Published September 3, 2003, in Knox News

Armed and ready
Vol Market owners carry handguns openly to deter crime


At the Vol Market No. 3 on Western Avenue, the person preparing your food, cashing your check or ringing you up at the register likely will be wearing a holstered handgun on their hip.

But unlike most Tennesseans who have a handgun carry permit, Vol Market owners have decided that open display as a visual deterrent is preferable to concealment as final protection.

The guns are an absolute last resort, said Alan Frye, 32, whose father, "Stormin' " Norman Frye, started the Vol Market chain years ago and operated the one on Cumberland Avenue for many years.

"This is a challenge to anybody," said Alan Frye. "We're just protecting what we have worked long and hard for, and protecting our customers. We don't want to shoot anybody. But we couldn't be in this business without the pistols."

The state does not track how many business owners with carry permits who openly display firearms. Authorities say there are probably not many. But the Vol Market folks are not alone.

Knoxville Police Dept. Lt. Eddie Biggs said some pawn shop owners wear handguns openly.

"The main problem I see is, if a police officer who is not familiar with the owner rolls up on an adverse situation, it may pose a problem to determine who is the good guy and who is the bad guy," Biggs said.

In addition to its thriving food and deli business, Vol Market has a check-cashing service, which requires a lot of cash be on hand to cash payroll checks for customers.

Store employees have been carrying guns openly after the 1996 carry permit law went into effect. Since then, it has not been robbed but was burglarized three times. And several persons who tried to cash stolen checks were detained by employees until police arrived.

"We are not trying to be police officers, we just want to protect what is ours," said Frye's co-owner, Rich Nichols, 32. "We've never had to draw the guns."

At any given time, at least two armed people will be in the store, Frye and Nichols said. Going armed is not mandatory, and some employees are never armed.

About 75 to 80 percent of their business is from regular customers, and none has expressed apprehension about the guns, the owners said.

"Some customers, after they've cashed a big check, will ask us to escort them to their cars, and we are glad to do it," Nichols said.

The training course for a carry permit includes reminders that the gun can be used only in the case of imminent threat to their lives or the lives of another.

"So if someone wants to come in here and scuffle, we've still got baseball bats and axe handles for that," Nichols said.

But in the case of a robbery, Frye said, he would surrender money before risking a customer's life, but is willing to risk his own life.

"I will not surrender the money, I will die first," he said. "That's not about money. This store is my life. We've sacrificed time, we've sacrificed relationships, for it. So if it comes down to just Rich or myself being the ones at risk, we are not going to just give up what we've worked so hard for."

As for the value of guns as a deterrent, Biggs said, "A lot of that ultimately depends on the mentality of the person who is contemplating committing the offense. Are they high on drugs and don't care? Are they willing to just go in and take out (the armed person) first?"

That is something that Frye and Nichols likely think about often. In 1990, Frye's uncle, Windham M. "Bill" Frye, 65, was killed by a shotgun blast in the parking lot of his market in South Knoxville as he left with receipts - and his .38-caliber handgun - after closing for business. The bank bag with money in it was found by his body, along with the handgun. It had been fired once. Investigators initially thought it was a bungled robbery.

Six years later, two men were charged. They were 17 at the time of the crime and had been in the store earlier. One maintained his innocence, but was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. A charge of accessory against the other was dropped. Since there was no confession by the shooter, it remains uncertain exactly what happened.

It is possible that Bill Frye lost his life because he had the gun, that a would-be-robber chose to take him out. But Alan Frye thinks that his uncle was more likely shot for some other reason, possibly lingering rage over his refusal earlier to sell the youths cigarettes.

Dave Neusel, owner of Big Ed's Pizza in Oak Ridge, carries a 45-caliber handgun at work, sometimes more openly than at other times. On Dec. 13, he thwarted a robbery attempt as he was leaving the store.

"Had I not had the firearm, at the very least I would have been held up," he said. "I look at it as an ounce of prevention."

The robber fired several wild shots as he ran away, but Neusel did not fire back, he said, because he was by then under safe cover and no longer in danger.

"If this is their choice to deter robbery, then so be it," Rob Wilcox, spokesman for the pro-gun control group Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said of business owners who wear guns. "But I have not seen any statistical evidence that it would deter a robbery, or that it would not deter robbery."

John Lott, a former economics and law professor at the University of Chicago, is the author of "More Guns, Less Crime." He said states that issue the most handgun carry permits generally have the biggest drop in violent crime, but the value of carrying weapons in the open versus concealing them not been thoroughly studied .

"My guess is that criminals are more likely to stay away from stores that have (guns openly displayed)," or will just take out the armed employee first, he said. But from among a group of people who may have concealed guns, a criminal would have the disadvantage of not knowing who might be armed and willing to defend themselves.

"Minnesota recently adopted a concealed carry law, and some businesses put up signs proclaiming that they were 'gun free,' " Lott said. "A couple of those stores have been robbed. So there has been a move among some store owners to reconsider advertising the fact that they are not armed."

Jim Balloch may be reached at 865-342-6315.

Copyright 2003, KnoxNews. All Rights Reserved.

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