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Drive-by message: One entrepreneur's crusade against guns

A Boston entrepreneur shines a light on gun violence.

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Stop Handgun Violence takes its message to the road.
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BOSTON (Fortune Small Business) -- John Rosenthal has a long history of social activism -- and the prison record to prove it.

The 52-year-old entrepreneur runs Meredith Management, a Boston-based commercial real estate development company. In the 1970s, Rosenthal joined the No Nukes movement while he was working for a California startup that built solar-powered homes. He was arrested four times for trespassing while protesting nuclear power plants in California and New Hampshire. Between 1977 and 1983 he served a total of 3½ months in jail.

Years later he launched Stop Handgun Violence, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to reducing gun violence without banning guns. Rosenthal was a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association and an avid rifleman (he shoots skeet, not animals), which makes him a voice of moderation in the often polarized debate on gun control.

"I have as deep-seated a commitment to gun rights as I do to gun safety," says Rosenthal. "The NRA doesn't buy that, but it's true."

For more than a decade, Stop Handgun Violence has been erecting provocative, even humorous, signs -- 252 feet long and 20 feet tall -- along the well-traveled Massachusetts Turnpike. A 2007 billboard, made to look like a kidnapper's ransom note, read WE HAVE YOUR PRESIDENT & CONGRESS. -- NRA.

Seen by an average of 200,000 drivers a day, the billboard garnered outrage from the NRA (from which Rosenthal had resigned). When the gun-rights lobbying group challenged him to a series of public radio debates, Rosenthal happily accepted.

And he hasn't let up. The nonprofit's current billboard is a neon-lettered poke in the eye: WE SELL GUNS! NO ID REQUIRED. NO BACKGROUND CHECKS. CRIMINALS & TERRORISTS WELCOME!

Rosenthal takes some credit for the fact that Massachusetts passed some of the nation's most comprehensive gun laws in 1998. The commonwealth now has the second lowest firearm fatality rate in the U.S. "As I tell my friends," he says, "if you were halfway as successful in your activism as in your work, imagine what a difference you could make."

Rosenthal knows this firsthand. In 1987 he launched Friends of Boston's Homeless. Since then, the nonprofit has raised more than $20 million and established three area shelters that provide education and rehab programs. Later he started the organic Farm at the Long Island Shelter -- at four acres, Boston's largest farm -- so residents could get valuable job-training skills in food production and preparation. Each year, he says, Friends of Boston's Homeless moves about 150 homeless people into permanent housing.

"Businesspeople solve problems every day; that's what we do," says Rosenthal. "If more entrepreneurs involved themselves in activism, we could solve every problem this country has -- and for a lot less money."  To top of page

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