SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Four gun shows, all about an hour’s drive from Newtown, Conn., all canceled.
A show in White Plains, N.Y., — brought back a few years ago after being called off for a decade because of the Columbine shooting — is off because officials decided it didn’t seem appropriate now, either. In Danbury, Conn. — about 10 miles west of Newtown — the venue backed out. Same with three other shows in New York’s Hudson Valley, according to the organizer.
Gun advocates aren’t backing down from their insistence on the right to keep and bear arms. But heightened sensitivities and raw nerves since the Newtown shooting have led to toned-down displays at gun shows and prompted some officials and sponsors to cancel the well-attended exhibitions altogether.
Some of the most popular guns will be missing from next weekend’s gun show in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., after show organizers agreed to bar the display and sale of AR-15 military-style semiautomatic weapons and their large-clip magazines.
“The majority of people wanted these guns out of the city,” said Chris Mathiesen, Saratoga Springs’ public safety commissioner. “They don’t want them sold in our city, and I agree. Newtown, Conn., is not that far away.”
The mayor of Barre, Vt., wants a ban on military-style assault weapons being sold at an annual gun show in February. Mayor Thom Lauzon says he supports responsible gun ownership but is making the request “as a father.” The police chief in Waterbury, Conn., just a few miles from Newtown, has halted permits for gun shows, saying he was concerned about firearms changing hands that might one day be used in a mass shooting.
In New York’s suburban Westchester County, Executive Rob Astorino had brought back the show in 2010 after a ban of more than a decade following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, but he said the show would be inappropriate now. The shows in the Hudson Valley and Danbury were listed as canceled on the website for Big Al’s Gun Shows. A man who answered the site’s contact number said it was the venues that canceled the shows, not the promoter.
In Houston, transportation officials temporarily stopped using electronic freeway signs for public safety traffic updates near firearms-related events amid complaints following a gun show the day after the Dec. 14 school shooting. State-level transportation officials overruled the decision.
On Wednesday, the City Council here in Saratoga Springs urged organizers of a downtown gun show Jan. 12-13 not to display military-style weapons and the high-capacity magazines “of the type used in the Newtown tragedy.” About a dozen people gave impassioned pleas at the meeting.
Show organizer David Petronis, of New Eastcoast Arms Collectors Associates, agreed to the limit.
“I don’t think it’s fair that we’re taking the brunt of the problem,” Petronis said, “but I can understand the reaction of people in doing so.”
Petronis said his group is a “nice, clean family-oriented … arms fair” that brings in thousands of visitors and a lot of money for the city. He stressed that buyers at his show undergo background checks, as per New York state law.
The gunman in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December used an AR-15 to kill 20 first-graders and six educators in the school. The gun belonged to the shooter’s mother, but it’s not clear where it was bought. The shooting has led to calls for stricter regulation of assault weapons, though the National Rifle Association has steadfastly opposed such measures.
Gun dealers around the country are reporting a spike in sales of semiautomatic rifles amid renewed talk of a federal ban on assault weapons. The possibility of tighter gun control has also pumped up attendance at gun shows in several states.
Marv Kraus, who helped organize a weekend gun show in Evansville, Wis., said business has been especially strong lately.
Kraus said there was never any reason to consider postponing or canceling the Wisconsin event, which runs from Friday through Sunday. One of the few vendors there with semiautomatic weapons, Scott Kuhl of Janesville, Wis., bristled at any suggestion that he temporarily stop selling semiautomatic weapons because of the Connecticut shooting.
“When a plane crashes, should they shut down the airline for six months?” Kuhl said. “This is my business; this is my livelihood.”
Jared Hook, 40, who came to the show looking for a .223-caliber gun for coyote hunting, said he was glad vendors did not back away after Newtown.
“If anything, there’s a lot more interest in guns now because of the shooting,” Hook said. “People want them for protection, and it’s good that they still have access to them.”
Joel Koehler, a Pennsylvania gun dealer, said a few dealers have dropped out of a show this weekend in the Pocono Mountains, but only “because they have nothing to sell. They are out of inventory.”
“The gun sales have been crazy. They are going through the roof,” he said.
Koehler said he has felt no pressure to cancel his shows in Pennsylvania.
“The shows are going on,” he said. “Nobody’s said to us that we can’t have them.”
President Barack Obama has urged Congress to vote rapidly on measures that he says a majority of Americans support: a ban on the sale of military-style assault weapons; a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines; and required criminal background checks for all gun buyers by removing loopholes that cover some sales, such as at gun shows in states that don’t currently require checks.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett on Friday said he would consider a radio-show caller’s suggestion that gun shows be banned on publicly owned property, such as the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg. But he also noted that the complex is open to all businesses.
While government officials take a harder look at gun shows, organizers remain adamant that they run safe, legal businesses. There is no central government database on how guns used in crimes are obtained.
The Brady Campaign, which advocates for stricter state and federal gun laws, has long pushed to close the so-called “gun show loophole” by forcing every state to require background checks of buyers at the shows. They note that three of the weapons used in the Columbine attack were bought by someone who went to a gun show that didn’t require a background check. Seventeen states require an extensive background check, according to the campaign.
And in the wake of Newtown is an emboldened group of advocates, like Susan Steer of Saratoga Springs, a 46-year-old married mother of three who started a petition seeking to cancel the local gun show. Steer said she’ll continue to push for banning gun shows at the taxpayer-supported venue.
“For many of us,” she said, “the shooting in Sandy Hook was the tipping point for taking some action.”