THE FIRST THING you notice about Andy Raymond is his bulk. He is a solid 260 pounds, 6 feet 1 inch tall, with a dark beard and full head of black hair. His thick arms are heavily tattooed—there’s a depiction of the seven deadly sins on his left arm, a Bettie Page nudie and a fearsome-looking serpent on his right. Then, he extends his hand and says warmly, “What’s up, dude?”
The 34-year-old owner of Engage Armament in Rockville defies stereotypes. He’s a pro-gun rights gun dealer who briefly became a liberal hero after announcing plans last April to sell a so-called “smart gun” with computer technology that allows it to be fired only by its owner.
A Washington Post story about his sales plan went viral and led to a backlash, including death threats, and criticism from the National Rifle Association and an MSNBC segment with Chris Hayes.
To the NRA, selling the German-made Armatix iP1 smart gun was like letting the proverbial camel’s nose into the tent: A 2002 New Jersey law had decreed that once it was sold anywhere in the United States, the state’s dealers had three years to remove all other guns from their shelves and then could sell only the smart gun. Raymond thought the matter was moot because a California gun shop had already sold the weapon—only it hadn’t. His plan to sell the smart gun enraged New Jersey gun dealers and residents and led to a firestorm of protests on his store’s Facebook page.
When Raymond backed down under pressure, anti-gun liberals called him a coward and worse. “One guy said, ‘You’re responsible for the death of our children, of our teachers,’ ” says Raymond. “It’s like, what the fuck, man? People get angry, but you need to focus your anger at least at the guilty parties.”
Taking aim at both sides, Raymond went ballistic. Most notable was a YouTube rant with him swigging whiskey and smoking a cigarette against a backdrop of racks of rifles. “I’ve been drinking, so my apologies in advance,” he began. “I received numerous death threats today. …I thought we had a chance to reach people. I hope bygones can be bygones and we can go back to our regularly scheduled program.”
Looking back now, he says: “I made a great mistake thinking people are reasonable.” He says a lot of people who used to frequent the store don’t come in anymore. “Fuck them,” he says. “If you believe in pro-life, you can’t say abortion should be illegal unless my daughter gets pregnant. The whole thing makes me very, very angry.”
Raymond no longer smokes. Instead, he chain drinks diet drinks from an ice chest behind the counter—his way to chill.
He’s an intense and complicated man who went to a Quaker high school and loves history and writer Joseph Conrad. Like the author’s character Lord Jim, Raymond would like to be redeemed—somehow, someday.
RAYMOND GOT INTO the firearms business about five years ago, when he and a former partner took over a lease from Bill Printz, who for years owned the oddly twin-themed store known as Guns and Trains on University Boulevard in Kensington. Raymond moved to his current location in Rockville about two years ago.
It’s not as if Raymond’s lifelong dream was to become a gun dealer. Before Engage Armament, he owned a hauling business, which he hated. He liked guns, so he decided to give it a try.
But these are difficult times for Maryland gun dealers. A new, more restrictive state law went into effect on Oct. 1, 2013, banning the purchase of assault weapons and handguns with magazines containing more than 10 bullets. After the law passed, but before it took effect, sales soared. According to state police records, the highest number of monthly applications for handgun purchases in Maryland history occurred that September—32,927, compared with a total of 38,712 for all of 2010.
Raymond says his shop had 8,000 firearms transactions in 2013, compared with 2,000 in a more typical year. As of mid-November in 2014, he says he had 1,120.
Under the new law, every purchaser must first obtain a Maryland Handgun Qualification License, which requires four hours of gun training, fingerprinting and a $50 application fee. On top of the increased Maryland paperwork, sellers and dealers must go through a process with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Federal approval can take several months, leaving gun dealers with partially completed sales and inventory they can’t convey to the potential owners.
Raymond complains that ATF compliance checks have become more rigorous and extensive. Last March, he says, two agents spent a month at his store. “They wrote us up for everything,” though there was no fine, he says. “It was just, ‘hey, you do this again, you’re out.’ ”
With so many hassles connected to the new Maryland law, why doesn’t Raymond just relocate to less-restrictive Virginia? “One, that admits defeat,” he says. “Two, the market there is very different. It’s pretty saturated. There are a lot of shops, and a lot have licenses and sell out of their homes.”
In Maryland, it’s illegal to sell guns out of your home. According to the ATF, there were 892 federally licensed firearms dealers in the state in 2014, compared with 542 in 2010; in Montgomery County, there were 51, compared with 44 four years earlier. But those numbers likely include some individuals who maintain their federal licenses though they are no longer in business. A better measure: Maryland also requires a regulated dealer’s license, and as of this fall there were 302 statewide, including 19 in the county, according to Capt. Dalaine M. Brady, commander of the state police licensing division.
In all of Montgomery County, there are four gun stores. In addition to Raymond’s Engage Armament, there are two Atlantic Guns stores, one in Silver Spring and one in Rockville, and United Gun Shop, which opened a year ago on Randolph Road in Rockville.
Montgomery County is not West Virginia. The Potomac Hunt, which includes foxes being chased by dogs and oddly-clad men and women on horseback, is not really about hunting at all. Guns here (when they are not being used in the commission of a crime) are mostly about “sport shooting,” aiming at targets at the county’s one indoor range (Gilbert’s, in Rockville) or at one of three private ranges in the county owned and operated by local chapters of the Izaak Walton League, a national nonprofit that promotes conservation and outdoor recreation. Aside from managed hunts to control the deer population, Raymond says hunting on public land in Montgomery County is illegal.
“People joke [that] we’re behind enemy lines here,” says Cory Brown, owner of United Gun Shop. “I think there are a lot of closet gun people here, but it’s not like Texas, where everybody has a gun; it’s part of their culture.” He says he doesn’t run around advertising the fact that he owns a gun store, “but there are side conversations.”
Steve Schneider, owner of Atlantic Guns, discourages a reporter from interviewing customers at his big fall sale in October because he believes press about guns and gun owners here is overwhelmingly negative. “We tend to be a little gun-shy sometimes,” he says.
Raymond has no such reticence. He says he’s not ashamed of what he does. And his very public response to his critics on the left and right last year showed that he’s not afraid to speak his mind.
Anti-gun activists occasionally have put signs in front of his store that say things like “Merchant of Death.” But he’s never been picketed. “I wouldn’t tolerate it,” he says. “There would be a confrontation.”
Over the last five years, Raymond has learned that being a gun shop owner in Montgomery County comes with baggage that he never anticipated. During a recent hospital stay for pneumonia, a doctor asked how he makes his living. “I said, ‘I sell guns.’ Her attitude, the way she acted toward me, changed 180 degrees.”
Raymond still loves guns, loves how shooting them helps him relax and tune out distractions. But he has grown to hate the gun business: “I’m just tired of it, man.” He says the only reason he’s still in it is that he doesn’t know what else to do.
ENGAGE ARMAMENT occupies 2,000 square feet on the first floor of a drab 40-year-old building on East Gude Drive in the industrial heart of Rockville. The store has display cases for handguns and wall racks for rifles. There are also a variety of pro-gun rights T-shirts for sale, along with ammunition and hunting knives. A “Don’t Tread on Me” flag hangs on one wall.
On a recent weekday, Raymond is wading through a stack of silencers on the front counter. Customers can’t pick them up until all the government paperwork has cleared. “Yes, silencers are legal,” a wall poster declares. “Secretly taking out your neighbor’s dog so you can sleep? Not legal.”
In back and off-limits to customers is a workbench where gunsmith Ryan Uhrich assembles and fits gun parts to rifles and pistols; the parts were designed at Engage Armament but made by outside manufacturers. There is also a “shoot tube,” into which guns are fired for testing, and a locked backroom vault for the secure storage of silencers and machine guns, as required under federal law.