Tucked into a wooded corner along Highway 2, 13 miles west from downtown Duluth, the area’s first independent indoor shooting range is notably out of sight, out of mind.
“Guns are a sensitive topic for a lot of these cities,” said Chad Walsh, owner of Dead On Arms together with his wife, Laura.
Prior to opening in November 2017, the Walshes said they tried to locate closer to the Twin Ports. Calling around, they were met with little enthusiasm.
The indoor shooting range had been a dream, and the couple, lifelong Northlanders, ran a long game to make it happen. In order to show assets necessary to finance the $2 million venture, they first built a successful small business doing snow removal and supplying portable toilets to pipelines and other construction sites.
When he called the city of Duluth about locating the indoor shooting range there, Walsh said the planning and development office told him to expect “pushback.”
“At that point I decided not to pursue Duluth at all,” Walsh said.
The city of Duluth records office visits in the planning department. But because he’d only telephoned, it has no record of Walsh’s 2014 overture or the idea that it would have encountered resistance.
“The city of Duluth is supportive and interested in learning more about any new business interested in investing in Duluth,” city spokesperson Kate Van Daele said, adding that an indoor shooting range would fit under code as “indoor entertainment," allowable in mixed-use commercial zoning districts, such as near the Miller Hill Mall.
In the end, the Walshes turned to St. Louis County and Solway Township for approval of the current site at 6552 Highway 2 in rural Cloquet. There, the couple built a facility, valued by the county at nearly $552,000, that they describe as a one-stop shop for gun owners and shooting enthusiasts.
Inside, there are 10 shooting lanes, a large classroom for firearms training and certifications, a gunsmith shop, and an elaborate showroom, featuring hundreds of firearms. All of it kept pristine, customers' rounds muffled behind a soundproof doorway. Included among the weapons are Dead On Arms' custom-brand pistols and rifles, several of which are identifiable as the notorious AR-15.
“Ever since I met Chad, all he could talk about was building an indoor shooting range in northern Minnesota,” Laura said.
The couple swears by the economic development services they received at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where they were told the idea of locating an indoor shooting range in the Twin Ports had come up in proposals at least a dozen times before.
“We saw the gap,” Chad said earlier this month. “It’s cold outside today. You’re not shooting outside today unless you want to be out in the rain.”
AR-15 in the Northland
In a 2018 reaction to mass shootings in the United States, Dick’s Sporting Goods removed assault weapons from its stores — a prelude to what has been an end to all gun sales by the retailer.
Following a deadly mass shooting at one of its stores in El Paso this year, Walmart stopped selling handgun ammunition. The big box giant had previously stopped selling military-style weapons, such as the AR-15, a few years ago.
“They don’t want the publicity when somebody does something bad,” Walsh said. “But you know what? It’s an American citizen’s right to own a firearm.”
As big box retailers yield to public pressure and get out of the firearms business, small businesses such as Dead On Arms are rising to fill demand.
Dead On Arms and another licensed gun dealer in Cloquet both described steady business — particularly when it comes to sales of the pistols and rifles described in proposed state legislation as “semiautomatic, military-style assault weapons."
At Dead On Arms, there is a more than two-month wait for one of the company’s custom-ordered AR pistols or rifles.
At Gunrunners in Cloquet, the AR-15 and its other calibers are popular items that sometimes can be difficult to keep in stock.
"Anything in here could walk out within 2-3 minutes if you have the right paperwork," said owner Mike Frisk, whose Gunrunners is an 8-year-old appointment-only shop operated out of the basement of his residence in downtown Cloquet. Frisk got into dealing guns as a natural extension of his outdoor hobbies, he said. His compact showroom features several dozen weapons, including the conceal-and-carry handguns that are his bread-and-butter.
The local dealers say the AR-style weapons are popular among hunters, people tied to careers in law enforcement or the military, and even women.
“Women are better shots than men,” Laura said, “because they listen and they engage.”
The modern hunter is turning to the military-style weapons for comfort, accuracy and overall shooting experience, the sources said.
“I started with ARs and haven’t touched a standard deer rifle for years,” Frisk said.
Mass shootings and public gun debates lead to spikes in sales, Frisk said, echoing trends nationally. When debate about legislative gun control swells, so do sales of ARs and other military-style weapons. In those instances, collectors fear the worst and tend to scoop up what they can, Frisk said.
“Sometimes you can’t keep them on the shelf,” Frisk said of his regular supply of ARs, AK-47s and more. “And other times they don’t move until they just go like crazy. A lot of times, it’s because of what you see on the news.”
Hunters are changing, too, Chad Walsh said. ARs and their ilk are not always alternative firearms or curiosities among a hunting group. Instead, the military-style weapon has become a preferred hunting firearm for some — in part because their modular, breakdown design makes the weapons easy to customize for fit and feel. When a customer orders one of his company's AR pistols or rifles, they have an option of five different hand grips, and varieties on all other components, including forearm style and barrel length. The aluminum-forged lower part of the gun that houses the trigger is made by a supplier on the Iron Range, in Gilbert.
“Do we sell traditional deer hunting rifles? Very minimal,” Walsh said. “I sold a .308 this morning. The guy walked out of here to go deer hunting with it. Did he buy a bolt or a pump action? No. He bought a .308 AR, and do you want to know why? Because he can deer hunt with it, shoot it all year and it’s fun.”
It’s the “creature comforts” of the AR weapons that are driving the appeal, he said, comparing it to a newer automobile with heated seats.
“I don’t see the comparison of a car to a gun,” gun violence prevention advocate Helen Clanaugh said. “The gun was made to kill. That’s the disconnect I can see in the comparison. Wanting to upgrade is consumerism. Everybody wants to upgrade to new things. But those weapons were made for military people who have been highly trained.”
Clanaugh, 17, is a Denfeld senior and one of Duluth’s leading gun violence prevention proponents. As a member of the board of Students Demand Action Minnesota, she’s noticed a difference between the work she conducts in the Twin Cities and what she sees in the Northland. In the metro, she said, the gun violence debate extends beyond mass shootings to incorporate gang and police violence issues.
“There’s not as much gun violence here, but more gun owners,” Clanaugh said. “How to advocate and organize around this issue is so different up here. I see both sides of it, but I don’t want people dying on the streets because of these guns made for war.”
A sensitive topic
A former military policeman with the U.S. Army, Chad Walsh drew up his company logo on a napkin at the supper table. It mimics a military unit patch, with the “don’t-tread-on-me” snake featured prominently. A Dead On Arms’ billboard near the Duluth International Airport features a woman in field gear holding a military rifle, and it encourages customers to try out a machine gun at Dead On Arms’ indoor range.
The Walshes say their marketing and imagery project their interests, and are not intended to trigger the opposition.
“In my eyes it looks hot,” Laura said of the billboard.
The text of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is stenciled on a wall in Dead On Arms’ showroom. The last four words — "shall not be infringed" — are highlighted and serve to offer the Walshes' feelings on gun control.
On the topics of mass shootings and gun violence, Chad pointed to an array of guns in his private office.
“Those firearms over there haven’t killed anybody," he said, "and they’re not going to unless you put somebody behind them.”
But Frisk sees the debate less stridently. Gun dealers are blamed for weapons used in shootings and on the streets, and he doesn't like being the bad guy — not when he does things by the book and even insists to friends that they keep detailed records of the guns they sell, or transfer, privately.
“You always like to see your business go up, but you don’t want to see any shootings,” Frisk said. “They gotta do something to fix it.”
Frisk said he'd be fine with outlawing bump stocks, which allow a semi-automatic gun to mimic fully automatic firing by using the gun's recoil to initiate the next and subsequent trigger pulls.
Clanaugh supports recent bills which stalled in the last Minnesota legislative session — one to require background checks on firearm transfers between private parties, and a red-flag law that would enable family and law enforcement to petition the courts to prohibit someone from possessing firearms.
“Part of gun violence protection is taking guns away from unsafe people and people that have proven themselves to be a danger to themselves and others,” Clanaugh said.
Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, told the News Tribune he supports a nationwide “fusion center,” proposed in the Mass Violence Prevention Act by his congressional colleague, Doug Collins, R-Ga. The legislation has been stymied by majority Democrats in Congress who prefer different measures.
A fusion center would improve response times by coordinating all law enforcement around online threats and other tips, Stauber said.
“It allows local law enforcement, the state and the federal to get immediate action on it,” Stauber said. “Not just hours. Not days. We’re talking minutes. We’re going to find out who put (a threat) out there and why, and we’re going to do it today.”
At Dead On Arms, the Walshes don't quibble around the edges. They don't accept proposed gun reforms, and they believe they do their share to support the safe deployment and enjoyment of guns. The company employs military service veterans. It trains people on the proper use of weapons. It promotes community shooting range events for couples, women, seniors and youth.
And most customers who want to buy an AR, they said, have already had to secure a handgun purchasing permit from local law enforcement, since many of the AR varieties sold at Dead On Arms are considered pistols by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“Then, I gotta run another background check on you through the National Crime Information Center through the FBI,” Chad said. “So there’s two background checks on you before you can buy the firearm.”
For the Walshes, their dream business isn’t one they’re going to excuse or apologize for. In their eyes, they offer products and recreation both legal and in demand.
Of the AR-15, Chad said, “It’s the attraction that you don’t have an action between each shot. You pull the trigger as many times as you want and put it in the same hole.”