SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Demonstrators on both sides of a controversial gun show gathered Saturday in front of the City Center to make their voices heard.
By early afternoon, several thousand people -- a larger than normal crowd -- had already attended the event and hundreds more were lined up outside waiting to get in.
Intense media coverage surrounding the Saratoga Arms Fair had many people thinking about it, and many pro-gun attendees said they showed up simply to support the event, which would continue from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
"It’s a huge, huge attendance," City Center President Mark E. Baker said. "All groups have been civil and respectful to each other."
In front of the building, pro-gun-rights demonstrators waved flags, held placards, hooted, cheered and hollered as passing motorists blared their horns in support.
A few feet away, separated by a police barricade, gun control advocates from Saratoga Peace Alliance, Saratogians for Gun Safety and MoveOn.org made their message known, too. Saratogians for Gun Safety representatives held angel-shaped cutouts in memory of recent shooting victims, while Saratoga Peace Alliance held an hour-long silent vigil around tree branches.
No event in recent Spa City history has caused such divisiveness.
"Guns didn’t kill six million Jews, but their government did.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, another provocative sign showed a little girl firing a high-caliber machine gun with the message, "Number of U.S. gun deaths: 2 many."
"There’s loonies on both sides," said Susan Weber, regional organizer for the MoveOn.org.
About a half-dozen extra city police officers were put on duty outside the City Center to maintain order, Lt. Robert Jillson said.
"Most are on overtime because of this," he said. "It is (expensive), but it’s a necessary investment for the city."
The 30-year-old arms fair, held several times per year at the City Center, has never required additional police presence before. However, a vocal group of city residents called for the cancellation of this weekend’s show because of safety concerns and its scheduling so close to last month’s tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six school staff members were killed.
City Center Authority officials decided to let the show go on, but no AR-15- type rifles -- the kind used in Newtown -- are allowed at the event.
Arms fair promoter David Petronis of Mechanicville signed a contract with the City Center to hold three more guns shows at the venue this year -- in March, August and October.
Baker said City Center Authority officials will begin discussing policies and protocols for the March 16-17 show immediately. The next authority board meeting will be held Wednesday, Feb. 13.
Several officials spoke at an anti-violence rally hosted Saturday by MoveOn.org, including Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen, Saratoga Springs Supervisor Joanne Yepsen and Albany County District Attorney David Soares.
"We must do more to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental health issues," Soares said.
Betty Head of Altamont, council organizer for MoveOn.org, said, "How do we stop this bleeding, this unspeakable carnage? Speak out! Take back power from organizations like this (National Rifle Association) that choose to make your children’s lives expendable."
"Go inside and buy a rifle," a heckler yelled out.
Formal pro-gun-rights groups had a visible presence, too, such as the Capital Region Campaign for Liberty.
A pro-gun Lake George resident who requested anonymity said he attended the arms fair Saturday to demonstrate his support.
"I’m not going to be spending money in Saratoga with local merchants anymore, though," he said. "They allowed this small group to set the tone for this whole weekend."
Jeff Collura of Corinth attended the arms fair with his 8-year-old son, Jett, and brother, John. They said they went out of their way to back the event.
"I just believe in all the amendments to the Constitution," Jeff Collura said. "All of the first 10 amendments are about limiting government. If you want to understand the Second Amendment, just look at the ones around it."
Saratoga Springs resident Joe Kulin took part in Saratoga Peace Alliance’s vigil.
"We’re here for peace and to end gun violence," he said. "We’re the most violent nation on Earth. It doesn’t have to be that way."