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BY JAMES SCOTT Of The Post and Courier Staff When Clyde Burris strolls into his Meeting Street liquor store each morning, he unlocks the doors, flips on the lights and straps on his .38-caliber pistol. MIC SMITH/STAFF An employee at Burris Discount Beverages in downtown Charleston helps customers with a handgun at his side. All nine of his employees, from the trusted store manager to the guy who mops up each afternoon, follow a similar routine. Since 1974, when Burris chased two robbers from his store while firing several warning shots, he said he's never had a problem. Word on the street is he's packing heat."Police officers aren't God," said Burris, 61. "They can't be everywhere at once."For more than three decades, Burris has been part of a select club in Charleston -- merchants who have chosen to arm themselves and their employees for protection. Now, after a rash of about two dozen robberies and break-ins at Folly Road businesses, Charleston Police Chief Reuben Greenberg has suggested the time may have come for others to follow Burris' lead."There is never going to be zero crime. We can only work to reduce those that happen," the veteran chief told concerned James Island business owners at a recent meeting. "That's the kind of world we live in."Greenberg's suggestion that owners exercise the right to bear arms has been met with mixed reviews from area law enforcement officials and political leaders.Some say it would create a new set of risks, from untrained employees shooting the wrong person to an attacker wrestling away a gun and using it on a business owner, employee or customer.Others argue that in today's world of increasing violence, rapid growth and shrinking budgets, it's time for business owners to step in.Caught in the middle are more than two dozen James Island business owners who have fallen victim to a rising tide of armed robberies and break-ins. "I don't know if I could shoot somebody," said Mary Jane Keathley,co-owner of Lighthouse Tea and Coffee Co. on Folly Road. "What if I shoot the wrong person? What if my bullet ricochets? What happens if the robber takes the gun away from me?" WHO'S RESPONSIBLE?Keathley's questions have echoed up and down this heavily traveled corridor where at least 10 robberies and 15 break-ins have taken place this past year and left business owners wary, scared and wondering who's next.Some of the recent attacks have occurred in broad daylight, when traffic is buzzing along Folly Road with residents heading to the suburbs and tourists to the beaches.In one such example, a man snatched a deposit bag containing more than $1,600 in cash shortly past noon on Jan. 21 from a woman outside Kerr Drug.A Taco Bell restaurant reported two holdups in the last six months of 2002. Buffalo South tavern was burglarized twice in one day in December. In April, in what many here say was the worst incident, a drifter beat, choked and tried to rape a boutique owner in her shop at about 3 p.m.Even on a night three weeks ago when police and sheriff's deputies met with concerned business owners, an armed man walked into the nearby Amoco gas station and demanded $50."A gun is an absolute last resort," said Jeff Haertel, co-owner of Buffalo South. "I don't want to have to shoot anybody. I don't think any business owner should have to. That is why we pay taxes and give cops guns."Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said that was the same argument businesses made a decade ago when law enforcement began recommending people install burglar alarms and fences to fend off would-be thieves and robbers. Why do we need them if we have police? people asked.In recent years, Cannon said, the playing field has changed. Crime is on the rise locally and outlaws are growing bolder, forcing law enforcement officials and citizens to adapt. He used the parallel of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, pointing out that on that September morning, most passengers and airline employees on board three of the four planes followed industry protocol and did not fight with hijackers."Random, senseless kinds of violence seem to be on the increase," said Cannon, adding that he would never discourage a business owner from arming. "We are seeing more instances where armed robbers are not satisfied with just getting away with money. They are committing unnecessary and senseless violence against their victims."Supporting Cannon's argument are the numbers. Coupled with a growing population and improving law enforcement technology is an increase in crime. No one understands that better than Jack Guedalia, a Charleston County magistrate and crime statistician who has charted the number of charges that have come through the court each year since 1986. In recent years, he said, the court has seen a growing number of charges. For example, five years ago in 1997, the court handled 15,459 charges, ranging from theft and armed robbery to rape and murder. That compares with this past year, when there were about 20,087."If you take a look at the last five years, crime has definitely gone up," Guedalia said. "It's obvious to me, based on what goes through the court, that weapons violations and crimes involving guns have been on the rise, like specifically armed robbery."NOT EVERYONE AGREESNot all local law enforcement officials and political leaders think the time has come for merchants to lock and load.North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt, whose city has a reputation for high crime, said he still prefers business owners to take the non-confrontational approach of handing over cash, getting a good description of the robbers and then stepping back to let authorities handle the investigation and arrest.Zumalt said that adding more guns to a situation only elevates the danger for everyone and could complicate the issue for police officers. "Let's say I'm a beat officer called out to a crime and both the merchant and suspect have guns," Zumalt said. "How do I know who is the bad guy, and who is the good guy? That could cost me a second or two of valuable time."Mayor Keith Summey, whose .357-caliber pistol was stolen from his car and later recovered in late 2001, said it's not as simple as arming merchants. With that comes the need to train employees and then to decide how and where to keep the gun and who has access to it. "It scares me because of the lack of training," Summey said. "Who is going to be handling the gun? Who has access to the gun? How secure is the area where the gun is located?"Under South Carolina law, any qualified business owner can have a gun in the store without having a concealed weapons permit. All it takes is a routine background check conducted at the time a gun is purchased, something gun dealers say can be done in as little as 10 minutes. Many residents and business owners go the extra step of getting a concealed weapons permit, which involves a $50 application fee and taking an eight-hour course -- four hours of classroom study and four hours on a shooting range.Kathryn Richardson, spokeswoman for the State Law Enforcement Division, said the state has issued 36,186 concealed weapons permits, 4,091 of them in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Included in those numbers are many of the employees at Carolina Rod & Gun.Neil Schachte, owner of the Savannah Highway business, said he was wary about wearing his pistol on his hip until about two years ago when a neighboring business owner was killed by a robber.During the interrogation, police learned the shooter had contemplated robbing Carolina Rod & Gun, but decided against it because employees had guns. For Schachte, that confirmed his decision."Nowadays you can't take a chance," said Schachte, adding that there is no special or additional insurance needed. "You can have $100 in the till or $20 and it doesn't matter. Some people will take your life for that."Though the issue of arming merchants has only recently popped up on the Charleston radar, cases exist across the state that illustrate both sides of the argument.For example in 1999, a Spartanburg gas station clerk pulled a gun on a robber. The robber wrestled the gun away from the clerk and shot another customer before using his own gun to kill the clerk.The year before, a Quick Stop convenience store owner in the town of Cross in Berkeley County pulled a gun on an armed robber and chased him from the store. After several warning shots were fired, the driver of the getaway car fled, leaving the robber behind to be apprehended by police.Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said arming homeowners and businesses makes perfect sense in theory. It's when it's actually applied that it can become dangerous."It's is a recipe for disaster unless people are well trained," Alpert said. "You would not want to have a police officer who is not extremely well trained with a gun. Why would you want a store owner who is not trained?"What law enforcement officials are saying about citizens needing to protect themselves comes as no surprise to Ed Kelleher, president of Grass Roots South Carolina, a non-profit gun advocacy group based in the Columbia area. He said he and the other 5,000 members of his organization view guns as a means of protection when law enforcement is not around. "If you think you have a right to defend yourself, you might as well do it with the best tools available," Kelleher said. "When business owners are armed, they are not going to just start shooting people."But arming merchants could prove more difficult than it seems. Jim Hatchell, president of the South Carolina Merchants Association in Columbia, said he foresees a split on the issue in the retail industry, with mom-and-pop shops being more likely to take up guns than big corporations because of the legal liability risk of something going wrong."Most corporations, whether small or large, will say no. If someone comes in armed and says give them the money, you give them the money," Hatchell said. "Your worst-case scenario is you're a reasonable-sized corporation, you're tired of the crap, you arm some people and it goes wrong -- a bullet goes through the window and hits a kid across the street. Then you have major problems."Peter J. Sodini, president and chief executive of the convenience store chain The Pantry, said it's simply not an option he would consider for his roughly 1,300 stores, 13 of which are in the Charleston area. He said the amount of training that it takes to develop skills and judgment for police officers could never be rivaled for part-time clerks."The risk involved, particularly for customers and people in the immediate area, you are opening a Pandora's Box," said Sodini, whose business is based in North Carolina. "I don't like anything about that idea."CHANGING TIMESWhile there may not be an accurate count on the number of Charleston area businesses with armed owners, Greenberg said, he thought there were at least dozens. He said he knew of businesses, ranging from pawn shops to bill collectors, that keep guns around for protection. Many, unlike Burris Liquor Store, keep their weapons hidden, he said. For business owners who don't want the responsibility that comes with a gun, Greenberg suggested hiring security guards or off-duty police officers at $17-an-hour."Things are changing. People will shoot you whether you resist or not," said Greenberg, adding that he felt guns in residences create more problems than those in businesses. "A robber will shoot you if you don't give him enough money or if he's nervous. People have to be willing to live in the real world."Complicating the issue for law enforcement, Cannon said, is that criminals have the advantage of knowing when and where they plan to strike, something law enforcement will never be able to predict."For a long time police departments have tried to create a sense that everything is OK and people are safe. You can't maintain that perception any longer," Cannon said. "We're not perfect." In the meantime, business owners say they are in a tough spot, faced with the question of how to defend themselves and their customers. In the most recent headline-grabbing event along Folly Road, a man suspected of several armed robberies was chased down and tackled by a local mechanic, who spotted him on the run Wednesday afternoon. That man, identified as Samuel McKelvey, using Thomas Pettigrew as an alias, is being held at Charleston County Detention Center on charges of armed robbery, kidnapping and on four magistrate bench warrants.Many on James Island say the police have stepped up the patrols in the area in response to growing concerns and media reports, and have made their presence better known. But some fear that will fade with time. Bart Altman, owner of Purple Music record store on Folly Road, has had his place broken into three times in the last three years. Some of his windows are boarded up from a recent attack in which a thief threw a rock through the glass."I like to say I am an honest man doing business in a dishonest world," said Altman, who wants more police presence in the area. "I have children. Sometimes I bring my children to work with me. I don't want a gun around my kids. I'd rather be robbed." Mike RossThe Cartridge GuysLife Member, North American Hunting ClubMember, National Rifle AssociationMember, Meeker Co. Historical Society
 
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