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Silencers

Like the NRA, local gun sellers don’t seem interested in a real conversation about guns

by Erin Pihlaja on January 10, 2013

 

There were seven mass shootings in America last year. In July, at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., moviegoers eagerly awaited a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. About 30 minutes into the film, a man wearing a gas mask, a bullet-proof vest, and other military-style gear opened fire on the unsuspecting audience. Seventy people were shot and 12 were killed. Among the shooter’s guns were a semi-automatic rifle and a semi-automatic handgun. Less than two weeks before Christmas, students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., were just starting their day when a man, using a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, stolen from his mother before he killed her, shot his way into the locked building. It took some time to sift through what happened once he was inside the school, but when the horrific pieces were finally strung together, six staff members and 20 children—all under the age of seven—were dead. The rifle that the shooter used to end their short lives was the same type of gun used in Aurora and some of the other mass shootings as well.

The Friday of the Sandy Hook shooting, as news of the tragedy filtered out from the small town to the rest of the world, many of us were in shock. Gun violence is not a new topic. In fact, it’s an all-too-familiar headline, but it seemed that after we learned that tiny first-grade children had been mercilessly mowed down in their classrooms—places that children are assured are safe havens—even some who defined themselves as typically anti-gun-regulation were ready to see something change. In the rising frenzy of our mourning and grief, change was called for—demanded. What that change should be has yet to be decided.

 

A Peaceful Calm: The Saratoga Peace Alliance wants to have a dialgue with gun owners. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

In the days following Sandy Hook, two main issues were thrust into the spotlight. How we identify and deal with mental illness was questioned. Some past mass shooters did exhibit signs of mental illness, but advocates for certain disorders and conditions warned about making an incorrect correlation between illness and the propensity for violence. And then, predictably, out came the good-ol’ gun debate. The debate is as old as our country itself. The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights addresses the rights of a citizen, or “well regulated militia,” to bear arms. Georgia, believe it or not, tried to ban handguns in 1837. (The measure never passed.) Over time, the way we are able to purchase, carry, and own guns has been challenged repeatedly.

Post Sandy Hook, gun regulation, including an all-out ban on weapons, commonly called “assault rifles,” was again laid out and dissected by Americans from all walks of life—the bereaved, the completely anti-gun, the armed-to-the-teeth, staunch believers of guns symbolizing American freedom, the NRA, the target shooters, the gun-violence victims, the gun merchants, the hunters, and the people who couldn’t clearly separate their beliefs into one specific group. Since that terrible day in Newtown, there has been a lot of heated talk, and a few murmurs of gun-control legislation. But is that the sole answer? The best answer? Will any solutions come out of this polarizing debate?

Residents of Saratoga Springs are in the process of trying to figure that out. This upstate town best-known for its historic horse-racing track, has become an unlikely epicenter of controversy. It started when the Saratoga Springs Arms Fair, promoted by gun shop owner and dealer David Petronis, began to advertise for its event (scheduled for this weekend, Jan. 12-13) at the City Center. “[This] will be our 90th affair at the City Center. I’ve got to say, we gotta be one of the oldest and best customers they got,” Petronis told Dale Willman, a reporter for NPR.

But reaction to the arms show was very different this time around. Citing sensitivity for the less-than-one-month-old tragedy, one local resident started an online petition to block the show. In response, another petition was started in support of the show. The Saratoga Springs City Council passed a nonbinding resolution asking exhibitors not to sell or display weapons similar to the ones used in the Sandy Hook shootings. Vendors agreed—however, it’s possible that their motivation may not have been out of the kindness of their hearts. In a letter published in The Daily Gazette on Tuesday, Petronis penned, “But most of us old fogey dealers probably won’t have any of those left from our stores anyway.” Gun sales, as reported in various publications across the country, have risen dramatically since the Sandy Hook tragedy. Whispers of gun bans have created a purchase rush for guns feared to be on the chopping block. Protests have been planned for the days of the event. Comments on online articles and social-media sites have gotten nasty. Invited or not, the gun debate in Saratoga has officially begun.

I traveled to Saratoga last Saturday to attend a planning meeting of the Saratoga Peace Alliance, a group with a long history in the town. Word had gotten back to me that SPA was planning a silent vigil on the first day of the arms show. I had also heard that MoveOn.org and Occupy groups were planning protests, but I was intrigued by the idea of a silent action. I checked out the group’s Facebook page and read a post from someone named Stephen J. Lemieux that read: “If I see you people at the Saratoga Arms Fair, it better be civil. . . . I will have people arrested who anytime acts uncivil and/or uses profanity in any way towards me or anyone else in my presence!! Protest peacefully and civil!! I will have no problem pressing full charges for anyone who does otherwise. . . . Thank you!” I wondered how this small group would handle what I feared could be a volatile situation.

About a dozen people had gathered around a long table at a coffee shop on Broadway. Early on, it was agreed that they were planning a “listening event.” The idea was to stand silent for an hour in “witness” of the victims of gun violence and the desire to, if not eliminate, reduce gun violence. A suggestion was made to record video of the vigil in case “things got out of hand.” The members of SPA and those who wanted to be a part of Saturday’s actions were nervous.

The group debated the wording of the banner they planned to carry. They wanted to avoid provocative language. In the end they decided on: “How do we work together to end gun violence?”

“This is not a demonstration or a protest,” said Linda LeTendre, a member whose name was on the permit for Saturday’s action.

“I’ve reached out to my gun friends and told them that they will be treated civil,” said Jonathan Faulkner, a SPA member who also happens to be a gun enthusiast. “I told them there will be no name calling—SPA is dedicated to a conversation.”

“SPA can set an example for the rest of the nation,” said LeTendre. “We can set the groundwork on how to get people to work together.” In addition to the vigil, SPA wanted to have some space where they could host gun buyers and sellers to have a conversation about gun violence in America. They discussed buying donuts and coffee and envisioned sitting down to hear what “the other side” had to say.

After the meeting, I connected with LeTendre again. She is a social worker by trade and considers herself a “witness for peace.” She’s been working with the SPA for around seven or eight years. She said that “SPA supports responsible gun ownership and meaningful protection for our citizens.” LeTendre also told me that the group had forwarded their intent to Petronis, and had spoken with the owner of the City Center and the police department to make sure that “they were doing this thing right.”

“There are extremists on both sides,” she added. “They keep the vast majority of us in the middle from having a meaningful dialogue. Right now, maybe we can get gun owners to understand people lobbying for restrictions aren’t gun grabbers.” She seemed so calm and rational that I wondered if maybe she wasn’t on to something.

I gave Faulkner a call, because he seemed to be the perfect example of a guy standing on middle ground. He liked to shoot guns, had gun friends, but was going to join in a silent vigil outside of the arms show. “Being a gun owner and being against gun violence aren’t separate ideas,” Faulkner said. “I don’t hunt. I like to shoot. But I have other beliefs about the issue.”

A tall man with an intense stare, Faulkner is a charismatic guy who has obviously done his research. He is quick to cite articles and studies that he’s read. He’s also aware that it isn’t easy to toe the line when it comes to gun issues.

“I’m an Obama-loving gun lover,” he laughed. In the past he preferred target shooting with semi-automatic weapons that he owned. But when his children were born, he didn’t want guns in the house, so he got rid of them. These days he buys ammunition and uses guns owned by his friends for practice. “I’m attached to guns but I could get rid of them,” he said. “After the shooting in Newtown, I thought, ‘It’s time to start considering things.’”

Faulkner said that while he doesn’t have all of the answers, he’s open to anything that doesn’t infringe on people’s constitutional rights. He brings up tax scenarios, more registration requirements, or videotaping gun sales among other things. He doesn’t think an all-out ban on assault rifles would work but expects that legislation might move that way. “If we don’t run into constitutional problems—let’s try it,” he said. “Let’s see if it works. I’m willing for all the social experiments—give ‘em a try.”

 

Finding solutions: Rev. WIllie Bacote wants guns off of the street. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

He noted that it may be awkward for him on Saturday because he has friends on both sides of the issue. “We are taking an extreme-listening stance,” he explained. “We are listening to what the other side, ‘my side,’ has to say. The intent of this was that this is supposed to be a gun debate, which requires people to talk.”

If I didn’t think it before, I was certain after my conversation with Faulkner that the difficult conversation about guns wasn’t an impossible one. If the gun guy thought it was possible, why shouldn’t I?

I wanted to hear from gun owners, and better yet—from gun sellers. I had tried to reach Petronis multiple times with no luck. I decided to hit the road and visit local gun shops. Given some of the tense exchanges I had already read online, I decided not to call ahead. My thought was that I could better explain face-to-face that my intent was to write a piece that included voices from all sides of the conversation.

The first stop on my quest was American Shooter Supply on Central Avenue. It’s hard to miss: There’s a giant sign on the front lawn that simply says, “Guns.” I walked up the narrow staircase and entered the shop. There were a few employees behind the counter and a handful of customers. I overheard someone on the phone telling the person on the other line that the inventory they were looking for was all sold out. One young man who walked by told his female companion that he had $500 to spend. I wondered what he would choose. There were plenty of options.

I was there for only a few minutes when a very muscular, bald-headed guy called out, “Can I help you, miss?” I decided to lay it out up-front. Straight-shooter, if you will.

I met him at the counter and asked for the owner or manager. He informed me that he was the manager.

“I’m writing a story and . . .” I began.

“I’m going to stop you right there,” he said. “We have nothing to say to the press.”

“I understand,” I said. “I just thought I’d come in and try to talk. Maybe just say, ‘Hi.’”

Two older male customers stared at me. “OK. Well, we have no comment,” the manager said before he nodded at the door.

I took my cue and left. As I walked down the stairs, I told myself to shake it off. First cold call of the day. No biggie. I decided that maybe it would be better to head to a more rural area. I’m from farmers and hunters. I was sure I would be understood by someone from a smaller town. So, I drove out to Columbia Turnpike and was dismayed to find that the shop I was looking for was closed. Ditto for the next two. Apparently mom-and-pop gun stores are things of the past, since big-box retailers like Walmart have come to dominate much of the firearms market. I was in Wynantskill when I decided to call the next place on my list.

It was a shop in Schaghticoke. The guy who answered was very pleasant. I told him I was looking for a “gun expert” for a story I was writing. He kindly offered some suggestions but said that he couldn’t help.

I asked, “But you guys have been here for years, right?”

“Yeah, but we’re really busy,” he said.

I tired to joke. “Oh. People spending all their Christmas money?”

He laughed and said, “We’re just really busy right now.”

I headed to Troy toward a gun shop that looks like a country store and had a good feeling about the place. Plus, they were my neighbors. I crossed the threshold of the Oakwood Trading Post in good spirits. As soon as I walked in, a man behind the counter asked if he could help me.

“I hope so,” I said. “I’m writing a story and I really need to talk to responsible gun owners. Someone who knows about the laws for selling guns would be great too.”

He told me he could help me but he had to finish up something first. Relieved, I milled around the store. Meanwhile, another salesman told a customer that the item he requested was no longer in stock, that the shop has been busy—“unbelievably.”

When the first employee was finished, we stood face-to-face at the front counter.

“So, who are you writing this for,” he asked.

Metroland,” I replied.

“Ah,” he said. But it wasn’t a short ‘ah.’ It was a long, drawn-out ‘ah.’ He immediately walked back behind the counter. “So, what do you want to know?”

“Well,” I started, “I’m writing a story on guns and how the issue is playing out locally. I come from responsible gun owners. My dad owns a bunch of guns. I’ve shot them. We’re from Minnesota and my mom tells him that she won’t buy meat—if he wants it he has to hunt it.”

There was no response so I continued. “I would really like to include the perspective of people who have owned guns and are just regular people.”

“Well, I’m not going to be able to help you. I only work here one day a week. You may want to try our store in Albany,” he said.

“I didn’t know you owned that store,” I said, realizing that this was the first store I went to.

He suggested maybe I try calling them back and asking for their media guy. “OK,” I said. “Maybe I could just ask you a question out of curiosity. If I wanted to buy a gun today, would I have to go through a waiting period?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Really? Even for a hunting rifle,” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered, “for all guns. You’re telling me you’re from gun people and you don’t know that?”

“My dad’s a hunter and from farmers. I think his pistol is from 1978,” I said. I realized that I had worn out my welcome, and told him I needed to pick up some paper targets before I left.

“Sorry,” he said. “I sold out of all of those.” At this point, another employee interjected. He pointed across the store. “They’re over there. Up against the wall.”

The first guy glared at me. I walked over to the well-stocked section and grabbed a few targets. I put them on the counter and the second guy rang me up. We chatted for a bit about bows. He was very helpful. When I left I said thank you to the first guy. He ignored me.

Once in my car, I debated whether to try any more stores. I couldn’t believe that everyone I met was unwilling to talk to me. I decided to try one more. Taylor and Vadney Sporting Goods on Five Corners in Rotterdam is right down the street from both of my sisters’ houses. I considered this my old stomping grounds. By the time I got there, I had calmed myself down, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. I walked up to the counter and said to the employee, “I am from the dreaded media. Is the owner or manager around?” He laughed and went to the back of the store, to an area out of my view.

I walked around the shop while I waited and tried not to look desperate. But I was. My story hinged on talking to a responsible gun owner willing to offer insight into America’s gun debate. I was running out of time.

The owner came forward and I shook his hand, introduced myself as a reporter. I told him that I wanted to write a story about the gun debate, and that it was important for me to include the voices of gun owners. He listened to me and seemed open to it. Then he asked, “Who are you writing this for?”

Metroland,” I said.

He walked away from me. “Yeah, I’m not going to be able to help you.”

I started to argue. I was into my first “but” and he cut me off. “I just don’t think Metroland is going to be very pro-gun,” he said.

I tried to convince him that my goal was to write a fair and balanced piece. That I wanted to help facilitate a conversation for the middle ground. He listened for a bit. It almost seemed like he wanted to talk to me. I was on the verge of begging. But then nodded and apologized. He said, “I’m sorry, miss. I’m just not going to be able to talk to you.”

As he walked away, he added, “Plus, I’m just really, really busy right now.”

As I drove back to Albany, I steeped in what I truly felt was failure. I thought about a conversation I had with Rev. Willie Bacote from the Missing Link Street Ministry Mission the day before. The mission was one of the first in Troy to offer a gun buy-back program. Bacote’s mission targets a neighborhood where gun violence doesn’t make national headlines. He told me about the young people he had known who had been fatally shot in the streets of North Troy. We spoke of the criminal past he had before he found God. I asked him, in his opinion, how could America work through the gun debate?

“I didn’t read about this—I lived this,” he said. “I didn’t have a plan. I took to the streets and just started marching and screaming. I wanted people to know that we were sick of people losing their lives.” Bacote believes in the power of gun buy-back programs. He doesn’t think it’s the only answer, but he knows firsthand that it gets guns out of his neighborhood.

“We got one brand-spanking-new assault rifle in the box,” he recalled. “It was an old woman; it was her husband’s, who had died. Now, what if someone broke in her house and took that? I love knowing that that gun will never be able to be used to take a life.”

Bacote also talked about “community guns.” Most suburban people have no idea what a community gun is. “It’s a gun that lurks in an alley in a community for those in the crime world to pass it among them,” he explained. “They all can’t afford guns so they share them. One kid came to get me and said, ‘Pastor Willie, I found something outside.’ I said, ‘Don’t touch it.’ It was a 20-gauge right out there in the alley with the bullets lying next to it.”

Bacote acknowledged that the social problems correlated with crime are the real things that need to be addressed, but in the meantime his goal is to get the weapons off the street. “I don’t see it as a debate—it’s a prerequisite for what we should do,” he said. “Let’s make up our minds to make laws that make a difference in our community. Stop the nonsense and just do it.”

It’s terrible to think that our shock following Newtown was in part because most Americans couldn’t believe that gun violence could happen in a place “like this.” To people “like this.”

“We hit rock bottom,” LeTendre said. “What do you make of a culture that turns a school into a cemetery—a city of the dead?”

As the picturesque downtown of Saratoga Springs gets ready for the arms show, and some of its residents prepare themselves for a dialogue that is long past due, one of the only certainties is that an easy answer will not likely be found. In any case, the conversation has begun and it’s in the interest of our social well-being that all voices participate and be heard.