Tuesday was one of Transfer Station’s busiest days since it opened last month in the near East Side neighborhood of Dignowity Hill. The tattoo and firearms shop is one of several new tenants in the prominent commercial building on the southeast corner of North Nolan and North Pine streets.

A post on a neighborhood Facebook group expressed concern about having a store selling firearms in the area and attracted a lot of “social media buzz,” shop owner Doug Elkins said. “A lot of people have come in … because of that.”

Most who have stopped by have been supportive, Elkins said, indicating they’re OK with having a gun store in the neighborhood.

Amid the buzz coming from a room at the front while tattoo artist Carlos Gonzalez applies ink to a wincing customer’s skin, the Transfer Station doesn’t look like a typical gun shop. Concert and movie posters cover the wall above an old television surrounded by VHS tapes. As Elkins sits in the living-room-style seating area of the shop, he hears another customer walk in. He excuses himself to answer questions and show the visitor around the shop, which has guns on display in a large case and on the wall behind the counter.

Transfer Station was named for the transfer paper used in the tattoo process and the gun license transfer service the shop provides in addition to selling guns. But the firearm sales part of the business has some neighborhood residents and District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan feeling that the building’s owner wasn’t transparent about what the business would entail when he requested, and was granted, a zoning change.

Transfer Station owner Doug Elkins Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association (DHNA) voted last year to support the zoning change for the building that would allow a tattoo shop and a bar – located in a space east of the Transfer Station – to operate. It’s located three blocks away from Bowden Elementary School. Building owner Alex Perez, who asked for the neighborhood association’s support, was aware of Elkins’ business part-tattoo, part-firearm sales business plan.

“I said [at the meeting] it would be retail, too,” Perez told the Rivard Report.

The association sent a letter supporting the zoning change to the Zoning Commission, which recommended approval. City Council approved the change in November.

That approval was given without knowing the full scope of the business plan, said Andrews-Sullivan (D2), whose district includes the East Side.

“Never once did [they] mention [the gun shop],” Andrews-Sullivan said. “They were not fully transparent with City Council and the neighborhood. That to me is not a community partner.”

Gun shops are not subject to special zoning rules in San Antonio; they are allowed on property zoned for commercial use, a City spokeswoman said. The zoning change was needed for the bar and tattoo shop, not for gun sales. A 2019 state law, which was established after San Antonio officials considered zoning restrictions for gun shops, prevents cities from creating such rules.

“I was kinda shocked that tattoos are more regulated than guns,” Perez said. “I don’t own a gun. I don’t believe in guns. But as an American, I have to respect everyone’s views.”

Joseph Garcia, who posted the complaint on Facebook and is running to become the neighborhood association’s president, said the association would have voted differently if its members had known Elkins was going to open a gun shop.

“It’s because of that lie, [they] got the neighborhood approval that got [them] the zoning,” Garcia told the Rivard Report. “It should have been discussed in public. … We have a crime problem in East San Antonio and yet we’re selling guns in our neighborhood.”

There are no rules that require business or property owners to notify neighbors that they plan to sell guns.

“As I understand it, there’s nothing we can do about it besides complain,” said interim DHNA President Arvis Holland. “I’ve heard from members who are upset about [the shop] – mostly because of the firearms. … I’ve heard expression of support from other members.”

Andrews-Sullivan said she will talk to City Manager Erik Walsh and other City officials to see if there are any options to allow for more public transparency or notification when it comes to opening gun shops. The City also should advocate for changing the state law that preempts zoning restrictions, she said.

“[Gun shops] don’t belong in the heart of a neighborhood,” she said.

But the Transfer Station isn’t breaking any laws, said Elena Martinez, who lives a block away from the shop and also is running for DHNA president.

“Instead of going after a small business … the conversation really needs to be about transparency,” Martinez said. “The main point of contention in the neighborhood was that not everyone was aware [that guns were going to be sold there] until it opened. … I want to make sure we’re supportive of small businesses that follow the law. Doug did that and we need to support him … but we also need to advocate to the City to make changes where we can [in the law].”

She’s uncomfortable with a gun shop located so close to a school, but “we can’t punish people for following the law.”

The buzz surrounding Elkins’ shop highlights issues that the broader near East Side of San Antonio faces. The historically neglected neighborhood has seen an influx of public and private investment in recent years that has brought with it new – more affluent and white – neighbors.

Just five years ago, it would be hard to imagine that a diner, a tattoo/gun shop, a CBD shop, an attorney’s office, bar, and a campaign office for the mayor could coexist in the same East Side building as they do today, said Perez, who is part-owner of the bar.

“In order to keep it relevant … and make money … I have to bring businesses in here that make sense,” Perez said. “It’s a weird mix of things – just like San Antonio.”

The controversy over his shop took Elkins somewhat by surprise. He said he’s not very “tuned in” to the politics of the neighborhood because he’s been busy opening a business. Once he found the space, he needed about six months to build out the shop, acquire the right zoning and permitting, and open the Transfer Station’s doors, he said.

“I didn’t think I needed to go to a neighborhood association to start a business,” he said. “In hindsight, I probably should have. … I was so wrapped up in [the paperwork and physical work].”

During construction, he’d invite passersby into the space and let them know his plans, Elkins said. “It was no secret.”

He is, however, well aware of the broader political conversations about gun control and the negative perception of gun shops in neighborhoods. The Transfer Station follows all federal and state laws regarding how the guns are handled and who they are sold to, he said.

“Criminals don’t follow the law,” he said. “If a criminal wants a gun to do something [illegal] with, chances are they aren’t coming into a local gun shop where their name goes on a piece of paper.”

In addition to a monitored alarm system, several cameras surveil inside and outside the store, and the guns are kept in locked cases and on the wall during the day and in a vault at night. The Transfer Station, which has a small in-store stock, also has an online store.

Transfer Station Tattoos & Firearms offers a variety of guns and tattoo services. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

To purchase a gun, customers must have a valid photo ID, go through a federal background check and FBI database check, Elkins said. And he has full discretion over to whom he sells.

“I think it’s a weird thing to equate gun shops to crime,” he said.

Elkins, who was born and raised in Dallas, worked in the music industry for more than a decade in California and later in San Antonio, but he grew up around guns.

“My dad was a sheriff’s deputy in Dallas, and I can’t even remember [a time] before I started shooting,” said Elkins, who occasionally enters and attends competitions.

He also has first-hand experience with gun violence. In 2009, he was working at San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom when a man shot eight people after a concert. “I felt helpless,” he said.

These days, he keeps a small Sig Sauer pistol in a holster on his jeans.

“There are a lot of gun shops and tattoo shops where if you don’t know what you’re looking for or don’t know what you’re talking about, they kinda treat you like garbage. … [You have to] prove yourself in order to get respect,” he said. “As someone who loves guns, I hate going to a lot of gun stores.”

To Elkins, the cozy, living-room atmosphere of the shop is both aesthetic and functional. “I want it to be a place where people can come in and be relaxed,” he said.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org