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Adversaries battle over guns, visions

Gun control is the aim of one; gun rights the goal of the other. Finding middle ground isn't easy.

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002

WESLEY CHAPEL -- One of the staunchest gun control advocates in Florida has an arsenal that could stock a small militia.

There it is, spread across the floor of his doublewide mobile home.

A handgun. A Tec-9 semiautomatic. An M-16 rifle with a bayonet. Several Uzis.

Okay, so most of them are water guns.

But you get the point. At least Arthur C. Hayhoe hopes you do.

All of these weapons, the for-real versions, are available at gun shows throughout Florida for anyone to buy legally, he says with a mixture of disbelief and disgust.

He wears a white shirt and a yellow tie. Through wire-rimmed glasses, the 69-year-old bachelor stares disapprovingly at the stockpile on the floor.

Hayhoe is the executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

The coalition's headquarters consists of a small office in Hayhoe's home, down the hall from the shelves of classic movies and classical CDs.

Here, in the cramped space surrounded by books about the Second Amendment, he runs his crusade to "keep guns from falling into the wrong hands," as he puts it.

It's in this office where he recruits for the coalition, whose 50 or so current members have teamed with other gun control coalitions around the state, such as the Million Mom March.

In here he bangs out numerous letters to newspaper editors each week and plans where to travel next to argue for tighter controls on guns.

Why does he care so deeply about the subject?

Hayhoe had been a National Rifle Association member before he left the United States for 25 years, serving as a civilian in Vietnam and working for an oil company in the Middle East. He came to Florida in 1985.

He said when he returned, he was appalled by what he calls the NRA's shift toward zealotry.

"I thought, "My God, what's happened here?" he said. "This isn't the simple sporting organization I remember.' "

So Hayhoe started pressing for waiting periods and background checks and stiffer gun violence laws. He kept his NRA membership until last year, when he got a letter from the organization basically throwing him out because of his activism.

He framed the letter.

When he retired a year and a half ago as marketing director for a health care plan, he turned his hobby into a full-time crusade.

"Everybody who retires ought to have something they care about," Hayhoe said. "The car I want to restore is still sitting there. My golf clubs are still in the corner. I've kind of put my retirement on hold indefinitely."

While Hayhoe sees his cause as just, not everyone agrees. His biggest nemesis -- gun rights activists Bill and Ann Bunting -- also live in Pasco County.

Whisper Hayhoe's name in the Buntings' presence, and you might as well be praising Osama bin Laden.

"I was having a good day," said Bill Bunting, president of the Second Amendment Club of America, when a reporter called to talk about Hayhoe.

To understand their rivalry, you must understand how fervent each side supports its cause.

The Buntings say Hayhoe is a paid lobbyist who wants to ban gun ownership altogether. Hayhoe says the Buntings want a society in which thugs and criminals can buy and sell guns with impunity.

Both sides accuse the other of misrepresentation, even lying.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The Buntings and Hayhoe simply hold different philosophies about guns. Very different philosophies.

They travel the county, even the state, playing a dueling banjo act against each other.

Their latest showdown came recently in Zephyrhills, where the City Council debated whether to ban city employees from bringing guns onto city property.

For the better part of two months, Hayhoe and the Buntings showed up at every meeting. They spoke -- loudly -- each time, hammering home both sides of the argument.

In the end, the council decided to ban employees from bringing guns inside city buildings, although they can have them in their cars in the parking lot.

Hayhoe and the Buntings both walked away dissatisfied.

That's how it goes in this gun control battle. Neither side ever seems content. But they have to keep pushing so as not to yield an inch. "This is going to be an ongoing battle," Ann Bunting said.

So Hayhoe, like the Buntings, will keep pushing. He will keep writing letters to the editor and speaking at conventions. He will keep citing gun violence statistics and working toward his ultimate goal: licenses and registration for each gun in America.

He clearly wants to see it happen. But he gives the sense that the fight itself is the part he relishes most.

"(The gun advocates) have been very successful, and they can do their thing, but we are gaining some momentum," Hayhoe said. "I have a great deal more to do than I can do."

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