ST. CHARLES, Mo. – Shoppers who crowded into the St. Charles Convention Center in Missouri Friday for the opening day of a weekend gun show said they strongly disagreed with calls for tougher gun regulations in the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

“Something like Connecticut is unstoppable,” said Dee Belmar, 39, a factory worker from St. Louis, as he stood near a sales display of shotguns and semi-automatic guns.

“All they’re going to do basically is criminalize the law-abiding citizen. Criminals aren’t going to obey any laws.”

Belmar was among hundreds of people who filed past about 500 tables full of firearms, knives and related items on sale. A hunter and sports shooter, he came to the event – the RK Gun and Knife Show – to buy ammunition.

He and others said improving mental health care and screening is a better approach than proposals such as banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Brian Storm, 53, a photographer from O’Fallon, Mo., said more people with severe mental problems should be placed in institutions, as in the past.

Josh Geiler, a gun store owner in St. Francois County, who is among about 80 vendors at the St. Charles event, said new gun restrictions wouldn’t prevent tragedies like the shootings that left 20 children and six adults dead at the school in Newtown on Dec. 14. “Someone could come in here and blow himself up” and harm others as well, he pointed out.

Sue Brenner, 52, of Ballwin, a St. Louis suburb, had a similar view. “The crazies are still going to get whatever they want to do whatever they want, whether it’s a gun” or some other weapon, she said. Brenner wasn’t shopping herself but was accompanying her husband, Fred, who was.

Rex Kehrli, the Iowa-based promoter who puts on the show twice a year in St. Charles, said assigning police to schools and arming school personnel would have a better chance than gun restrictions at stopping mass shootings.

“What I’ve seen on both sides is a lot of emotion; it’s completely understandable in a situation like this,” he said. “Everybody needs to settle down and have a rational discussion about what’s really going to work.”

In Missouri, the Legislature next year will consider a bill by state Rep. Mike Kelley, R-Lamar, to allow teachers and other school administrators to carry concealed firearms on school property with proper licensing. House GOP leaders are among supporters.

Meanwhile, Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, says she’ll push a bill to require criminal background checks for all buyers of firearms at gun shows in the state.

That would plug the so-called “gun show loophole” in Missouri that allows unlicensed dealers at such events to refrain from conducting the checks required at licensed gun stores.

Kehrli says he’s neutral on that issue and that each state should decide what works best. He said, though, that such a law wouldn’t affect his shows much because more than 95 percent of the vendors taking part are licensed dealers who already do background checks.

The St. Charles show opened amid a nationwide surge in demand for firearms, ammunition and bulletproof gear since the Newtown massacre.

The Associated Press reported Friday that assault rifles are sold out across the country.

Kehrli, the show promoter, said there are such guns available at the event in St. Charles, although he didn’t know whether the number was less than usual. The Associated Press

BANGUI, Central African Republic- Central African Republic’s neighbors agreed on Friday to dispatch a contingent of soldiers to intervene in the troubled country, where a coalition of rebel groups is seeking to overthrow the president of nearly a decade.

Representatives from the 10-nation Economic Community of Central African States meeting in Gabon, though, did not specify how many troops they could contribute nor did they outline how quickly the military assistance would arrive.

President Francois Bozize had pleaded for international help Thursday as fears grew that the rebels would attack the capital of 600,000 next. Former colonial power France already has said that its forces in the country are there to protect French interests and not Bozize’s government.

“We are now thinking about the arrangements to make so that this mission can be deployed as quickly as possible, said Gabon’s Foreign Affairs Minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet.

The announcement came as military officials in Central African Republic reported renewed fighting in the third largest city of Bambari, which fell under rebel control five days ago.

The military said it had taken country of the town, located about 385 kilometers (240 miles) from the capital, a claim that could not be immediately corroborated.

The ongoing instability prompted the United States to evacuate about 40 people, including the U.S. ambassador, on an U.S. Air Force plane bound for Kenya, said U.S. officials who insisted on anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the operation.

The United States has special forces troops in the country who are assisting in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of another rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The U.S. special forces remain in the country, the U.S. military’s Africa Command said from its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

The evacuation of the U.S. diplomats came in the wake of criticism of how the U.S. handled diplomatic security before and during the attack on its consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. The ambassador and three other Americans were killed in that attack.

French diplomats are staying despite a violent demonstration outside its embassy earlier this week. Dozens of protesters, angry about a lack of help against rebel forces, threw rocks at the French Embassy in Bangui and stole a French flag. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke via phone with Bozize, asking him to take responsibility for the safety of French nationals and diplomatic missions in Central African Republic.

Bozize on Thursday urgently called on former colonial ruler France and other foreign powers to help his government fend off rebels who are quickly seizing territory and approaching the capital. But French President Francois Hollande said France wants to protect its interests in Central African Republic and not Bozize’s government.

This landlocked nation of some 4.4 million people has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since gaining independence in 1960 and remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The current president himself came to power nearly a decade ago in the wake of a rebellion in this resource-rich yet deeply poor country.

Speaking to crowds in Bangui, a city of some 600,000, Bozize pleaded with foreign powers to do what they could. He pointed in particular to France. About 200 French soldiers are already in the country, providing technical support and helping to train the local army, according to the French defense ministry.

“France has the means to stop (the rebels) but unfortunately they have done nothing for us until now,” Bozize said.

Bozize’s government earlier reached out to longtime ally Chad, which pledged to send 2,000 troops to bolster Central African Republic’s own forces.

The rebels behind the most recent instability signed a 2007 peace accord allowing them to join the regular army, but insurgent leaders say the deal wasn’t fully implemented. The rebel forces have seized at least 10 towns across the sparsely populated north of the country, and residents in the capital now fear the insurgents could attack at any time, despite assurances by rebel leaders that they are willing to engage in dialogue instead of attacking Bangui.

The rebels have claimed that their actions are justified in light of the “thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic.”

Despite Central African Republic’s wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the government remains perpetually cash-strapped.

The rebels also are demanding that the government make payments to ex-combatants, suggesting that their motives may also be for personal financial gain.

Paris is encouraging peace talks between the government and the rebels, with the French Foreign Ministry noting in a statement that negotiations are due to “begin shortly in Libreville (Gabon).” But it was not immediately clear if any dates have been set for those talks.

The U.N.’s most powerful body condemned the recent violence and expressed concern about the developments.

“The members of the Security Council reiterate their demand that the armed groups immediately cease hostilities, withdraw from captured cities and cease any further advance towards the city of Bangui,” the statement said.