Va. gun show organizers cancel after losing effort to circumvent pandemic restrictions

The Nation’s Gun Show, set to start Friday at the Dulles Expo Center, in Chantilly, Virginia, has been canceled by the organizers after a judge ruled against their attempt to circumvent Virginia’s newly toughened coronavirus restrictions.

The cancellation is on the show’s website.

Under new restrictions this week imposed amid a recent surge in coronavirus cases, maximum capacity for the Nation’s Gun Show would be set at 250 people. The indoor show could have drawn up to 25,000 people; a show in August drew half that.

A gun-show promoter, a firearms dealer and a prospective gun-show attendee asked for an injunction against the restrictions, arguing the rules should be based on physical distancing and not attendance numbers. Organizers claimed those limitations would violate the rights of gun owners and cause the vendor to lose $70,000 in revenue.

Judge Brett Kassabian rejected all the arguments at a hearing Thursday morning.

While he said he was sympathetic to the fact that show organizers and vendors stand to lose millions of dollars, Kassabian said, “To allow thousands of people to roam unchecked in the throes of the worst pandemic in 100 years is not in the public interest.”

The organizers said on their website that they were “given the all-clear from Fairfax County Health Department, who reasonably listened to our arguments from Monday and Tuesday, then called back to say we could operate as a brick-and-mortar retail establishment.”

That was one of their arguments in court Thursday. A lawyer for the gun show, David Browne, said that the gun show should be considered a brick-and-mortar retail business, “just like the Walmart next door” to the expo center. Indeed, Browne said that was the initial determination made by local health officials interpreting the new restrictions.

But state officials say any event at the expo center should be considered an “entertainment venue,” a classification that imposes more severe restrictions that limit attendance to no more than 250 people.

The organizers said, “much later [Wednesday] the Governor and the Virginia Attorney General stepped in to close all the similar venues in the state of Virginia as well as ours inflicting incredible hardships in the entire state. We fought back and went to court at great expense and lost. We respectfully disagree with the judge’s opinion.”

They added, “We will follow up with more later. We are very sorry for the incredible financial burden and terrible inconvenience this is inflicting on all involved.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a reply brief to the suit, spelling out the consequences of any large-scale event and said a gun show of this size “would most certainly become a superspreader event and could infect hundreds if not thousands of Virginians with COVID.”

Herring said in his brief that the suit by the organizers disregard the public-health consequences of the coronavirus and said statement by the organizers are “brazenly misinformed.”

“The ongoing pandemic has infected more than 200,000 Virginians since March and has killed nearly 4,000 — more than four times the number of automobile fatalities that occurred in all of 2019,” Herring said, cautioning against events that may cause the virus to spread more widely.

Tighter restrictions that went into effect this week include limiting in-person gatherings to 25 people, an expanded face mask mandate, halting late-night alcohol sales at restaurants and increased enforcement of pandemic rules for essential businesses, such as grocery stores.

In their complaint, show organizers said they expected the upcoming show to be particularly lucrative.

“In recent months, the demand for firearms, ammunition, and related products and services has skyrocketed, fueled by intersecting scares over COVID-19 and interruptions in government-related services including policing, fears of demonstrations, rioting and social unrest purportedly in response to various police shootings, and a general sense of apprehension about the November 2020 presidential election and the future for gun rights in this country,” the show’s lawyers wrote in their complaint.

Martine Cicconi, a lawyer with Herring’s office, said that a gun show is a place where people linger, congregate and discuss, as opposed to silently walking the aisles to make a purchase, and that it should be categorized differently as a result.

The gun show argued that the restrictions on the gun show violate state law and both the state and federal Constitutional protections on the right to bear arms. Brown said the case is similar to one in Lynchburg issued this year allowing a shooting range there to stay open. He cited a state law that explicitly bars the governor from using emergency orders to restrict the right to bear arms.

But Cicconi argued nobody’s right to bear arms is restricted; the order simply limited the number of attendees at the expo center.

Herring’s office has previously defended legal challenges to the coronavirus restrictions. While the Lynchburg gun case was an exception, the vast majority of cases have allowed restrictions to stand.

“This enormous gun show could have very quickly become a superspreader event and this win will help keep hundreds if not thousands of Virginians safe and healthy,” Herring said in a statement issued after the hearing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

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