Mike Reber used to build custom acrylic aquariums until the housing market crashed and his business hit a slump.
“Nobody wanted aquariums anymore,” the Gilbert resident recalled. “My wife said, ‘do something you love.’”
And that’s what Reber has been doing for the nearly 15 years – selling antique and modern firearms.
He recently relocated his business Arizona Arms Sales from Chandler to Gilbert to a historic house converted to commercial use, half a mile west from the Heritage District. The 2,200-square foot brick home was once the residence of Otto and Edna Neely and part of the Neely Family farmstead, a working dairy farm until 1972.
“I’m getting older and I’ll not do this forever,” the 67-year-old Gilbert resident said.
“We downsized from a 12,000-square-foot warehouse to this small property to basically have a mom-and-pop shop. It’s not stark and white. It’s a nice, quiet little place.”
Visitors who enter the shop are greeted by two life-size cardboard cutouts of actor John Wayne in his cowboy persona and autographed photographs of the costumed actors from the 1993 movie “Tombstone,” hanging on the wall – testimony to Reber’s love of the Wild West.
Reber says his customers comment how comfortable they feel in the store.
Helping with that comfort level is employee Joy Triplett, an avid shooter who started off skeet shooting while in high school.
Most gun stores are staffed by men, which is intimidating to women, especially as first-time gun buyers, she said.
“Women tend to sell better to women,” said Triplett.
Women increasingly are buying guns nationwide and Reber is also seeing the same: 25-30% of his customers are women looking for protection.
Women accounted for about half of all gun purchases between 2019 and 2021, and that new gun owners are more likely to be female, according to a survey by Harvard and Northwestern universities.
Gun manufacturers such as Smith and Wesson are taking note. The Massachusetts-based company released the Shield EZ in 2018 with an easy-to-rack slide and guns now come in all colors of the rainbow.
Americans own more guns per capita than any other country and 46% of U.S. households own at least one, according to the University of Chicago in 2022.
Arizona Arms Sales stocks about 2,500 guns and offers an array of choices, half modern and half collectibles. The store also sells ammunition and some gun accessories.
“We sell lot of collectible firearms, lot of historic firearms,” Reber said.
There’s a black-powder revolver dated 1860, an 1882 and an 1887 single-action Colts and an M1 Garand sniper rifle with scope and a funnel-like fire hider attached to the muzzle end that was used during the Korean War.
“It’s one of the more unique pieces he has because it has all of the originals,” Triplett said of the M1. That weapon retails for $5,200.
An 1865 engraved Henry Repeating Rifle in pristine condition also is for sale for $35,000.
“I’ve sold five of them already,” said Reber, who acquired them from a collector.
One of the oldest pieces in the store is a flintlock rifle circa 1830s but that belongs in Reber’s private collection and isn’t not for sale.
Reber has been collecting guns for 40 years and has amassed a personal collection of 300.
“I love the Colt revolvers, the Winchesters,” said Reber, who works seven day a week and doesn’t have the time to go shooting anymore. “There’s history there and I like history.”
For the collector preferring something more modern, Reber offers a custom “MAGA AR-15” stamped with “Trump” and “MAGA” on it that comes in a variety of colors such as red and purple, retailing for $1,195.
Reber has sold eight of those so far.
Besides the brick-and-mortar location, Arizona Arms Sales has a big internet presence – selling on gunbroker.com under “acrylictnk.” Another venue for his business is the weekend gun shows, like the one he’ll be attending this coming weekend in Queen Creek.
Reber said he attends 35 to 38 events a year, all in Arizona.
The shows comprise the biggest portion of his business at 50%, he said.
His wife, Judy, mostly works the weekend gigs, and also has a business she runs out of the shop.
Judy Reber has owned Merino Skin Care USA for over 35 years and although the bulk of her sales is from online, she’s stocking her product at the shop.
“A lot of these gun people need this for their hands – especially the guys because they don’t go to a beauty supply to get something good,” she explained.
A bestseller is the “Crack Blaster,” which is great for outdoor shooters because their hands dry out in the Arizona sun or for people cleaning guns because the oil tends to eat up the hands a little bit.
Changing careers midstream isn’t new for Reber, who raised lions, tigers and bears for 20 years while living in Ohio.
He would get the exotic animals when they were 2 weeks old, raise them and take them into schools, nursing homes and the like for education presentations.
Federal regulations eventually made it increasingly difficult to run the business and Reber sold it.
He said the same thing is happening to gun sellers as increasing restrictions are placed on them.
He said that the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau already can revoke a firearms license for any one of the five violations, including transferring a firearm to a prohibited person, failing to conduct a required background check and falsifying records.
“So, the goal is to get rid of gun dealers,” Reber said. “That is the goal. And they’ve gone probably over the last 30 years, gone from almost 500,000 dealers to probably 60,000 now.”
The Giffords Law Center reported that over 52,900 individuals currently have “Type 1” federal firearms licenses that allow them to act as firearms dealers.
Another 7,000 have “Type 2” licenses, which allow them to buy and sell guns as pawnbrokers, and about 74,251 individuals have other types of federal firearms licenses.
According to the nonprofit, which works to enact stronger gun safety laws in the country, “dealers are subject to very little federal oversight” and claimed that “gun dealers represent a major source of illegally trafficked firearms.”
The organization was formed from a merger between a California legal group and the group formed by former Rep. Gabby Gifford, D-Tucson, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.
The American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan policy institute, stated that guns are diverted into illegal gun markets in three common ways – straw purchases, secondary sales through private sellers, and theft from individual gun owners or firearm dealers.
Just last week, President Joe Biden, who has a long record of pushing for gun control, signed an executive order directing the Attorney General to move the country as close to universal background checks as possible without additional legislation.
The order also directs Cabinet members to expand existing federal campaigns and other efforts to promote safe storage of firearms and it helps catch shooters by accelerating federal law enforcement’s reporting of ballistics data.
An unsettling fact is that more Americans – 45,222 people -– died of gun-related injuries in 2020 than in any other year on record, which includes murders and suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But more legislation is not the answer to stopping the gun violence, Reber said.
“Punish the people – that is the first start,” he said. “If they would just enforce the laws that are on the books already, which they do not.”
He recalled that a former employee stole “many guns” from his business and he reported it to the police and the ATF.
“They didn’t even make any attempts to contact him at all,” said Reber, who gave the agencies the accused thief’s identity. He said he was basically told that his case was a low priority.
Reber said he and other gun dealers also have told the ATF about a dealer transferring weapons to buyers at a gun show without doing a background check because the computer system was down.
At the end of the show when the computer system came back up, the dealer then submitted the background checks, which was “1000 percent illegal” but he’s still in business, Reber said.
And, he said, the ATF agents who do annual audits of his business give conflicting information.
“They do not have a single clue about their own laws and I know that for a fact,” said Reber, who knows the gun laws inside-out and is often called upon by media for commentary whenever there is a mass shooting. “All the laws are subjective to whoever is doing the investigation.”
Triplett added that it’s getting to the point that nobody wants to be in the business because of the hassle.
But it will take a whole lot more before Reber walks away from his business.
“After I spent 11 months fighting to get my business license, they’re going to have a tough time putting me out of business,” he promised.
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