Cars and trucks on Broadway slowed as they approached the City Center, water spitting off their tires on the foggy, wet day. A passenger rolled down his window, his face a few feet from a group of people deemed the “anti-gun show” crowd.
“You’re drinking the Kool-Aid!” he shouted.
The person closest to him, an elderly woman near the edge of the sidewalk, shook her head and sighed.
“That’s sad, mister,” she said. But her reply was too quiet and he had already driven past.
Minutes later, Saratoga Springs Supervisor Joanne Yepsen spoke into a megaphone. Passing cars beeped regularly. Some drivers kept their hands to the horn, bleating out speakers’ attempts to be heard.
“This is not about taking away guns to kill deer,” said Yepsen.
A few people standing on a low concrete wall along the City Center shook their heads and looked down. They expected this, they told reporters earlier.
David Nicholson, a 65-year-old Fort Edward man whose sign read, “The right to bear arms is about hunting ... tyrants” dislikes when the conversation turns to hunting.
“It’s a deflection,” said Nicholson earlier that day, around 10 a.m. when a protest by pro-gun advocates was just beginning to gain traction.
A gun show sponsored by New Eastcoast Arms Collectors Associates, which has gone on for about 30 years, attracted a large and vocal crowd of supporters and protesters Saturday at the Saratoga Springs City Center. In addition, thousands of people showed up to attend the show.
The scene outside the show was much like the national debate since a gunman massacred 20 schoolchildren, six adults and his mother Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn. It was messy and chaotic, passionate and exhausting, angry, fear-filled and emotional. It was people wanting desperately to be heard, and people wanting only to stand silently in honor of those killed by gun violence.
Two groups stood in front of the City Center, separated by wooden barricades and uniformed police. In the early hours of the day, the two sides kept mostly to themselves.
On one side, 26 people held 26 painted foam sheets cut into the shape of angels. They chatted among themselves.
On another side, several dozen people stood holding signs in support of the Second Amendment or against government control. They waved flags and cheered on beeping cars.
Many people were on edge, waiting for someone to look at them the wrong way. In a few hours, the emotions that had simmered below the surface began to emerge.
A long line stretched around the back of the building to get inside, where people calmly went about their business of admiring rifles, pistols, World War II-era guns, others owned by country music stars, ornately designed knives and other memorabilia. NEACA owner David Petronis was busier than he’s ever been at one of his shows.
“This is twice as much as we normally have and it’s, oh, about 11:30,” he said, pulling out a handful of federal forms and nodding his head toward his wife, who was begging for help with some background checks. “On a day like today in January, we might meet 3,000 people. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we had 3,000 people now, and it’s only half the day.”
Outside, police stood between the barricades, in the crosshairs of harried quips, barbs and insults. By mid-afternoon, they had to stop an aggressive man from tearing someone’s gun control sign in half.
Amy Standaert stood outside the City Center on Saturday to show her support for the Second Amendment. She sent an email blast to members of the Capital District Political Action Network just after Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined a plan for tighter gun controls, asking them to join her.
“People are raw with pain right now over what happened in Connecticut, as am I,” she said. “I’ve got young children. I’m a former teacher. I still get very upset talking about what happened there.”
Her voice was starting to crack, so Standaert paused and looked down.
“However,” she said, looking up again, “the problem with what happened in Newtown has nothing to do with the Second Amendment. This man was crazy, and there’s always going to be these insane people who do this to our children, who do this to our citizens.”
Mental health should have been the issue the nation got worked up over after Newtown, she said, not the Second Amendment.
As Saturday wore on and Standaert witnessed rude and disrespectful exchanges by pro-gun advocates standing on her side of the block, she grew worried.
“People in our group are very respectful,” she said. “We do not allow those kinds of morons in our group.”
Behind the cutout angels, members of the Saratoga Peace Alliance stood in a circle, looking silently toward a wreath on the gray sidewalk. Pine branches were covered in striped feathers, pink and yellow flowers and a bird’s nest, surrounded by candles lit in glass votives.
Each had a “statement of nonviolence” taped to their left arm. People drove by honking.
“Guns don’t stop murder!” boomed a man out his truck window.
They tried not to turn and look and instead just stared ahead, their arms crossed or hands tucked warmly into pockets.
Officers warned protestors to keep part of the sidewalk clear and carefully monitored the growing tensions as hecklers interrupted local officials speaking out against gun violence.
Albany County District Attorney P. David Soares thanked both sides for discussing gun issues “so very admirably” and exercising their American rights. New York is a leader in tough but smart gun policies, he said, to applause and hecklers alike.
No one could hear Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, despite him orating into a megaphone, as passing jeers, cheers and heckling grew louder.
“How do we stop this bleeding, this unspeakable carnage, this ongoing loss of life?” asked Betty Head, organizer of the Capital Region MoveOn Council. “I have a suggestion: Look inward. Look outward. Take your place in the public square and speak out. Know your power. Reconnect to it.”
A man yelled out a profanity when Head condemned the National Rifle Association.
Someone called Kathryn Cuneo to the megaphone. The curly-haired 10-year-old walked gingerly to the front of the crowd and looked down at a printout.
“I remember Catherine Hubbard,” she said. “I want to grow up in a country that I’m safe in.”
Ethan Allen, a member of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, talked through most of the interruptions.
“Have you read our Bill of Rights?” demanded a young man, who looked to be in his teens and stood on a slab of concrete overlooking the growing crowd.
Allen, an 18-year member of the Air Force, turned to look at him.
“Yeah, I did,” he said, indignant. “I read it before I served in Iraq, and I didn’t plan on coming back to my country to see 20 of our young children killed.”
As long as the nation continues to debate gun control, NEACA organizers said they expect their March show at the City Center to draw another big crowd.