By Edith Honan
DANBURY, Conn. Jan 15 Gun-control advocates, including the mothers of two victims of mass shootings, gathered at a Wal-Mart store near Newtown, Connecticut, on Tuesday to call on the country's largest retailer to stop selling assault weapons.
About 50 people - many calling themselves proud gun owners and loyal Wal-Mart customers - presented a petition at a Wal-Mart in Danbury that is 8 miles ( 13 km) f rom the Newtown elementary school where a gunman opened fire one month ago, killing 20 first graders and six educators.
"Wal-Mart has a choice," said Adam Bink of the Courage Campaign, one of the groups organizing the rally. "Wal-Mart doesn't sell pornography because they feel it's inappropriate for communities. We believe assault weapons aren't appropriate for communities because they make our communities unsafe."
The petition, signed by nearly 300,000 people, was presented in Wal-Mart's parking lot to store manager John Ruggieri, who wore a green ribbon honoring the Newtown victims.
Wal-Mart, which sells grocery items, appliances and clothing in addition to sporting goods, is the country's largest gun retailer. The Danbury location sells only toy guns.
"Over the years, we have been very purposeful about striking the right balance between serving our customers that are hunters and sportsmen and ensuring that we sell firearms in the most responsible manner possible," a Wal-Mart Stores Inc <WM T.N>spok esman said in a statement.
Assault rifles are sold only at locations with a high concentration of hunters and sportsmen, the spokesman said.
But protesters challenged the idea that assault rifles, which one called "military-style people killers," belonged in the hands of ordinary citizens, and called on Wal-Mart to honor a 2004 pledge to stop sales of the weapons.
"I am thoroughly for the Second Amendment," said Herb Crate, a 72-year-old Danbury resident who said he had a license to carry a gun for 33 years. "But if they think their right to have assault weapons with large clips is more important than the right of people to send their children to school and know they'll come back safely... I think the NRA is absolutely insane with their position."
The National Rifle Association, the country's leading gun rights group, has opposed nearly all efforts that would curb access to guns, including a proposed ban on assault weapons.
Inside the store, Bob Johnson, a resident of Brewster who said he owns several guns but no automatic weapons, said he could support common-sense gun control.
But he said he was concerned that many of the proposed changes would serve only to make responsible gun owners jump through more hoops and would have no impact on safety.
"We can never protect ourselves from the people who flip out," he said.
BAND OF BROTHERS
Pam Simon, who was wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, two years ago that left her former boss, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, critically wounded, linked arms with the mothers of two shooting victims before presenting the petition.
She said the shared grief and anger meant she had formed a sort of "band of brothers" with the women - Roxanna Green, who lost her 9-year-old daughter in the Tucson shooting, and Lori Haas, whose daughter was wounded in the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.
"Obviously, none of us want to be a member of the club," said Green, who had traveled to Connecticut to help console the Newtown parents and will travel next to Washington to urge lawmakers to support gun control measures.
The White House said on Tuesday that President Barack Obama would unveil his gun legislation proposals on Wednesday, including a push for an assault weapons ban and measures to strengthen background checks for gun buyers. [I D:nL2N0AKAZ9]
Both Simon and Green bristled at the suggestion - made in recent weeks by proponents of gun rights - that more guns would make the country safer.
"No one can ever understand what it's like to feel a bullet whiz into your body until you've experienced it yourself," said Simon. "They have no idea how fast it happens.
"I absolutely can say that if I had had a fully-loaded weapon in my hand I would not have fired off a shot. I was on the ground so fast. Not even Wyatt Earp can do that," Simon said.