CROWN POINT — High above her head, a quiet blonde-haired Lilia Wolf held a cross bearing the name and photo of Nicholas Dworet, one of the 17 people killed Feb. 14 in the Parkland, Florida, mass school shooting.
“It could happen to us here,” Wolf, a 13-year-old Gavit Middle/High School student, said Saturday. “It keeps happening over and over again and nothing is being done about it. It needs to change.”
Since the Parkland massacre, teenagers like Wolf have emerged — with the help of social media and other platforms — as powerful political voices in the nation’s gun control debate.
A groundswell of anti-gun rallies across the country followed, including the one held at 9 a.m. Saturday just outside the gates of the Lake County Fairgrounds in protest of the two-day Central Indiana Gun Show kicking off that morning.
About 100 people held signs that read things like, "For Sale: Congress," "Give Teachers Funds, Not Guns," while others tied orange ribbons with names of shooting victims to a fence.
'That is social responsibility'
Protesters singled out the gun show as a contributor to the problem of guns trickling into Chicago and into the hands of criminals. Many, like lead organizer John Halstead, argued assault-style weapons — like the AR-15 used by the Parkland shooter and several others — should not be so easily accessible to the general public.
In 2013, then-Lake County Sheriff John Buncich pushed Lake County commissioners to tighten controls on gun show vendors and private sales, citing the event as a potential source of guns falling into the wrong hands, according to Times archives. Ultimately, the commission rejected the sheriff's request and the gun show has continued on.
Halstead said he would like to see the Lake County gun show ban AR-15 rifles and bump stocks, similar to what DuPage (Illinois) County officials did ahead of their own gun show Saturday.
"That is social responsibility," Halstead said.
Dan Hedger, owner of Central Indiana Gunshows for more than 20 years, said Saturday he follows all state and federal laws, including background check and paperwork requirements. He doesn't support the banning of AR-15s.
Cruz bought his gun legally from a gun store, not a gun show, Hedger added.
"There's a lot of high capacity rifles out there," he said. "The problem is any gun, any knife, in the wrong hands, is a deadly weapon.
"When a tragedy happens, in my opinion, everybody wants to blame something, wants a quick answer, a quick fix, and the problem is, there isn’t one."
Law enforcement should have had Cruz on their radar years ago, he said, with numerous missed red flags, including two tips to the FBI, and several visits to his troubled home.
"The Parkland shooting should have never happened," he said.
'Barely an adult himself'
The Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19, was “barely an adult himself” when he carried out an attack on his school with an AR-15 that he legally purchased, Halstead said to the crowd.
“These gentlemen who are coming here to buy guns today, they say guns make them feel safer. I don’t know about you but I don’t feel any safer with them walking around with AR-15s,” Halstead said into a microphone.
During the protest, crowds of gun enthusiasts streamed into the nearby Lake County Fairgrounds Industrial Arts Building, where organizers asked if they had any loaded weapons and to pay a $5 admissions fee. Loaded firearms are not allowed in the building, per event rules.
Gun show attendees approached by The Times declined comment. Lake County Sheriff’s deputies were close at hand near the property entrance for security and in the event tensions ran high and counter-protests ensued. But both events went fairly smooth Saturday, outside the occasional obscenities and supporting car honks that interrupted protesters as they read aloud names of Parkland victims.
A contributor to gun violence
In the national debate, gun enthusiasts often point to Chicago’s strict gun laws as proof that further restricting access would do little to curb gun violence, but Halstead argued to the crowd that many of the guns that wind up in the hands of criminals originated in Indiana.
A 2016 analysis by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that Indiana is Chicago’s biggest out-of-state supplier. In 2016 alone, 1,366 firearms recovered from crime scenes in Illinois were traced back to Indiana, according to the ATF.
Protesters on Saturday argued there is little to prevent someone at a gun show from acting as a straw purchaser — someone with no criminal record who buys from legitimate sellers and resells to criminals.
“It’s unbelievable. There’s no understanding as to why the AR-15 or bump stocks or anything like it are allowed to be sold, that the United States government allows this to happen,” a tearful Linda Daniels, of Hazel Crest, Illinois, said. “We’re murdering each other.”
Hedger said laws are in place already to curb illegal sales of guns.
For example, it’s against Indiana law for a person to knowingly or intentionally sell a handgun to another person who is ineligible to possess the weapon. Hedger says he does everything in his power to curb straw purchases at his events.
Daniels, who is with the Chicago Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said she is pushing for stricter gun laws because she doesn’t want a world where her teenage grandchildren may face the pain of a school shooting.
“We’re all threatened by the violence because we all know now that nobody is invisible. We’re all susceptible to these murders,” she said.
Saturday’s protest was sponsored by several groups, including the First Unitarian Church of Hobart Faith in Action, Progressive Democrats of America Calumet Region and Progressives in Action NWI. Other groups, including the Rebel Bells Collective, were also in attendance.
Pilar Rodriguez, 10, of Chicago, is a member of the Rebel Bells Collective, a regional social justice group comprised of youth.
“It’s just sad that people will go in and go kill innocent people that had probably nothing to do with them, didn’t know them, and just kill them out of anger,” Rodriguez said.
Protesters also heard from Eakta Kamal, a victim of gun violence from Munster who lost her right arm in an armed robbery in 2015.
But her story is "one of too many,” she said.
When she awoke in the hospital from a weeks-long coma after the shooting, Kamal said her son turned on the television.
“The first thing that came on the news was the San Bernardino (California) shooting,” Kamal said.
Shortly after that, a Buffalo Grove mother was shot dead while with her husband and two young children driving home from vacationing in Wisconsin, Kamal told the crowd.
“Where is the justice in that?” she said.