Littleton is a sleepy little Massachusetts town of 9,000 inhabitants, with wooden houses and beautiful fall colors. It comes to life on weekends, when a caravan of cars heads to the old mill. Inside the structure, 80 arms dealers set up shop, one of the highest concentrations of gun distributors in the entire country.
“People come to the mobile bookstore… but they also ask where the mill is and go take photos [of the stands],” explains Andrew, who owns the adjoining business. “It’s a tourist attraction.”
“Even bad publicity is publicity,” jokes William Parker, the friendly owner of Battle Road Firearms. Spread out on his table are a variety of spare parts for hunting rifles and small arms.
Parker is referring to the buzz generated by two recent articles in The Boston Globe. In September, reports profiled the Littleton arms bazaar, in a warm-up for the midterm elections being held in November. The state’s attorney general – Maura Healey, of the Democratic Party – is running for governor. Favored to win her election by a landslide, Healey has long championed gun control and intends to go after those who modify weapons to circumvent legislation. Those are the type of weapons used in the mass shootings that, every so often, stain the country with blood: Uvalde, Buffalo, Highland Park or Raleigh, to name a few this year.
Mass shootings are common in America, with the killers getting younger and younger. Many Democrats are trying, in vain, to raise the arms purchasing threshold from 18 to 21.
Parker – who is surrounded by pro-Trump paraphenalia – explains that he has no problem reporting irregularities concerning the sale and purchase of weapons. “We’re the first ones interested in making sure that the law is enforced.” In his view, the arms market in Littleton is perfectly legal.
“The people here haven’t broken a single law in their lives, otherwise they would never have obtained a license [for the sale and purchase of arms]. They also don’t intend to break the law to make money.”
The arms control debate continues to be a key partisan battle. In June, Congress passed mild legislation to restrict assaults weapons, although enforceability will be difficult, especially with the Republican-majority Supreme Court striking down gun safety legislation across the country, touting Americans’ Second Amendment right to “bear arms.” Even in heavily restricted Democratic-led states, disturbing incidents continue to occur, such as police being ambushed and shot in Connecticut, or thousands of ghost weapons (illegal, made up of loose parts, without serial numbers) being seized in New York City this year alone.
For Parker, gun control is “a deeply emotional subject.” He says he understands and sympathizes “with the people who are upset [by our presence], but the reality is what it is.” He notes that, just 20 miles away, in New Hampshire, you can practically buy whatever gun you want, without restrictions.
When the upcoming gubernatorial race comes up in conversation, he shrugs. “Our current attorney general – who is very anti-gun – will probably be elected governor. So we’re waiting to see what happens, because they [gun control advocates] yell at us and ask us to leave. There’s no dialogue.”
“At a recent town hall meeting, there were lots of mothers who almost cried, because they see a connection between the legal sale of weapons and school shootings. And it’s not like that, this state of mind isn’t conducive to debate.”
Two doors away, the person in charge of another stand – who asks not to be identified – underlines what he considers to be a widespread media bias. “We’re legal businesses, periodically evaluated by the ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, part of the Department of Justice) and I assure you that getting a permit to open [a weapons shop] is a slow and tedious process that can take months.”
“The information about the mill is based on a prejudice that this is a dangerous place. But it’s not like that at all.”
On weekdays, business at the stands is only conducted via appointments. But on Saturdays and Sundays, the mill becomes a place of pilgrimage. “Entire families come with their children. I had a district attorney sitting here on Saturday – he came to buy his gun. The publication of those articles [from The Boston Globe] has triggered the influx of clients,” he says with satisfaction.
The concentration of gun dealers in Littleton is due to the low cost of rent at the mill, which is significantly cheaper than other areas of Massachusetts, one of the country’s most expensive states to rent or purchase property. There are also other businesses in the building: a photography studio, a music academy and a restoration workshop. Some parents have withdrawn their children from the music school out of fear.
Evelyn, the owner of the workshop, points down a corridor. She confesses, “I don’t like this environment at all, I would prefer they [the gun dealers] weren’t here… but the truth is that they don’t cause problems.”
At the entrance to the area where the 80 distributors are located – “closed tight,” Evelyn notes, indicating the armored doors – copies of the US Constitution and the Second Amendment are offered.
“Fortunately, the Constitution supports us, so we stand firm,” says Parker. The interpretation of the country’s founding document by the ultra-conservative majority of the Supreme Court aligns with the vendors, although 64% of Americans approve of more gun control measures. According to a poll from the Pew Research Center conducted in July, only 21% of the population rejects stricter legislation.
Despite being in the minority, until the November elections, Parker and his fellow salesmen wait in anticipation for the weekend. In a state with a population of seven million, about 500,000 people have gun permits. Business is good at the mill.
“There aren’t many vendors [in the state], so it’s cost-effective and convenient for people to drive ninety minutes to find what they’re looking for in one trip. It’s a great experience!” he smiles.