Niles Village Board OKs gun shop on Howard

Residents packed a Niles Village Board meeting Tuesday night, where a gun shop proposed for Howard Street was approved. Residents were given 30 seconds to speak before the board voted. | Igor Studenkov/For Sun-Times Media

The Niles Village Board gave the OK Tuesday night for a gun shop and shooting range to open on Howard Street, despite the concerns of local school leaders and residents.

The Sportsman’s Club and Firearms Training Academy attracted controversy after Niles Township High School officials and some residents complained that it was too close to several schools. As the result, the proposal was sent back to the Niles Plan Commission, which approved it again earlier this month.

After a prolonged public comment period, the Board of Trustees approved the shop’s application for a special use permit 3-1, with Trustee Rosemary Palicki casting the sole “no” vote. While trustee Joe LoVerde wasn’t at the meeting, he indicated in a letter to the board that he would have voted “no” as well.

School officials and activists worried that the shop, which would be located at 6143 Howard St., was a mile from Niles West and Niles Central high schools. It would also be located within a block of New Hope Academy, a private school for students struggling with emotional and behavioral challenges.

In the lead up to the vote, residents were given an opportunity to comment — but only for 30 seconds per person. Mayor Andrew Przybylo said that the board would only take comments for 45 minutes total, saying that the village already collected plenty of testimony during the Plan Commission meeting.

As the issue came up for vote, Palicki emphasized that, for her, it was a simple matter of whether or not Sportsman’s Club met the criteria for a special use permit.

The first criteria was that the applicant would meet a need other businesses couldn’t. Palicki argued that there were gun shops in Lincolnwood and Des Plaines, and that residents could buy rifles at Niles’ Dick’s Sporting Goods location. There are already plans for a shooting range at a concealed carry school at the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Howard Street, and the Niles Police Department recently had its shooting range upgraded.

Palicki also felt that it ran afoul of the second criteria — the effect on health and safety.

“We’ve heard testimony of school officials and parents,” she said. “The perception of danger remains high.”

Palicki also expressed concerns that the shop would have an adverse impact on the New Hope Academy, which she argued was against the third criteria — that it wouldn’t have adverse impact on the value of the nearby property.

In a letter to the board, LoVerde said that, as a gun owner, he understood the shop supporters’ concerns. But ultimately, he urged the board to vote “no,” echoing Palicki’s arguments about the permit criteria.

“I feel [the shop] hasn’t proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the three criteria have been met,” said the letter. “It has to do with a particular location, nothing more.”

But most trustees felt that Sportsman’s Club has proven that it wouldn’t pose any danger to the surrounding area.

Trustee Danette Matyas said that, while the concept of concealed carry made her uncomfortable, she was confident that the shop would be safe.

“If you walk in, I’m assuming that there are going to be lots of law enforcement officials for training,” she said. “My feeling is that the gun range will be the safest place to be.”

Trustee George Alpogianis, who had previously expressed support for the shop, noted that not approving it could have legal consequences — which would be a burden to taxplayers.

“We have a responsibility to our taxpayers,” he said. “The NRA hasn’t lost a case since the Supreme Court ruled on the 2nd Amendment.”

Trustee John Jekot said that he found arguments that the shop is a safety risk for schools unconvincing.

“I was on a Board of Education for 15 years and there has been no study citing a correlation between the location of gun shops and school safety,” he said. “I just feel like it’s going to be a safe facility.”

Trustee Chris Hanusiak asked Sportsman’s Club president Myles P. Cunningham, Jr. what the shop would do to minimize the chances that their guns would wind up used in crimes.

“We are going to follow ATF guidelines very closely,” said Cunningham. “Everybody who works here is going to have [Firearms Owner Identification] card, so they’ll be checked by the FBI.”

He also said that the shop would maintain digital records of anybody who buys guns, which the clerk would see during each purchase. So if, for example, the staff sees that a person is trying to buy a fifth gun in the last month, they would alert the authorities.

In the aftermath of the vote, Niles Herald-Spectator asked New Hope Academy director Brandy Larrance for her reaction.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “A lot of students — their emotional health is going to be endangered.”

Larrance said that the board’s decision gave her no choice but to look for another location. She intends to move as soon as her lease is up in two years.

Meanwhile, Cunningham struck a conciliatory tone.

“We think it was a necessary process,” he said. “We are grateful that the process worked.”

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