- Sarah Peters Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
If gun sales happen in The Gardens Mall, in a store around the corner from Mrs. Fields and Zales Jewelers, who’s going to be able to distinguish a shopper with a new gun from an armed person out to inflict harm?
That’s the unanswered question that worries the Palm Beach Gardens police chief and other city leaders, but Dick’s Sporting Goods has the law on its side.
Only state lawmakers, not local ones, can set the rules for gun sales, City Attorney Max Lohman told a representative of Dick’s Sporting Goods in a recent letter.
Neither the city nor the mall was ever eager to have Dick’s move into space held by Sears — an original tenant — but a panel of judges shut down objections to the leasing arrangement in July.
After the courts cleared the path for the sporting goods giant to move in, Dick’s broached the topic of gun sales. Specifically, in a letter received Oct. 5, Dick’s Loss Prevention Compliance Coordinator Lori Clark asked if there was “anything prohibiting the sale of firearms (long rifle only) and ammunition” in the second-floor space Dick’s plans to sublease from Sears.
The situation didn’t sit well with city leaders then, but concerns about Dick’s plan for gun sales escalated after a shooting in the mall’s parking lot two weeks ago. No one was injured, but stores temporarily locked their doors in the chaos.
Also, a gun sale in the lot outside Saks Fifth Avenue “went bad” Monday, underscoring the misgivings. No one fired a weapon, but the fight that ensued among the men who picked the mall as a halfway meeting point caused shoppers to cram into storage areas and bathrooms for cover.
Neither representatives from Dick’s Sporting Goods nor from The Gardens Mall returned requests for comment Thursday.
City Manager Ron Ferris said he’d like Dick’s to rethink its decision.
“The staff just feels that the sale of any kind of weapon at the mall is just an inappropriate use. It has disregard for public safety,” Ferris said.
Dick’s takes some precautions. When someone buys a rifle and ammunition, the standard procedure is to have an employee walk him or her to the customer’s car, an architect working on the project told Ferris in a meeting this week.
“That does not alleviate our fears that someone who wishes to become an active shooter could load the weapon and walk right back into the mall,” Ferris said.
Although the city can’t restrict the sale of guns at the retail property, Sears and Dick’s will have to address police and fire safety issues, Ferris said.
Two weeks ago, Jupiter resident Barbara Sergent was shopping at the mall just before shots rang out in the parking lot. Police arrested two young men and said the shooting was not random. The encounter began with a punch and ended when one man grabbed a gun from his car and started shooting as the other drove away.
“The fact that it was a disagreement between the two individuals doesn’t make me feel any better because they were still outside shooting,” Sergent said.
Sergent said she occasionally allows her 14-year-old twin daughters to shop at the mall alone. But after this, she won’t be dropping them off any longer. “They are going to have to find another place to hang out. I won’t feel comfortable with them there given what has happened.”
Police Chief Stephen Stepp wants answers to 14 questions — which he posed in an Oct. 13 letter to Dick’s. So far, the letter and his questions have gone unanswered. Among them:
Stepp said he has nothing against Dick’s and doesn’t want to thwart anyone’s Second Amendment rights. He just wants to know how Dick’s is going to maintain a safe, wholesome atmosphere at the mall, which sees 8 million to 10 million visitors per year.
With so many visitors and so little violent crime, the mall is one of the safest places in the city, he said.
Gander Mountain, the outdoor store off Northlake Boulevard that closed this summer, also sold guns. But that’s a different atmosphere than the mall, where families come to see Santa and the Easter bunny, to go out to dinner or to enjoy special events, Stepp said.
“You go with an expectation at the mall that you’re not going to see somebody walking through the mall or walking through the parking lot with firearms,” he said.
Gander Mountain management agreed to lock up guns in emergencies, such as hurricanes, to prevent looting, Stepp said. The ammunition was out in the open, which police were never really comfortable with, he said.
The regular sight of people walking around the mall with long-guns will make it difficult for security officers to keep up their guards, he said. Plus, a well-meaning Good Samaritan with a concealed carry permit could decide to take matters into his or her own hands, Stepp said.
“They may say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the hero’ and take out this guy they perceived as a threat,” even if it’s someone who just bought a gun or is returning one, he said.
If people buy a gun at Dick’s and then leave it in the car while they walk the mall, a criminal could smash the window and get access, Stepp said. Citywide, 14 guns have been stolen from vehicles since Jan. 1, he said.
For the past five years, the city, Sears and mall owners Forbes/Cohen Florida Properties tangled in court over Sears’ plans to sublease space to Dick’s Sporting Goods. It ended when the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in Sears’ favor this summer.
The court decision left unresolved whether Dick’s potential sale of guns creates a “dangerous hazard,” violating the terms of an agreement between the mall and Sears.
Staff Writer Jennifer Sorentrue contributed to this report.