sity: The U.S. Bureau of Al­co­hol, Tobacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives re­voked Adam Al­lan’s li­cense in 2011. Wal­ter Al­lan still owns the prop­erty — along with his orig­i­nal co-owner, Mick Beatovic, who re­tired in 2006.

Nasci said Mike Al­lan ac­tively sought help from po­lice to re­make the store and fol­lowed through on Nasci’s rec­om­men­da­tion to add more cam­eras and to turn over to po­lice the ap­pli­ca­tions of buy­ers re­jected for gun sales.

“Gun rights ac­tivists were pretty up­set with him,” Nasci said.

Al­lan also checks with Nasci when he buys guns to make sure they’re not stolen or fraud­u­lently ac­quired, a step he is not le­gally re­quired to take. And Nasci said he keeps much bet­ter records than his dad did.

“Quite hon­estly,” Nasci said, “his dad’s record-keep­ing habits kind of sucked.”

PHO­TOS BY MIKE DE SISTI/MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL-SEN­TINEL VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

From left, Adam Al­lan, Mick Beatovic and Al­lan’s fa­ther, Wal­ter, who all at some point owned Badger Guns near Mil­wau­kee, lis­ten to tes­ti­mony in a civil law­suit by two po­lice of­fi­cers against the gun store.

In court, Bryan Nor­berg de­scribes be­ing shot. He and fel­low po­lice of­fi­cer Gra­ham Ku­nisch were awarded nearly $6 mil­lion in the suit.

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