Wheaton gun show bans AR-15 sales, landing it at center of gun-control debate

The last place one might expect to hear pushback against the National Rifle Association would be at a gun show here in Wheaton, which reliably votes Republican every election cycle and is the proud home of the Billy Graham Center Museum.

But at the DuPage County Fairgrounds on Sunday, a man selling ammunition, DVDs, military books and a few handguns leaned across his table and said that, as a lifelong NRA member, he isn't on board with everything the organization stands for right now.

"I disagree with some of their viewpoints," said Mitchell Flesner, 67. Following the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month that left 17 people dead, Flesner said he would like the NRA to support some kind of regulation that forces teenagers ­- like 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who authorities charged with the killings - to get parental permission before they are allowed to buy AR-15 military-style rifles.

"I would support that," he said. "An outright ban? No."

Yet as legislators in Washington, D.C., and across the country debate the best way to deal with the AR-15 and similar weapons - high-powered rifles that have been used in numerous high-profile mass killings in recent years - the weapon was noticeably absent from the early morning gun show here Sunday. It looked like many other small weekend shows across America: Folding tables covered with handguns, rifles, parts, ammunition and war mementos, including helmets, patches, pistols and even some vintage Nazi memorabilia.

But no AR-15s.

Organizers halted an advertised raffle that would have awarded an AR-15 to the winner, and vendors were told they would not be allowed to sell the weapon at the monthly show.

Frank Cesare - of the Pioneer Valley Sportsman's Association, which has hosted the show for more than 40 years - said the decision followed complaints the group received after the Parkland shooting and as gun-control advocates planned to protest.

"We did the ban to try to calm the situation down and show them we are willing to work with them," he said, referring to the protesters.

Cesare said that the ban on AR-15s also would remain in place for April's show and that the club is "waiting to see" what the mood is like before deciding on shows later in the year. But the move has forced the club into the gun culture war that has gained new energy across the United States since Parkland.

"We didn't see this coming," Cesare said. "I'm bewildered we're in the middle of this. ... I got no problem with the protesters. They're very frustrated with what's going on; it's awful; they're doing what they think is right. I'm frustrated, too."

Inside the fairground building, vendors and buyers examined used items that have nothing to do with guns, such as fishing lures, archery bows, knives and birdhouses. Four homemade duck decoys and a 1930s rifle are displayed across the table belonging to Jack Jackson, 71. He said Illinois already has some of the strictest gun laws in the United States - buyers must show a Firearm Owner's Identification card or similar permit - but he noted that responsible gun owners get caught in the middle whenever a mass shooting takes place.

Jackson said he believes a "compromise between both sides would be good," and noted that the 10-year national assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004, made it easier to draw the distinction because the weapons simply weren't legal. "Maybe that's something we might have to look at again," he said.

There was little disagreement among people on both sides of the vendor tables that people kill people, not guns. Some likened firearms to tools, noting that AR-15s can be used for hunting and appeal to those with military backgrounds.

Clustered near the fairgrounds entrance were about 30 protesters who joined on Facebook as Friends Who March, a group that emerged from last year's Women's March. When organizer Jax West, 46, of Lisle, heard the AR-15 raffle and sales were canceled, she said she was "really appreciative" of the gesture but wanted to show up anyway to "keep them honest."

West said the protesters are not anti-gun; her partner is an NRA instructor and teaches concealed-carry classes.

"We just need sensible gun laws," West said, noting that the Parkland massacre has allowed both sides of the gun-control debate to have a conversation. "I don't think that's a discussion that could have happened. Now that is changing."

The conversation Sunday got a bit rowdy when a group of counterprotesters assembled across the fairgrounds entrance. Many in NRA caps and holding Second Amendment signs confronted West's group, arguing that any suggestion of further gun regulation "infringes on our rights," said Mike Wrobleski, 64, of Lisle.

"Guns save lives," Wrobleski said. "We need more security."

During one tense moment, the counterprotesters gathered in a circle around Jim Davidson, who sported a white beard and a military veterans cap. His sign read: "Enough!! Ban Assault Weapons!!"

Davidson, 70, stood stoically as people shouted jeers in his face, some doubting that a military veteran would join the gun-control movement, one yelling that he should uphold his oath to defend the Constitution and another shouting at him to prove that he served overseas.

Afterward, Davidson said his two-year tour in Vietnam as a member of the 101st Airborne Division was enough to show him the destructive power of military weaponry.

"I am neither proud of it, nor am I ashamed of it, but I have killed in combat," Davidson said, adding that, as a member of a unit trained to handle M16 rifles, he watched his best friend get shot in the heart as they stood next to each other. "I know what killing really is."

Sunday was his first protest. Parkland had reawakened something in him, he said, and after reading about the gun show protest in his local newspaper, he decided it was time to act. Last week, he ordered dozens of yard signs similar to the one he was holding and said he planned to plant them along his property in North Aurora.

"That's a start," he said. "We have to start."

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