Christie commentary: Guns, shopping malls are a bad retail mix

Dec 24, 2017
The future Dick’s Sporting Goods in part of the Sears space at The Gardens Mall. But city leaders and some shoppers are concerned about the retailer’s plans to sell long guns and ammunition. (Rendering by Herschman Architects; provided by Palm Beach Gardens)

A trip to the shopping mall is one of those uniquely American experiences that I always had a hard time explaining to my colleagues in the foreign press.

Not that malls don’t exist in London, Moscow, Jerusalem, Mexico City and elsewhere; but the way we seem to lionize “the mall” in our society was always curious to them.

And this time of year, especially. The normal buzz of the mall reaches a crescendo as frantic moms coax their toddlers onto Santa’s lap for a photo. Waves of teens trawl for hours for the latest disposable clothing item or tech gadget. Folks stop their spending long enough to hear a community choir sing Christmas carols.

The mall hasn’t been just about shopping for decades. It’s considered a “safe space” for residents, who might otherwise never see one another, to gather with little fear of the social and political tensions of the outside world.

Cue the current uproar at The Gardens Mall over the possibility of a planned Dick’s Sporting Goods selling guns.

Count me among those saying, “What the [insert expletive here] are they thinking?”

You can purchase a lot of things at the mall nowadays, from candles to cars. But a hunting rifle? No. Too many targets. Too little security. Too much individual instability.

Some places are just off-limits

Dick’s, which would occupy space in the Sears store just around the corner from Mrs. Fields and Zales Jewelers, is mulling offering the opportunity to buy arms and ammunition, much to the chagrin of Palm Beach Gardens’ police chief and other city leaders.

Yes, Dick’s Sporting Goods may have the law on its side. But there is just something wrong about this.

Florida, thanks to our weak-kneed Legislature and succession of law-and-order governors, has earned its moniker, the “Gunshine State.” But even they, so far, have deemed certain places off limits — schools and college campuses, for example.

And while there has never been a court challenge regarding retailers in shopping malls like the Gardens and Town Center at Boca Raton, exposing these so-called “soft targets” to the whims of a deranged individual — like those in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Texas, or Orlando — would have to be a big no-no.

The Gardens has just dealt with a couple of gun-related incidents this holiday season. Not surprisingly, the high-end mall’s image as a safe shopping oasis took a bit of hit.

A Nov. 17 incident — a dispute over alleged “drug rip-offs” — involved 21-year-old Jamel Roseau, who allegedly punched Dimitri Virginia in the head outside the entrance to the mall’s food court in what police called an “unprovoked attack.”

Virginia, who was with his mother — yes, his mother — then chased Roseau into the mall’s parking lot, grabbed a gun from his vehicle and fired 14 shots into Roseau’s Audi as it pulled away in the lot. Eight bullets hit the car. No one was injured, but stores temporarily locked their doors.

Roseau is facing a misdemeanor battery charge. Virginia, who claimed self-defense, faces charges of aggravated assault with a weapon, shooting into an occupied vehicle and discharging a firearm in public.

Then, 10 days later, two men were arrested after an alleged gun sale “gone bad” in the parking lot outside Saks Fifth Avenue. The men ran from the vehicle and through the mall, toward what police believe was a car parked on the other side.

No one fired a weapon, but the fight between the men and their alleged victim, who picked the mall as a halfway meeting point, caused panicked shoppers to cram into mall storage areas and bathrooms for cover.

‘I can shop elsewhere!’

Now comes Dick’s, one of the nation’s largest sporting good retailers and gun sellers.

When malls figure out a successful mix of stores, I think it’s safe to say that guns and ammo sales are not an essential ingredient.

So says Post reader Mary Ann Harris, who wrote:

“Sounds like the mall is downscaling[sic] their retail mix; trying to attract a broader base and not just appeal to the higher end market. I’m sure online business has greatly impacted them but guns as a shopping incentive (there are plenty of gun stores in the area) is not a smart addition in my estimation. I can shop elsewhere!”

That’s just what Gardens Mall owners Forbes/Cohen Florida Properties fear.

Ever since they lost the case against keeping long-time tenant Sears from subleasing to Dick’s earlier this year, Forbes/Cohen, joined by the city of Palm Beach Gardens, hoped to control who Sears subleased to. But the 4th District Court of Appeal overturned a lower court ruling that had blessed a city ordinance requiring the mall’s anchor stores to get the mall owners’ approval to divide space for subleases.

(By the way, it’s worth mentioning here that Sears, which is in precarious financial straits, also has an anchor store in Boca’s Town Center mall.)

After the courts cleared the path for Dick’s to move in, the retailer broached the topic of gun sales. In an October letter, 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 space Dick’s plans to sublease.

Why make it easier for shooter?

Of course, concerns about Dick’s and guns escalated after the November incidents in the mall’s parking lot.

City Manager Ron Ferris wants 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,” he told the Post’s Sarah Peters.

Dick’s does take some precautions. When someone buys a rifle and ammunition, the standard procedure is to have an employee walk the customer to the car.

But I’m with Ferris when he says that “someone who wishes to become an active shooter could load the weapon and walk right back into the mall.”

And what if they leave it in the car while they walk the mall? A criminal could smash the window and grab it. More than a dozen guns have been reported stolen from vehicles in the city this year.

Police Chief Stephen Stepp 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 a year.

“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.

The regular sight of people walking in the mall with long-guns will make it difficult for security officers to keep up, he told Peters. 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.

There are already too many ways for a bad, or careless, guy with a gun to hurt people. Do we really need to make it any easier for them?

No, we don’t.