Beneath the rhetoric of the anti-gun and pro-gun placards stood a 7-year-old named Jessica, whose soft-spoken message no one could dispute.
"It's a bad time here," Jessica said.
Against the wishes of the mayor and thousands of bereaved friends and relatives of the victims of the Columbine High School shootings, the National Rifle Assn. held its annual meeting here Saturday. The gun-rights group dramatically scaled back the gathering, from three days to a few hours, and eliminated the traditional gun show altogether.
But the gesture was not nearly enough for many still reeling from the massacre by two troubled teenagers with four firearms and dozens of homemade bombs. About 1,800 protesters marched quietly from the state Capitol to the hotel where the convention was held.
"I am here today because my son Daniel would want me to be here," said Tom Mauser, whose 15-year-old son was among the 13 slain by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold before the pair turned their guns on themselves. "If my son Daniel wasn't one of the victims, he would be here with me."
With firearms groups on the defensive yet again, and President Clinton seeking to harness the national horror over the Columbine slayings to push through a new package of gun reforms, many predicted that NRA President Charlton Heston might avoid the topic of the tragedy altogether.
Instead, the ever-provocative actor focused his remarks almost entirely on the suffering in nearby Littleton and chastised protesters for suggesting that responsible gun owners are unsympathetic.
"They say, 'Don't come here,' " Heston told an overflow crowd of more than 2,100 at the Adam's Mark Hotel. "It implies that you and I and 80 million honest gun owners are somehow to blame, that we don't care as much as they, or that we don't deserve to be as shocked and horrified as every other soul in America mourning for the people of Littleton. We have the same right as all other citizens to be here, to help shoulder the grief, to share our sorrow and to offer our respectful, reasoned voice to the national discourse that has erupted around this tragedy."
Denver Mayor Wellington Webb had asked repeatedly that the NRA not come to town, saying that to hold a gun gathering in a city grieving over the biggest high school slaughter in American history would be wholly inappropriate. He even offered to reimburse the NRA for expenses.
But Heston and other NRA officials, noting that they were required to hold an annual meeting to maintain their nonprofit status, refused to back down. In speeches, they vigorously defended the right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms and suggested that existing laws be used to curtail gun violence.
Although the hotel dropped the number of rooms held for members from 800 to 300, far more NRA supporters showed up than expected, many wearing silver-and-blue lapel ribbons, the Columbine school colors, to express their sympathy for the victims.
As the NRA met inside, protesters circled the hotel, marching most of the time in near-silence under gray skies that have seldom broken since the April 20 attack.
"NRA, have you no sympathy?" read one placard. "Charlatan Heston: Bad actor, bad wig, bad ideas, bad timing," another said.
Marcher Cathy Eikenhorst, a mother and grandmother from Littleton, had long opposed the proliferation of guns but limited her activism to the ballot box and family discussions.
"But this," she said of the Columbine slayings, "was just too much. As insignificant as my voice is, it needs to be heard. I understand the NRA's concerns, but I believe there are compromises. Things need to change."
As NRA members trickled out of the hotel after the meeting, protesters began to sing "We Shall Overcome" and "Kum Ba Yah." Some engaged gun owners in mostly respectful debates. But there appeared to be no narrowing of the ideological gap despite the somberness on both sides.
"I'm getting very tired of being portrayed as a beer-guzzling maniacal lowlife," NRA member Al Kasiak said.
On the eve of the NRA gathering, Brian Rohrbough, whose 15-year-old son, Daniel, died in the rampage, went to the hill near the high school where 15 crosses had stood in remembrance of all who died. He tore down the crosses for Harris and Klebold, took them away and cut them up.
Said Rohrbough: "We never ever honor a murderer in the same place as the memorial for his victims."