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Pinellas protesters make themselves heard outside Friends of the NRA fundraiser

PINELLAS PARK — When he joined the military fresh out of high school in 1995, Jerjuan Green said he learned firsthand the destructive power of semiautomatic rifles.

Green, president of the Pinellas County Urban League Young Professionals, said they don't belong in communities. If he had his way, those weapons would be banned from the public. That kind of firepower, he said, is unnecessary for public use.

"It's kind of like using a tank as a flyswatter," Green said. "Complete overkill."

He was one of 17 people representing a coalition of organizations that protested a Friends of the NRA banquet on Friday evening.

The Florida Coalition for the Prevention of Gun Violence is a group of more than 100 local, state and national organizations that formed days after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando that left 49 people dead on June 12. In the wake of that mass shooting, they've pushed for laws that would expand universal background checks on gun purchases and ban assault weapons.

Coalition members gathered in the parking lot of Banquet Masters to voice frustration with the NRA while the fundraiser took place inside.

The group held signs and wiped sweat from their foreheads as speakers expressed outrage at gun violence. They caught the attention of the banquet's guests as they entered the building.

"It's really time for us to take a stand and have common sense gun laws in our country to protect our families and our cities," said Julie Kessel, president of the League of Women Voters chapter in St. Petersburg.

Kessel said the coalition wanted to protest in front of the banquet to highlight the NRA's continued fundraising efforts in Florida following the Pulse attack. She criticized the gun lobby for holding a similar fundraiser in Orlando a month after the massacre.

"It was not just insensitive, but malicious," she said. "It's fine if people have guns, but have some respect."

Others speakers shared similar sentiments. Mark Puskarich from Equality Florida called the lobby's fundraising a "slap in the face" to the Pulse victims.

"We're just looking for a responsible path to get to possession (of guns)," he said.

Meanwhile, the banquet went on unfazed. Attendees gathered in the banquet hall, chatting and laughing over drinks. Many participated in auctions and raffles that handed out rifles and pistols as prizes.

Rick Gaylard, co-chairman of the banquet, said none of the proceeds from the banquet go to the NRA's political goals, but instead go toward educating youth about gun safety. He said NRA members were as saddened by the deaths in Orlando as anyone else. However, he also believes that stricter gun laws will not stop mass shootings.

Gaylard said if the clubgoers at Pulse were armed themselves, perhaps the incident would have ended differently.

"Maybe there wouldn't be (49) dead," he said. "Here they have a bunch of defenseless people, and that's who (shooters) prey on."