The pop-pop-pop of gunfire echoes in the background as Betty Ashby sits behind a desk, explaining that she doesn't hate liberals.

Or gays.

Or any other groups that might be offended by the controversial billboards advertising ProShots Indoor Range and Training, a shooting range and gun shop in Rural Hall that she runs with her husband, Lonnie Ashby, a retired Winston-Salem police officer who worked nine years as an instructor at the department's shooting range.

"We're definitely not trying to offend anyone," she said. "We're just trying to be lighthearted about a serious subject. They're always done tongue-in-cheek."

You may have seen them as you're traveling on Business 40 or northbound on U.S. 52. One of the billboards near Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center for months featured a purple background and a hippie van with the tagline "Liberals Welcome" — as in liberals, who are often anti-gun, are invited to give guns a try.

That billboard now says "Occupy ProShots," with an arrow sweeping toward a bullet-ridden target. The reference is to Occupy groups that have sprung up across the country since the Occupy Wall Street group began its protests of corporate greed and the growing divide between the rich and poor.

Another one on westbound Business 40 featured a rifle next to a flower with a headline reading "Pansies Converted Daily." ProShots removed that billboard two months ago after getting complaints from gays and lesbians and their straight allies.

The billboard has since been replaced with another ProShots tongue-in-cheek billboard, playing off the popular bumper sticker in which religious symbols — including a cross, a Star of David and a crescent — act as letters spelling out the word "coexist." The purpose is to call for more understanding between Christians, Jews and Muslims.

In the ProShots billboard, drawings of handguns and rifles take the place of religious symbols to spell out the word "coexist."

The Rev. Angela Yarber, a minister at Wake Forest Baptist Church, said she first noticed the coexist billboard as she walked in the Martin Luther King Day parade last month.

Yarber, speaking for herself and not the church, said she and other marchers found the billboard offensive, and worried that it sends a message that promotes gun violence.

"I don't think it's funny; I think it's something that shouldn't be joked about," she said. "The rhetoric isn't helpful. It doesn't unite people."

Imam Khalid Griggs of the Community Mosque of Winston-Salem said he finds the billboard "appalling."

"Minimally, it's inappropriate to use a symbol of peaceful coexistence among the world's religions, to exploit that representation for the purpose of selling weapons," he said. "We don't need this kind of symbol."

Rabbi Josh Brown of Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem said he has seen the billboard but declined to comment.

Ashby said the ad was not meant to have any religious overtones.

"The whole thing about 'coexist' is that we're here for everybody," she said. "We appeal to every demographic. If they are concerned about guns and gun safety, they can come through our doors and we're going to teach them."

The billboards have been controversial but also effective, Ashby said. She credited the billboards for being one of the reasons the range is growing. Ashby said they are clearing out space in the 7,500 square-foot storefront in the Village Square shopping center to give more room for gun sales.

They want to add more space for rifle shooters, either on-site or at another range, and the gun and safety classes offered at the range are more popular than ever.

Ashby said that while the billboards may have become the public face of the company, the emphasis at the range is focused on safety and education. Liberals and gays are just as welcome as anyone else to train there, she said.

"We're not here for controversy," she said. "It came, but we're not here for that."

In December, the "Pansies Converted Daily" billboard was brought to the attention of Equality NC, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that works on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender North Carolinians.

Equality NC objected to the language of the billboard, which they considered homophobic, as did GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), a national gay-rights organization.

"Words and images have a powerful effect on all people, including the LGBT community, and it is important that companies using homophobic euphemisms in their advertisements are held accountable," wrote Danny Heffernan, a blogger for GLAAD.

The controversy was even noted in December on The Huffington Post, a national news website. Ashby said when she and her husband went to a gun show in Las Vegas recently, people she met there had heard of ProShots and the billboards.

Part of the billboard campaign was sponsored by a grant from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which also objected to the language on the "pansies" billboard. But Ashby said by then the decision to pull the billboard had been made.

Officials at the foundation last week assessed the "coexist" billboard and did not find it offensive.

"The billboard ad is provocative, but in our mind it is not offensive," said Bill Brassard, director of communications for the foundation. "Ranges have the latitude when using NSSF grant funds to develop ads that they think are best for their business. This ad is gaining attention. That's what the range wanted to accomplish."

The decision to pull the "pansies" billboard was posted on ProShots' Facebook page on Dec. 13: "Hey folks, we have spent a good part of our day reading and listening to your comments. We have also answered numerous phone calls and emails. To be clear, when we realized the potential offensive implications, we decided to take down the board."

Equality NC officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Ashby said she was surprised by the reaction to the billboard. She said the reference to pansies wasn't aimed at gays, and instead was meant to poke fun at "weaklings."

"We took it down out of respect for their (gays' and lesbians') feelings, because we never meant to offend anyone," she said.

The Ashbys and another investor bought the range in 2010. It's not their first business — they also started Big Shotz Tavern in Clemmons. Betty Ashby said she's still an investor in Big Shotz but left the day-to-day operations to work at ProShots.

Among her jobs at the range is teaching a non-shooting safety class for women called "Refuse to be a Victim."

Ashby said the ideas for the billboards are created in-house, and she plans to continue the billboards. Some of her customers have asked for bumper stickers that feature the ads, and the Ashbys are considering that idea.

Betty Ashby admits it's possible they'll miss something in the ads that people will find offensive, as with the "pansies" billboard. But it's all intended to be humorous.

"If they were dry, no one would notice them," she said.

Yarber said she'd like to see a change in style.

"I know plenty of people who are liberal who wouldn't mind helping them market in a way that would not be offensive," she said.

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