Mike Wonsala lives in a tree-lined Maryland subdivision about 40 miles north of Washington. It’s where the exburbs meet the country.
It’s also the perfect place, he says, to sell guns.
“It’s just a passion,” he said. “It just happens to be profitable, and I need a license to do it.”
Wonsala’s passion, however, has run afoul of neighbors in Mount Airy who say they don’t want anyone selling guns out of a residential property in their neighborhood — a house near a school bus stop, no less.
But Wonsala said he doesn’t want to run a typical gun store. He specializes in the restoration and sale of older weapons — guns from the Civil War, the World Wars and the Korean War.
“These pieces are considered by most as works of art,” he said in a news release to the community, explaining his proposed business.
In public testimony and an online petition that’s garnered more than 180 signatures, many in the town of about 10,000 residents are objecting, saying Wonsala is simply aiming to sell modern weapons, or at least will open up the neighborhood to those who want to.
“My friends with guns would never buy one off the Internet at somebody’s house,” said Rachel Price, a real estate agent who lives down the street and called Mount Airy “an old school, Norman Rockwell little town.” She added: “I can’t imagine what kind of people this would attract.”
Selling guns legally out of a residence, it turns out, is a complicated business. Dealers need a federal firearms license, and they can’t get one without showing that their place of business is appropriately zoned. Wonsala’s quiet street in Mount Airy isn’t.
So, rather than open up shop in Mount Airy’s business district, Wonsala sought to amend the town’s zoning ordinances in a process that began 15 months ago, creating an exception to allow “the sale, transfer, or restoration of firearms” in some residential areas, as the proposed legislation explains.
Wonsala defended his plan, creating his own online petition, titled “ ‘Let Freedom Ring’ while Allowing Small Businesses to Thrive!” He noted his experience in the field as the second-generation owner of a gun business he inherited from his father, which he previously operated in New Jersey.
“With Michael’s tenure in the industry coupled with his NJ residential business platform, he is confident he can comply with the town’s ordinance and meet the needs of the community,” his news release said.
Wonsala said his shop would be open by appointment only, comparing it to home salons and tax services. He noted that other people in the area have such licenses.
“It’s not like we’re taking a giant leap,” he said.
Community members, however, are worried not just about Wonsala but about what other armories might come to town if a zoning change is made.
“This is not just about one man,” said neighbor Jen Stukey. “Somebody could set up next to me and sell semiautomic weapons — as many as they want, as much as they want. This is the rezoning of our whole residential area.”
Another person raising objections to Wonsala’s plan is Susie Bailey, co-owner of the Gun Shack, the only gun dealer located in downtown Mount Airy, besides Walmart, she said.
Bailey said she’s not worried about the competition Wonsala might bring. And she’s not worried that rejecting Wonsala’s request would infringe upon the Second Amendment.
“It doesn’t have to do with guns; it has to do with it being a business,” she said. “It’s not like it’s going to be Avon.”
Bailey also expressed concern about the security necessary to keep gun shops safe from thieves.
“If I’m a thug, who am I going to rob first?” she asked. “I’m going to go to this guy’s house. . . . We’re going to take everything he’s got and be on [Interstate] 70 before anybody knows about it.”
Wonsala said security concerns were unfounded.
“My house will be safer and more secure than a typical home of a gun owner or anyone else,” he wrote in an email.
Ahead of a Monday town council vote on the ordinance, members of Mount Airy’s five-member council said they were keeping an open mind, even if they were skeptical of the proposal.
Council member Bob King said he’s lived in Mount Airy for 25 years. He’s not questioning anyone’s right to own firearms — he owns firearms himself, he said. A gun business among homes, however, was a different matter.
“There’s no way they can appear side by side in the same neighborhood,” he said. He added: “I know it sounds like I made up my mind. I really haven’t.”
Council member Jason Poirer wrote in an email that people “hear guns and automatically assume the worst.” He said residents had many prior opportunities to raise concerns about the proposed zoning change.
The National Rifle Association declined to comment.
Jen Pauliukonis, the president of the advocacy group Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, said she was not aware of a similar business in the state.
“There’s no one saying a gun shop shouldn’t be up and running, that a small-business owner shouldn’t be able to run their business,” she said. “But we’re saying this shouldn’t be where families are.”