John Semm Is Selling Guns in One of the Most Liberal Cities in America

His shop captures the paradox of Portlanders’ passive relationship with guns.

John Semm sees a war zone outside the front door of North Portland's last mom-and-pop gun shop.

Bullets are flying across Portland. His store's neighborhood, St. Johns, has become collateral damage in a year of record shootings as rival gangs take aim at each other and don't care who they hit. If it's not the gangbangers, it's the crazed lone-wolf shooters like Christopher Harper-Mercer channeling their despair into a stream of bullets.

Semm, a white-haired, 67-year-old Vietnam vet from Hillsboro, sees his store as a bulwark against this chaos. On a Friday afternoon, he folds his arms across his black polo shirt, standing behind the black-barred doors of Shooter's Service Center.

"A lot of people think that we're a criminal element, because we sell a product that a lot of people would like to see totally banned—destroyed," he says. "They think we're like drug pushers. And those are the people that are really not informed. I'm providing a way that people can protect themselves."

The nation is again transfixed by the horror of a mass shooting. In the wake of the killing of nine people Oct. 1 at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., President Barack Obama wants tighter gun laws, now. Many Portland residents do as well.

Yet in one of the city's most historically crime-blighted neighborhoods, people see Semm as just another merchant, like the hardware store down the street.

His shop captures the paradox of Portlanders' passive relationship with guns.

Protests have put other kinds of stores out of business. A decade ago, relentless pressure drove Schumacher Furs out of downtown after 100 years. Animal rights activists regularly target Oregon Health & Science University for its research on monkeys and the Oregon Zoo for its treatment of elephants.

But a gun store in the middle of the city generates a collective shrug.

"I don't think about [the store] as a prominent thing in St. Johns at all," says Shamus Lynsky, vice chairman of the St. Johns Neighborhood Association. "I think a lot of people are like, 'Oh, right, there's a gun shop there.'"

Semm says he's heard a little bit of criticism, but he's unfazed.

"I've had ladies come in and say it's my fault there's crime in the neighborhood," Semm says. "They just don't know what they're talking about."

CORNER STORE: Shooter’s Service Center, at the entrance to St. Johns’ downtown. (Photo by WW Staff) CORNER STORE: Shooter’s Service Center, at the entrance to St. Johns’ downtown. (Photo by WW Staff)

Shooter's Service Center, among six gun stores left in Portland, is easy to miss: a discreet, black concrete building with a sidewalk sandwich board painted with a skull. For the past 30 years, it has sat at the entrance to the villagelike St. Johns neighborhood, near the Signal Station pizza shop and the Parlour, a cruelty-free hair salon. It's down the block from the public library, and just 100 feet from the playground of James John Elementary School.

"If you went around and talked to most of the businesses close to my store, you would probably find that they have no problem with me being there," Semm says.

He's right: A woman selling pizza slices at the Signal Station next door says she bought her first gun at Shooter's. The owner of boutique dog store Tré Bone says he didn't even notice the gun shop until recently.

A woman behind the counter at the Tulip Pastry Shop scoffs at questions. "They come in here all the time, they're real nice people," she says. "They do their best, that's all anyone can do. The people [responsible] are the people behind the guns."

Gun violence is part of the American identity, even in peace-loving Portland.

The same day Harper-Mercer, a 26-year-old student at Umpqua Community College, shot nine people dead, Portland police detained several people after responding to reports of gunfire outside a residence just one mile from Shooter's Service Center.

This year, the Portland Police Bureau has responded to 146 calls of gang violence citywide—"well beyond any record we have kept in the last decade plus," says bureau spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson. And many of those incidents occurred in St. Johns and other North Portland neighborhoods near Shooter's Service Center.

Five shootings occurred on a six-block stretch of North Lombard Street, the same street as Semm's store, from February to July.

Yet Semm doesn't see his store as part of the problem.

In his view, the people buying guns from his store are the ones fighting back—people seeking to protect themselves in a country Semm says is desperate to disarm them.

Under the bright white fluorescent lights of his showroom, Semm leans against a counter as he talks. Steve Plaschka, a retired mechanic in jeans and a work jacket, sits behind the counter on a stool under a row of wood-stocked shotguns. On white, pegboard walls around them, military-style AR-15s and hunting rifles are mounted, barrels up, in rows. Ammunition boxes sit in stacks below. Handguns and knives rest in perfect lines inside gleaming glass cases.

Semm and all four of his employees carry handguns in hip or shoulder holsters at work.

Semm grew up shooting .22 rifles at Hillsboro Union High School's indoor rifle range. He ran a flame-thrower platoon in Vietnam, came home and started fixing guns as a hobby. In 1985, he opened his shop.

Semm carries about 500 firearms in Shooter's. Most customers want to buy semiautomatic handguns: a Glock, a Smith & Wesson M&P, a Springfield Armory XD-S. Lots of his customers are target shooters, but many are looking for new ways to protect themselves.

For some people, Shooter's Service Center is a neighborhood gathering place, like Slim's Bar and Pattie's Home Plate Cafe down the street. A favorite topic: liberal media and Obama.

"The agenda is to unarm the citizens," Semm says leaning against the counter, Plaschka nodding as he talks. "Because the police will say it's not their responsibility to protect you. It's their responsibility to enforce the law."

"They're there to clean up the mess afterwards," says Plaschka, arms crossed, too, now.

It's the kind of thing Semm and his employees (and the many regulars like Plaschka, who don't work here but sit behind the counter at Shooter's for "something to do") talk about a lot around the shop: how America has changed from having "a shotgun or rifle over the mantle" in every home to gun violence on the news every night.

"What do they say?" Semm says, "'An armed society is a polite society'?"

Plaschka nods.

SURE SHOT: John Semm (right) has sold firearms to Portlanders for the past three decades. (Photo by Ryan LaBriere) SURE SHOT: John Semm (right) has sold firearms to Portlanders for the past three decades. (Photo by Ryan LaBriere)

The store's neighbors often don't notice Shooter's—and certainly don't connect it to what Mayor Charlie Hales has called Portland's "epidemic" of gun violence.

WW spent the last week talking to more than a dozen of Semm's neighbors—St. Johns business owners and residents who say shootings are a growing threat. Few of them blamed the neighborhood's gun violence on the neighborhood gun store, and those who did said they felt powerless to remove it.

Amy Herold has lived in St. Johns for 31 years—her whole life. She admits that she hardly notices that the gun store is there at all.

"I guess thinking about it, it's probably not the best idea," Herold says of the store's location near an elementary school. "But there's no way really for any kids to get in there."

Herold says she thinks gun violence in St Johns is usually gang-related. And she doesn't think about gangs much. "Growing up, there was always random shootings," Herold says. "It was just normal."

The shop doesn't trouble new resident Christy Trowbridge, who moved to St. Johns just two years ago.

"I don't think a gun shop is necessarily a part of the problem," Trowbridge says.

But she says that guns are a problem. Trowbridge lives just three blocks from where the Pier Park drive-by shooting occurred this summer.

"I just think of a stray bullet, and it just scares me," she says. "I want that to be OK. This only happened three blocks away, and it really scares me."

Herold and Trowbridge are white. Many African-American residents in St. Johns see the gun store as a more vexing symbol.

"I'm not really down with guns, period," says 24-year-old Jesse Talton. "It's just kind of a stupid place, to me, to have a gun store. It's something that's still right there—like, holy shit, there's a gun store right there."

But any effort to organize against Shooter's would have to take place without Ceasefire Oregon, the state's largest gun-rights group.

"Ceasefire Oregon is not against responsible gun ownership," says executive director Penny Okamoto, "so we do not protest outside of federally licensed firearms dealers."

Ironically, what scares people in St. Johns more than guns is change—specifically, the arrival of big new apartment buildings and creative-class invaders.

"The concern is, if a whole bunch of high-priced apartments come in, that it's going to make the neighborhood unaffordable for younger families or working-class families," says Lynsky, of the neighborhood association. "And that would change the face of St. Johns."

The planned 2016 opening of a New Seasons Market on Lombard, 16 blocks east of Shooter's, has people preparing for the worst. "That's the first sign," Trowbridge says. "On Division, New Seasons came and it turned into Trendville Street."

The employees at Shooter's are nervous, too. On a recent Saturday, they discuss a new 100-unit apartment complex slated to go in directly across the street from the store, where a vacant building now stands.

"We've thought about, 'How are people going to feel living across the street from the gun shop?'" says one employee, Aaron, who asks to have his last name withheld. "Earlier, we had an older gentleman [with] two rifles that he was bringing in for repair. He had them slung on his shoulders, bolts open. How are people going to react to that?"

Semm isn't worried about being run out of town. He has never had a protest at his store. He thinks that more people in St. Johns like guns than they want to admit.

He says he's planning to pass the business on to his daughter, Nicole.

"I don't want anybody to get hurt," he says. "But on the other side, I don't want somebody to hurt me or my family or my grandkids. And if I have the means of protecting myself? I'm going to use it."

This story appears in the Oct. 14, 2015 print edition as "The Last Stand."

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