Pro and anti-gun groups rally in Morrisville

Posted: May 12, 2013

They were standing next to each other in the pouring rain in Morrisville's Williamson Park, but they didn't exactly see eye to eye.

Onstage, an anti-gun violence rally was in full swing, with preachers, parents and former Gov. Ed Rendell advocating for universal background checks on guns. In the crowd, anti-gun violence advocates intermingled with pro-gun rights protesters who had finished up a rally of their own an hour earlier.

Men toting rifles and handguns stood at the front of the crowd and shouted at speakers on-stage while anti-gun violence protesters tried to drown them out with cheers and chants.

In between speakers, a lone voice rang out from the back of the crowd.

"What about the Little Leaguers?" a man yelled.

It wasn't enough that vocal members on either side of the gun debate were literally rubbing elbows in Williamson Park on Saturday. The rallies' presence in the park had also prompted Little League officials to reschedule or relocate about 20 games -- and in a town like Morrisville, where 500 players fill the Little League rosters and residents whose children aged out of the league long ago still attend games -- a Saturday without baseball is a big deal.

At a relocated game in Lower Makefield, though, players seemed mostly unconcerned by the relocating, blithely tossing balls behind the dugout before the start of the game.

"The kids get by one way or another," said Bill Fox, dropping off his grandson, who plays for the Democrats. "I just don't understand why the borough council would allow [the protest] when they knew it was baseball season."

Coaches, however, said the league raises funds through concession sales and sponsorships at Williamson Park.

"It takes away from the day down there," said Bill Tuite, who coaches the Piscopo Brothers team. "Losing a day, losing the concession stand -- it takes a lot to run a little league. Everybody kind of suffers."

Still, the rallies went on, with gun-rights advocates meeting on the banks of the Delaware River around 1 p.m. and then decamping to Williamson Park to know thine enemy. The gun-rights rally, organizers said, was intended to promote safe, responsible gun ownership for self-protection -- especially, they said, for women.

Attendees came from as far away as Albany, N.Y. and Arizona. Tracy Scarpulla, an Albany-area travelling nurse and mother of three, told a crowd of about 100 that she had been initially opposed to having guns in her house. Then, she said, her husband, a former Marine, taught her to shoot after a police incident near the family home.

"I shot my first shot, and I was ecstatic," she said. "It was the most thrilling, exciting thing I'd ever done. For the first time in my life, I felt empowered."

Other speakers included Mark Kessler, the Gilberton police chief who introduced and helped "Second Amendment preservation legislation" in his borough, which seeks to nullify any laws that do not conform with the Second Amendment.

"I don't believe in background checks," he said to cheers. "That's the way the Constitution was written. I didn't write the Constitution -- I just like to follow it."

Speakers quoted Mark Twain, George Washington and Ronald Reagan. Attendees waved signs reading "Mothers Demand AK-47s." Afterward, they marched to Williamson Park to await the anti-gun violence protesters, who were organized by the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action and marching across the bridge from Trenton.

The crowd was tense at times -- as gun rights advocates yelled through the rain at speakers onstage, Ceasefire PA director Shira Goodman yelled back: "We are not afraid of you! I'm sorry you scared the Little Leaguers away."

During the worst of the downpour, former Gov. Rendell took the stage to a mix of cheers and boos.

"We've only just begun to fight," he said. "We are not going away -- and we will be heard on Election Day."

"You're a communist!" someone yelled from the back of the crowd.

Attendees from a number of anti-gun organizations, sometimes tearfully, spoke about gun violence they'd experienced in their own lives and advocated in favor of

universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-magazine clips. Many said they respected gun owners' rights to their weapons -- but wanted to make sure guns didn't get into the wrong hands.

Attendees chanted "Increase the peace! End the violence!" and carried flowers. Many wore t-shirts with photos of deceased loved ones -- including Selina and Morris Boakai, Trenton residents who lost their 21-year-old son, Corneilus, in an armed robbery just a month ago.

"It's a good experience, in a way," Morris Boakai said. "All of us are together, and we speak with one voice."

At the end of the rally, organizers called for a moment of silence. Slowly, signs were lowered, megaphones turned off and heads bowed. And for the first time all afternoon, Williamson Park was completely silent.

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