To the surprise of no one, the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings that killed 26 people — including 20 young children — in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 have led to renewed debates over gun ownership and regulation. And it took no time for the shockwaves from Newtown to reverberate through the world of gun shows.
Following the tragedy — which came three days after a shooting at an Oregon shopping mall left three people dead, including the gunman — a number of gun shows were canceled outright, including the White Plains Gun & Knife Show, which was set to take place at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, N.Y., on Feb. 4-5. The show's promoter, Westchester Collectors, did not respond to requests for comment from Convene. In a statement to the press, Ned McCormack, a spokesman for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, said: “The shows in past years were popular and run in a thoroughly professional manner. But at this time as the country grieves the loss of life in Newtown, a contract renewal is not appropriate.”
One controversial aspect of gun shows is that they often are held in publicly owned buildings. “Government buildings shouldn't be used to promote the purchase of guns,” Paul Feiner, supervisor of Greenburgh, N.Y., a town in Westchester County, said in a press statement. “We're sending the wrong message.” In fact, the White Plains show was only reinstated by Astorino in 2010 — former County Executive Andrew Spano initiated a ban on the twice-yearly event in 1999, shortly after the Columbine High School shooting.
Other gun shows that have been canceled since Newtown include three in New York's Hudson Valley and one in Danbury, Conn., about an hour's drive from Newtown. And an NPR story on Jan. 8 reported that residents of Sarasota Springs, N.Y., were challenging the Saratoga Springs Arms Fair, scheduled for Jan. 11, starting a petition on change.org that garnered at least 1,300 signatures. A counter-petition in support of the show had received approximately 1,800 signatures. The gun show ended up drawing a record-breaking crowd of nearly 7,000 — twice the previous attendance, The Saratogian newspaper reported.
The stakes of this corner of the gun debate are high. The U.S. Bureau of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) estimated in a 2007 report that anywhere from 2,000 to 5,200 guns shows are held in the United States every year, with “no definitive source” on the total number. And although the entrance fee for most shows is marginal or even free (it was listed as $11 for adults for the White Plains show), the economic impact locally and nationally is significant. A 2009 report by the City of New York called “Gun Show Undercover” indicated that gun shows nationwide are a multibillion-dollar industry, varying in size from about 50 tables to more than 1,000, with sellers able to rent tables for $20 to $145 and booths from $200 to $400. Gun shows routinely attract 2,500 to 15,000 attendees over a weekend, according to the ATF report, and can generate as many as 1,000 firearm sales.
Newtown affected that dynamic as well. Media coverage of the shootings focused repeatedly on the weapons used, and between that and fears among some gun enthusiasts that the government would use the incident as leverage to ban or even confiscate certain guns, sales skyrocketed at private shows — including the Nation's Gun Show, which was held at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Va., on Dec. 28. Organizers of the show estimated that attendance was more than double that of a similar event held in November, according to The Washington Post. Gun dealers at the show reported that they were doing more business than they had seen in many years — if ever. In fact, eight days after the Newtown shooting, Virginia gun sellers requested a single-day-record 5,150 background checks, which are required by the state in private gun sales.