CRAIG HETHERINGTON, a 44-year-old Bedford County trucker, held a sign reading, "Pat Toomey, You Are Fired."

Kay Hartman, a Mifflin County "tea-party patriot old enough to be wise," carried a large white flag featuring a black AK-47 over the words "Come and Take It."

Another woman held a sign: "Gun Control is False Hope; Jesus Christ is the True Hope."

And a bearded man wearing a "Don't Tread on Me" red vest held a sign: "We Come Unarmed (this time)."

Welcome to the Pennsylvania gun club.

These folks were among several hundred at the eighth annual "Second Amendment Action Day" rally on the steps of the Capitol on Tuesday.

Pro-gun citizen activists came fresh off a win in the U.S. Senate, where efforts last week to expand criminal background checks - co-sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey - died.

So they were lively. They waved signs and flags, cheered speeches about gun rights and booed loudly when Toomey's name was mentioned.

They reflect a significant force in Pennsylvania, one that has kept the state bulletproof when it comes to gun-control legislation.

They represent a vivid example of why Guns & Ammo, "the world's most widely read firearms magazine," rates Pennsylvania more gun-friendly than all of its neighbors, including Ohio and West, By God, Virginia.

And yet the pro-gun faithful are not happy. They are not satisfied. They are focused on further, fuller protection of the Second Amendment in the Keystone State.

Hence, House Bill 357 (get it?), referred to by supporters as "The Firearms Freedom Act."

It's sponsored by the organizer of the annual rally, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County.

It would make any federal law attempting to "register, restrict or ban a firearm or to limit the size of a magazine of a firearm" unenforceable in the state.

And it provides for criminal penalties against federal or state officials seeking to implement any such law: a third-degree felony. One to seven years in prison, a fine of up to $15,000 - or both.

The bill carries 70-plus bipartisan co-sponsors, including agenda-setting Republicans such as House Speaker Sam Smith and Majority Leader Mike Turzai.

(This measure strikes me as somewhere between plum crazy and an iffy states' rights issue. And Penn Law professor Seth Kreimer, a constitutional expert, says, "It's pretty settled law, dating back to the Civil War, that states can't prevent the federal government from enforcing federal law.")

I sat down with Metcalfe this week in his Capitol office to get his sense of the gun debate.

"I've never seen in my 15 years here, on any issue I've worked on, as much intensity on protecting gun rights as I've seen in the last four or five months," he said.

He attributes the heightened fervor to a post-Newtown, Conn., school shooting "reaction of the left to try to restrict rights." And the Senate vote last week, he said, "stoked the fires in people's hearts across the state."

That was clear at Tuesday's rally.

But afterward, Shira Goodman, executive director of the gun-control advocacy group CeaseFirePA, who for a time stood at the fringes of the rally, told me that despite the state's pro-gun history, "There's a changing tide in Pennsylvania."

She pointed to Toomey's effort and Sen. Bob Casey's support of it (after being a longtime pro-gun Democrat), as well as state Attorney General Kathleen Kane's actions to tighten state rules on concealed-carry permits.

"Pennsylvania's slow to change," Goodman said, "[but] Toomey's action and Casey's support is a big deal."

Maybe so.

Still, the Wall Street Journal reports that since the Connecticut shootings in December, 15 states have passed laws expanding gun rights, and 13 of the 15 have Republican-controlled legislatures. Just like Pennsylvania's.

Blog: philly.com/BaerGrowls

Columns: philly.com/JohnBaer