A notorious gun shop falls ‘off the radar’
Slammed in a landmark lawsuit, Badger Guns in Wisconsin has reinvented its business
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.”
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.