THE OFFENSE - defiant trespass - is minor.

The principle - the rule of law - is major, and it was trampled in Municipal Court last week by Judge Karen Simmons.

The case involved a dozen "faith-based" (aka religious) protesters who twice entered Colosimo's Gun Center, 933 Spring Garden St., to stop its proprietor from doing business. The judge turned her robed back on the clear facts, claimed that the state failed to meet its burden of proof and acquitted the zealots.

Defense attorney Lloyd Long III had argued that the defendants were "justified because they were trying to prevent a greater evil" - deadly shootings.

The Inquirer editorial board must have done a happy dance, because it earlier had written that while the defendants were "surely guilty," they were "trying to stem the bloody tide of gun violence in the city."

Breaking the law is OK if you claim a higher moral purpose?

Will the Inquirer applaud the man who murdered abortion doctor George Tiller yesterday inside his Kansas church? The zealot doubtless will claim a higher moral purpose and that he was "trying to stem the bloody tide" of abortion.

We have Law to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands, and breaking it, as the anti-gun zealots did.

This isn't about guns or good intentions. It's about the law and its fair and just application.

Why am I so sure of the zealots' guilt? I take the word of Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney, their supreme media cheerleader. While the zealots (dishonestly) pleaded not guilty, they "pretty much admitted to the basic accusations," she wrote.

Judge Simmons, like myself, must be disturbed by gun violence in the city, but she is sworn to uphold the law, which she declined to do. If she wanted to express, dare I say, empathy with the protesters, she could have done that at sentencing by giving them a light fine after convicting them of the misdemeanors they did commit. That would have been the right, and just, thing to do.

I hate to mix it up with well-intentioned people who operate under the banner of Heeding God's Call, but I question their moral courage and the effectiveness of what they did.

If they really want to stop deadly shootings, how about a nightly prayer vigil or peace march in Southwest or North Philly, where most of the shootings take place? They might hit the streets at 10 p.m. - the most violent hour of the day, according to police statistics - and wrap it up after 3 a.m., the second-most-deadly hour.

Instead, with no risk to themselves, they pick the easy fight with gun-shop owner Jim Colosimo, whom they call irresponsible, but who obeys or exceeds every city, state and federal law.

Colosimo follows the law, which is written in Harrisburg. Instead of at Colosimo's, Heeding God's Call should be trespassing in the state Legislature. They don't do that, one of them told me, because they believe that elected officials won't listen.

True, but lame. Would that mission be more daunting than was the battle to win voting and human rights for blacks in the South?

A lesson they might learn from the civil-rights struggle is to never quit and to have the courage of their convictions. If they are all that moral, they should have pleaded guilty to the trespass charge.

The essence of civil disobedience isn't just breaking a law, it is accepting the consequences: I so believe in the righteousness of my cause, I will go to jail to further it.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. broke the law in Birmingham, he accepted the consequences and was arrested.

His famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" wouldn't have had the same moral weight if written from a Birmingham park bench.

In it, King wrote that "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."

If Heeding God's Call wants to force the issue, it should follow Dr. King's example. Go to the source of the gun problem and stir the pot in Harrisburg. Shame the lawmakers into changing the law, and stop demonizing law-abiding businesses who obey it.

E-mail stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns: