Lawrence residents, teachers and parents are pushing back against the opening of a gun shop just steps away from three schools — two daycare centers and a public charter school.
The New England Training Center’s new location, a few hundred feet away from the schools, was approved by Lawrence’s zoning board earlier this year. It technically lies in an industrial zone — not a school zone, where it would not be allowed.
Kate Cannella, executive director of Little Sprouts, one of the nearby child care centers, told GBH News that she was baffled to hear the news — which she only heard from another school official, not the store itself.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Cannella said. “You wouldn’t want to have a dispensary next to a public school. You wouldn’t want to have an adult-only store. There are different things that are appropriate next door to a school, and there are some things that are not, and it just raises a fear in parents about the safety of their children.”
Mayor Brian DePeña announced Tuesday that, although zoning permits are not under his or any elected official’s jurisdiction, he is requesting a delay for further study. He released a copy of the letter sent to the board, asking them to “reconsider the approval of the permit” after a “significant number of our citizens have expressed apprehensions about the proximity of this gun training facility to residential areas and educational institutions.”
An online petition pushing for the store’s relocation has garnered nearly 300 signatures from parents, employees and other residents in the community, one organizer told GBH News.
New England Training Center, owned by Lawrence Police Officer Luis Olivo, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last week, the center shared a video of two protesters on Facebook with signs opposing the gun sales near schools. “Do you guys think that using children to promote an agenda of misinformation about the legal rights of the citizens of this country makes any sense?” the page wrote. “Our children should not be afraid of Police Officers Or law-abiding citizens.”
The center has said the location will be implementing safety measures, including restricting merchandise pickup to after-school hours.
Cannella said although the safety measures are a good first step, it’s not enough to justify the new location.
“I don’t doubt what [the store owner] is doing; he’s taking all the precautions, and he’s doing everything correctly. It’s just the location and proximity to the charter school is too close,” Cannella said. “In the city of Lawrence, there’s so many places you can go. Why? Why choose that location?
“My personal belief or just in general, as I’ve been talking to parents — no one's opposed to the education component,” she added. “But the location of where he’s doing it just doesn't make sense.”
In a letter distributed to Little Sprouts families and staff, the daycare center said it would be appealing the Zoning Board’s July decision and called for additional support.
“Imagine a chorus of concerned parents, staff, and community members,” read the memo. “That’s hard for any board to ignore.”
In an email, Community Day Charter Public School, located down the street from the gun shop, declined to comment but directed GBH News to a statement on its website announcing the school and its accompanying daycare have filed a complaint in Essex Superior Court.
Emily Stanford and Brain Gutierrez are parents of two children enrolled at Little Sprouts. They told GBH News that they and other parents were confused and frustrated that the topic hadn’t been open for discussion before the store’s opening.
“Obviously, the parents should be involved, but even the administrators of the schools were completely caught off guard — it was like a deer in headlights,” Gutierrez said. “This has a lot of ramifications, a lot of ripple effects across the schools and the teachers, so how did this not get shared or discussed? How was it just that [the zoning] was approved without any type of discussion?”
Stanford added that these new safety concerns for their children might push parents to reenroll students at another daycare center.
“[Reenrolling their students] would be devastating,” she said. “Our kids are really happy. They love the teachers. We feel like a family there, so to have to make that consideration would make us pretty sad, as a family, to be facing that.”
The Lawrence Zoning Board of Appeals was scheduled to have its monthly meeting tomorrow night — where the subject was likely to be addressed — but has been postponed until November because not enough members will be able to attend, per the mayor’s office.