About 150 advocates of tighter gun laws called upon the National Rifle Association, which is holding its convention here this weekend, to open a dialogue about ways to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists and the mentally ill.
"Let's Talk," was the theme of the protest, which included speeches at Freedom Corner in the Hill District followed by a march through Downtown and a demonstration across from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center where the NRA is meeting.
"Nobody is protesting against guns, nobody is saying the NRA doesn't have a right to exist," said Max Nacheman of CeaseFirePA, one of the groups participating in the event. "We're talking about finding a way to make it harder for criminals to get guns. It's a simple message."
In a letter sent to the NRA, published in local newspapers and printed on a mobile billboard, anti-violence groups called on the NRA to meet with them while in Pittsburgh to discuss the removal of what they consider flaws in the national instant criminal background check system and the plugging of loopholes in the law. The NRA did not respond, sparking Saturday's protest.
Supporting the effort was Lori Haas of Richmond, Va., whose daughter was among the 17 people wounded in the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in which 32 people were killed.
"It was all because a prohibited [gun] buyer got his hands on a gun," said Ms. Haas, wearing a Virginia Tech jersey. "We can do better."
"It's not about the Second Amendment, it's about common sense," said Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper. "We're the best country in the world, but we don't act like it when it comes to guns.
"How are we going to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands? Let's talk."
Regina Hopkins, whose 21-year-old son, David, was fatally shot in June 1998 during a street party in Hazelwood, said she was there "because I have four male grandsons and I want them to be active in knowing what guns can do and how it has hurt our family and other people's families."
Indeed, the Rev. Glenn Grayson, pastor of Wesley Center AME Zion Church in the Hill District, told the group that like other survivors of gun violence, his family received a "death sentence" when they learned his son, Jeron, 18, was fatally shot in California, Pa., on Oct. 17, 2010.
Valerie Dixon, who spoke of her pain at the shooting death of her son, Robert, 22, in June 2001, wore a memorial shirt for Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo II, the Pittsburgh police officers shot to death in responding to a domestic violence call in Stanton Heights in April 2009.
After 45 minutes of speeches, the march began with protesters carrying 100 signs, each with the name and age of a person killed by a gun in 2010 and this year. "Tre Madden, 17 years old" read one. "Justin Hill, 31 years old," read another. "Cheryl Esseny, 60 years old," read another.
The march ended across from the convention center with protesters facing those coming and going to the NRA meeting and exhibitions. They were separated physically by only 20 feet of Penn Avenue but ideologically by incalculable miles.
"Criminals are always going to have guns. They'll get them somehow," said NRA member Rick Ours of Olean, N.Y., who said the protest was wrong and misguided.
"Let's talk!" the group on one side of Penn chanted.
"Let's give them a group [middle] finger," one of those across Penn said to those around him. And they did.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968. First Published May 1, 2011 4:00 AM