Gun owners say they are not the problem.
Protestors say enough is enough.
Both viewpoints were highly visible Sunday at a gun show put on by Blacksburg, Va.-based C&E Gun Shows Inc. at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum Education Building.
More than 5,000 attended the weekend-long gun show, which is held regularly in Winston-Salem. More than two dozen protestors lined the walkway leading into the building, staging a silent protest in hopes of calling attention to the danger they say many of the weapons that are sold at the show present.
“We’re just an ad-hoc group that can’t take it anymore,” said Gail McNeill, a retired professor who served as the spokesperson for the protestors. “…The Newtown massacre was a tipping point for this particular group.”
McNeill and her husband Hayes have been calling for stronger gun regulations for more than two decades. Mrs. McNeill attended 2002’s Million Moms March in Washington, D.C., which advocated for gun control among other issues, and the couple has amassed the handprints of hundreds of local school children for their “Hands without Guns,” where kids pledge never to use guns. Mrs. McNeill said she ran a seat on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in 2010 because she opposed the Commissioners’ decision to allow concealed weapons in county parks.
“Do you know how many people got murdered in North Carolina by guns last year?” she questioned. “Three hundred thirty five, that’s just in North Carolina. It’s over 8,000 a year in this country.”
Mr. McNeill, a retired assistant to the president of Wake Forest University, said stricter laws are needed in order to protect the American people from tragedies such as the shooting in Newtown.
“To me, the real danger is most people think that there are reasonable gun laws in place but there’s not,” he said. “…I have to sign in the drug store to get antihistamines, but I can get 100 AR-15’s with no record.”
North Wilkesboro resident Danny Howard, a salesman and grandfather of one, is an avid gun collector who owns several weapons that he says would fall into the “assault type weapon” category that the protestors want to outlaw.
“My daddy taught me when I was old enough to stand up,” he said of firing a weapon. “We shot a lot together, and my son’s the same way.”
Mrs. McNeill says she doesn’t oppose people using guns for recreational purposes but she questions the need for high-powered weapons that can discharge large numbers of rounds in seconds.
“We’re not talking about hunting or target shooting; this is a whole other thing,” she said. “These are weapons that can kill a whole lot of people in a short amount of time. Somebody could come along right now, and we could all be dead in seconds, before he’d even have to reload. I don’t want to die at the hands of my fellow Americans.”
Howard said he doesn’t think a weapons ban would achieve the results the protestors are seeking. He likened a ban on assault weapons to Prohibition, saying it would actually increase demand for the guns in question.
“Your mentally ill, your criminals are gonna find a way to get a weapon, no matter what,” he said.
Stanley County residents Chody Harris of Old Faithful Holsters and Jonathon Spreadbury of B&S Knives were among the exhibitors at the show Sunday. Both men are gun enthusiasts who say they use their weapons for hunting, target shooting and, if needed, protection.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said Spreadbury, a firefighter.
Spreadbury believes gun education is the key to reducing gun-related deaths. He says he has already taught his nine year-old sister much of what he knows about the weapons.
“I explain from a young age what the gun is and not to touch it,” he stated. “It eliminates curiosity.”
Harris, a father of two, said he believes requiring proper storage of guns, such as keeping them in safes, could help keep the weapons from getting into the wrong hands. While he said he understood the protestors’ claim that gun buyers should be more closely vetted, he pointed out that even a legitimate buyer could sell to someone who would not be eligible under such regulations.
Rev. Paul Lowe Jr., pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, lent his support to the protest Sunday because he says far too many African Americans have been killed by firearms. Lowe believes banning assault weapons, which he says are “meant for annihilation” is the smart choice for shifting the tide of gun deaths nationwide.
“If we don’t say anything, it’s going to keep happening,” he said of the rash of mass shootings that have occurred in recent years. “That’s why I’m here. I felt like as an African American pastor, I had to come out here and support it … this kind of effort, I think it really makes a difference.”
Lowe and the McNeills have long been active in the local Democrat Party. Gun Control has become even more of a political issue in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, with those on the right arguing that more regulations are not needed and Democrats pushing for legislation that would all but ban the kind of weapons the Newtown killer used.
C&E Guns Shows, Inc. hosts around 90 gun shows in the American northeast and southeast each year, according to C&E President and Founder Steven Elliott. Elliott said his sales have increased by about 50 percent since the Newtown shooting because of talk of gun legislation.
“When you scare these people into thinking they’re not going to get this stuff, they rush to buy it,” said Elliott.
Not surprisingly, Elliott said he would not support an assault type weapons ban.
“It’s not the gun (that poses the threat),” he remarked. “It’s the person that possesses the gun.”
Other gun shows, including ones in Sarasota and White Plains, NY, which are not far from Newtown, Conn., were cancelled after the tragedy, but Benjamin “Bucky” Dame, the outgoing director of Public Assembly Facilities for the Coliseum, said there are no plans to end the Coliseum’s more than two-decade long relationship with C&E, which hosts five to six shows in the city each year.
“They’re doing something that is legal. They’re meeting all the conditions that were set forth in our contracts,” he said of C&E, which generates an average of $13,500 in revenue for the city per show. “These aren’t fly by night operators. These are legit operators. They do these things for a living.”
Both Elliott and Dame said the protestors, who also attended a show in December, had been respectful in expressing their opinions and were welcome to continue to do so.
“I think things have gone very smoothly,” he said. “Both sides have been orderly and everything’s gone well. As part of the process, everybody’s able to express their opinions and how they feel.”
Mrs. McNeill said the show attendees were “abusive” during the first time, hurling insults and expletives at the protestors, but were fairly peaceful on Sunday. She added that she and the other protestors plan to be on hand for upcoming C&E shows, which are slated for March 2-3, Aug. 10-11 and Oct. 26-27.
“Common sense gun laws, that’s all we’re asking,” she said. “We’re not crazy; we’re a pretty sane bunch. We’re just asking for common sense gun regulations. We’re all in danger.”