For almost two hours, they waved their American flags proudly in the breeze that whipped through Niagara Square. They held up handmade signs, with messages that included “Gun Control Is Not About Guns. It Is About Control,” and they lustily booed their favorite political targets, including those they termed the “dysfunctional liberals in Albany,” the “terrorists in chief” in the state Capitol and Washington, D.C., and “Herr Cuomo.”
An enthusiastic crowd of roughly 1,500 to 2,000 gun-rights enthusiasts braved mid-40s temperatures and a stiff wind Saturday afternoon to make their presence – and their numbers – known at a Gun Appreciation Day and Second Amendment Rights Protest.
If there was one common theme, it’s that these gun-rights supporters are willing to fight for their right to bear arms.
“My weapon is my declaration that I am ready to fight,” Len Roberto, founder of Primary Challenge and a former congressional candidate, told the crowd. “If they want a fight, we will bring it to them.
“They are not going to come into our homes and steal our weapons, unless they want my ammo – one piece at a time.”
The crowd roared.
That crowd represented a cross-section of Western New Yorkers, a large majority of them male, almost all of them white, and many of them from the suburbs, small towns and throughout the Southern Tier. Many wore camouflage clothing and fatigues. Some proudly displayed their NRA baseball caps. And a few wrapped themselves in American flags.
J.J. Cherry, a 53-year-old Amherst man, came dressed as a civilian militia member from Revolutionary War days, to make his point.
“I’m here in support of Second Amendment rights and not supporting new knee-jerk laws that are really unenforceable and don’t do anything, in my view, to prevent these types of mass shootings that have occurred,” he said.
Cherry then looked out at the sea of faces peering at him from the northern end of Niagara Square, describing the crowd as a bunch of normal, law-abiding citizens who are not going to roll over when others infringe on their rights.
“They only need to force us to give up one right, then all the rest are free for the taking,” he said.
The protest coincided with dozens of “Guns Across America” rallies throughout the United States in the wake of New York’s new gun legislation and a sweeping package of federal gun-control proposals unveiled last week at the White House.
Among the largest protests was the one in Albany, where an estimated 2,000 people gathered.
Republican Assemblyman Steven McLaughlin told a crowd at the state Capitol that New York’s new law was an “abuse of power” by the governor.
In Buffalo, a unifying theme in the speeches from the Niagara Square steps and the private comments from the crowd touched on the historical aspect of this constitutional fight, with activists referring to Sandy Hook, Columbine, Sept. 11, World War II, the Civil War and the Revolutionary War.
“What they don’t understand is that the Second Amendment is the linchpin that holds all the amendments together,” said the Rev. Rob Palaszewski, of My Father’s House church in Elma.
One sign held aloft in the breeze read, “Guns: Protecting American Families Since 1776.”
Rally organizer and Tea Party leader Rus Thompson said in opening the rally, “Welcome, patriots.”
The crowd in Niagara Square included young couples, senior citizens, fathers with their sons, and mothers concerned about the future of their families.
“I believe in the Second Amendment, and I am a gun owner,” said West Seneca resident Elaine Winter, a member of the East Aurora Fish and Game Club. “I support what these people are saying up here today.”
Winter said she came to the rally with about 20 members of the East Aurora club. She said she is raising her 19-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son to shoot and to respect the Constitution’s protection for gun use and ownership.
“We are hunters. They are both lifetime members of the NRA,” Winter said of her children.
She added that she was saddened by Cuomo’s action.
“I’m proud to be an American, but I’m really ashamed of our government,” she said. “You lose the Second Amendment, you lose all the other amendments.”
One father in the crowd, Jeff Gerde, was there with three of his eight children – sons ages 8, 10 and 13.
The Strykersville resident said he brought his boys to the rally – driving half an hour each way to do so – to let them witness “freedom in action.”
“We own guns. We have guns. We’re law-abiding citizens,” said Gerde, who is a self-employed builder of barns and other structures.
Gazing around at the mass of people in front of City Hall, Gerde added, “I think it’s fantastic. It’s our country at work.”
Lancaster resident Kimberly Allaire, 23, who said she was taught to shoot by her father and has been hunting since age 16, said she thinks it’s “absurd” that gun ownership for someone like her would be endangered.
“There is nothing wrong with guns,” said Allaire, who works in private health care. “The whole state of New York is pretty pissed off about this whole thing. How can you take the Second Amendment and throw it in the trash?”
But, Allaire added, she does not necessarily think such gun restriction will work.
“They tried to ban alcohol,” she said. “Did that work?”
The crowd was extremely responsive to the parade of speakers on the steps of the Niagara Square monument, cheering loudly for Thompson’s roll call of state legislators who opposed the new state SAFE Act and saving its lustiest boos for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and President Obama, as well as State Sens. Mark J. Grisanti and Timothy M. Kennedy, the two state lawmakers from Western New York who voted in favor of the latest New York gun restrictions.
The congenial but feisty mood was punctuated by some strident tones, including a few signs with large swastikas and others that included Hitler-style mustaches on photos of Cuomo and Grisanti.
The crowd didn’t start chanting until former gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino took to the microphone.
Paladino cited the watered-down version of the legislation that passed Albany last week and was quickly signed into law by Cuomo.
“All he wanted was a cosmetic bill so he could pound his chest and say, ‘Look what I did for the state of New York. … I am Andrew Cuomo,’ ” Paladino said.
“Impeach Cuomo!” the crowd chanted. “Impeach Cuomo!”
Paladino then implored the crowd not to remain quiet on the issues when government continues chipping away at people’s rights.
“No more,” he said, before leading the crowd in a lengthy back and forth: “No more. No more. No more. …”