When National Rifle Association members came face-to-face with protesters outside NRA conference
headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. on Saturday, it wasn't in the "frame of neighborliness" that Therese Miller of Heeding God's Call had earlier hoped for in a meeting of anti-gun violence activists.
Instead, as Abby Spangler, founder of Protest Easy Guns
and three others lay down on the sidewalk, and a handful of others held signs that read "Close the Gun Show Loophole" and "Lax Gun Laws Kill," passing NRA folks wisecracked: "Hope you have sunscreen," and "Talk about disgusting."
NRA members said the protesters had the right to express their opinions outside the Charlotte Convention Center, but that was the only thing the two groups agreed on. "Too bad they're ignorant about your rights as citizens to arm and protect your family," said Clark Stewart, 31, a Charlotte home builder and NRA loyalist. Tim Whitaker of Salisbury, N.C., who is a hunter, said it's all about having guns in the right hands, not "gang-bangers."
Spangler, 45, is a single mother of two from Alexandria, Va., who founded her group two days after the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. "I'm fighting for American lives. I'll do what it takes," she said. Spangler said the lie-ins last three minutes, the time it took for the Virginia Tech shooter to buy his gun. The group is not against hunters, collectors or guns for self protection, she said. A primary goal is to close a loophole in existing law by requiring background checks on all firearms sales at gun shows. That much is supported by a majority of NRA members and gun owners, she said, citing a poll conducted by Frank Luntz for the Mayors Against Illegal Guns
Tom Caldwell, a retired lawyer from Monroe, N.C., said he doesn't think the Second Amendment's right to form a militia should be used as an argument to fight the regulation of violence in the 21st century. He came to protest because he didn't want the NRA to be "unchallenged."
Miller, Spangler and about 20 others gathered at a conference that preceded the demonstration in a basement hall at St. Peter's Catholic Church, across the street from the NRA meeting. It was hosted by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of Charlotte, and North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, with several churches and local and national non-violence organizations also represented.
It didn't compare to the attendance of the NRA gathering, expected to attract as many as 70,000.
Therese Miller, who traveled from her home in central Pennsylvania, started her presentation with a line from Martin Luther King Jr.: "As they spread the propaganda of war, we must spread the propaganda of peace."
Roxane Kolar, executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, said there was a "missing piece" at the NRA event, "people who wanted to talk about gun violence and laws." She agreed with Spangler that NRA members might find more common ground – on "the right to own a weapon and reasonable restrictions on that right" -- with more education.
Earlier in the week, Kolar had worked with Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Helmke told a Charlotte group that his Washington-based organization is not anti-gun, "but we just want some common sense here," according to a report in the Charlotte Observer.
Bill Scheessele, a member of St. Peter's and a gun owner himself, came to Saturday's session to learn, he said. The 63-year-old is an independent voter who thinks both sides "get driven by emotions and beliefs," making it hard to listen objectively to the dueling arguments.
For Dee Sumpter, a founder of the local group Mothers of Murdered Offspring, the "loss, hurt, sorrow, anguish, pain and suffering" since the 1993 murder of her only daughter, Shawna Denise Hawk, still lingers.
"I just hate guns," she said. "Scared of them; don't need them." As part of her anti-violence crusade, she tells others her personal story and urges them to make it personal, too. Sumpter echoed Miller's wish that activism start with frank conversations, across the table from friends and family members, asking them why they own guns.
That's not going to be an easy conversation to start.