The Corner

Small Business Struggles to Survive, All Because of Gun-Shaped Lighter

The owner of a small business in New York City is facing a $60,000 fine, thousands in legal fees, and the potential loss of his business — all because he carried a dozen three-inch, gun-shaped lighters which caught the eye of a city inspector.

“When you hear something like this, you’re going to have a couple of nightmares,” Fred Shayes tells me, leaning across the counter of his midtown Manhattan shop, US Camera & Computer Inc. Nervous, he won’t let me photograph him or tape-record the interview.

Shayes, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran, founded the business in 2006, pouring his life savings into the endeavor. Today, it supports four to five employees and their families. But if the $60,000 fine stands in court, “we’ll have to close,” he says.

The New York Post broke the story, reporting today that city law prohibits the sale of toy guns unless they’re brightly colored with a legible identification stamp — a requirement that has cost city businesses more than $2.4 million in fines over the past seven years.

But Shayes says he had no idea the tiny lighters were contraband, and adds, “I’ve never seen any real gun like that.”

 

The lighters were a first-time order, and they had just arrived in the mail when the city inspector came, Shayes said. “We’re not trying to carry illegal stuff here,” he says. “I was shocked. I had no idea this kind of thing could be illegal. When it comes to the U.S. [through customs] and it comes to us, it should already be legal. . . . When the inspector told me we couldn’t sell them, I [immediately] took them and sent them back to the supplier.”

Even though it was his first violation, the city imposed the maximum possible fine of $5,000 per item, though other similar businesses have gotten away with a warning in the same circumstances. Shayes petitioned the Department of Consumer Affairs, which refused to revoke the fine. Now, he’s appealing the decision in the Manhattan Supreme Court.

“It’s going to cost a lot of money and a lot of hassle,” he says. “We try to stay in business. We pay our taxes, and we do what we can to support our family. But this kind of fine . . . ”

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