The clergymen stood inside the Lansdowne gun shop on Hollins Ferry Road, in front of a glass counter containing what they called the "instruments of death" responsible for turning the streets of Baltimore into a killing field.
"The city is devastated by violence — gun violence," pressed the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, whose group protested this store on Wednesday. "We're trying to get the illegal guns off the street. Too many people are dying. It's destroying Baltimore."
Bill and Clyde Blamberg, owners of Clyde's Sport Shop for more than a half-century, listened politely but firmly told the group to seek help elsewhere — change the laws in Annapolis before attempting to change the minds of gun shop owners.
They refused to sign a code of conduct and agree to voluntary inspections and other restrictions beyond what state and federal law requires.
"They're do-gooders who are trying their best to make a difference," said 69-year-old Clyde Blamberg, out of earshot of the protest group. Added his brother Bill, "We're close to Baltimore City and we do make a lot of sales, all of them legal. What this group is doing isn't going to do a lot good. If people don't buy guns here, they'll buy guns down the street."
The clergy, about 14 of them, are part of a national group called "Heeding God's Call, a Movement to End Gun Violence." Catholic priests and Protestant ministers along with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders came to Clyde's because it has been listed in the past by authorities as being a top gun distributer to city criminals.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said in 2007 that they traced 64 firearms seized by Baltimore police at crime scenes to Clyde's, behind only Valley Guns in Parkville, which was shuttered because of inventory problems. Two other gun shops that were among the top five on that list, Northeast Gun & Pawn and Baltimore Gunsmith, both in the city, also have been closed for violations.
Those statistics come from an Abell Foundation Report on the effectiveness of gun laws in Maryland, and their researchers obtained the numbers from sources in law enforcement. The ATF has been prohibited by federal law from publicizing how many guns have been traced back to specific gun shops since 2004.
The Abell report reached similar conclusions as the ATF did in 1999 — that at least 40 percent of guns traced to crimes in major cities had been legally purchased from a gun shop in the previous three years. A more recent study by the ATF in 2009 found that more than 3,000 guns seized by Baltimore police that year had been purchased legally more than three years prior. More than 930 had been purchased less than three years prior.
Federal authorities have long been combating a problem known as "straw purchases," in which the buyer fills out the background check forms and legally buys a weapon but then gives or sells the gun to someone who wouldn't qualify.
The issue first surfaced in Baltimore in the early 1990s when a mother who managed a jewelry counter at a department store walked into a Fells Point gun shop and bought $6,000 worth of high-powered handguns, including an Israeli-made Desert Eagle and a laser-sighted pistol.
The woman gave the weapons to Nathaniel Dawson Jr., who picked out the guns at the counter and gave her the cash to pay for them. Dawson is serving four life sentences in federal prison for being a drug kingpin responsible for two murders, including the 1993 slaying of Tauris Johnson, a 10-year-old boy caught in a shootout between two rival drug lords on East Oliver Street.
On Wednesday, the clergy members said they wanted to "bring awareness to illegal 'straw' handgun sales," but the brothers who own Clyde's said they felt as if they were being accused of knowingly selling the guns to people who would turn them over to criminals.
"We are not implying that you break the law," Bishop Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore, told the owners. "I'm sure you faithfully follow the procedures. We just want to ask you to help us to help prevent the havoc that is going on in our communities. We are not saying you are doing anything illegal."
Bill Blamberg replied: "We get that impression."
The brothers said that if two people enter his store but only one fills out the background check form, he refuses to sell a weapon at all. They also disputed that many guns used in crimes come shortly after a legal purchase, saying they believed most weapons used in violence had been stolen.
The impasse was clear.
Sutton: "We would like you to sign our code of conduct."
Bill Blamberg: "It's a no for right now."
The four clergy members shook hands with the brothers and walked out of the shop, where about a dozen protesters had gathered on the sidewalk and were singing songs urging peace. A Baltimore County police officer monitored the peaceful protest.
Though rebuffed, the clergy said they considered the visit a success. At least they got a chance to talk with the owners. "They could've locked the doors and not let us in," said the group's organizer, Bryan Miller.