Gun shows draw controversy
Where critics push for limits, some fear loss of freedom
By THOMAS DIMOPOULOS
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.
The line at the door to the City Center began forming hours before the show opened.
By 10 a.m., crowds of shoppers moved about the gun-laden tables inside the exhibition hall. Outside on Broadway, demonstrators held up 26 cut-out angels to honor the 20 children and six educators killed by a gunman barely a month earlier at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
In a separate area along Broadway, gun owners staged their own rally. One of the counter-demonstrators held up a sign intended to answer the first group: “I don’t have enough angels to represent genocide by tyranny.”
And so the NEACA Arms Fair, held the weekend of Jan. 12, briefly dramatized the wide gulf that separates gun enthusiasts from those pushing for tougher gun laws around the country.
The gun show, one of several held each year at the City Center, prompted three separate demonstrations by gun-control advocates. The newly formed group Saratogians for Gun Safety organized the vigil with the cut-out angels; later in the day, members of the Saratoga Peace Alliance and MoveOn.org each staged their own protests.
But gun owners turned out in force as well, both for the show and on the sidewalk outside. Some 7,000 people took part in the weekend-long show, and the City Center’s director later reported that the Saturday’s turnout was the largest ever in one day for an event at the venue.
With New York legislators just days away from passing a sweeping new gun-control law, and with tougher gun laws being pushed by President Obama and some in Congress, the show’s organizers and vendors spoke up against what they saw as a pending curtailment of their constitutional rights.
“We're afraid that Mr. Obama is going to use his signature to destroy our Constitution,” said Phil Ackermann, a dealer from East Arlington, Vt., who buys and sells antique guns, knives, scopes, bullets and other weaponry.
Ackermann and other dealers at the show reported a spike in sales, spurred by fears among gun enthusiasts that their ability to buy weapons might soon be restricted.
Some gun-control advocates had pushed for the show to be canceled. More than 1,500 people signed a petition urging the City Center to call off the event. But an even larger number signed a petition calling for the show to go on, and the center’s board declined to intervene to stop it.
In the weeks after the Newtown massacre, gun shows that had been planned in Ulster, Rockland and Westchester counties were canceled. But a show in Albany went on as planned.
In Saratoga Springs, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking dealers at the local show not to display or sell semi-automatic weapons.
Show promoter David Petronis said he would honor the nonbinding resolution, and he asked that dealers not bring AR-15s, a type of gun used by the Newtown shooter, to the show for sale.
Petronis and his wife, Cathy, have operated a gun shop in Mechanicville for 35 years, and their organization, New Eastcoast Arms Collectors Associates Inc., has sponsored gun shows regularly at the City Center since the facility opened in 1984. The January show was their 90th at the center.
As public scrutiny mounted in the days leading up to the event, Petronis posted a letter on his Web site telling the show’s patrons what they might expect – and urging them to turn out.
“I have been informed that petitioners and protestors will be at our doorsteps when we open our Arms Fair on Saturday,” he said. “It is their legal right to be there, as it is ours. … We are the God fearing, the flag bearing, the front-line warriors, the silent majority and veterans from war, police and fire; who, you may smirk quietly, are they? What you can do is come and support us and our, rather, your show. Because that is what this is all about, them trying again to steal a little piece of freedom from our grasp.”
Setting limits for safety?
Some of those protesting the gun show said they didn’t necessarily object to people owning guns for hunting and target practice but that they opposed military-style weapons being available to the public.
“We have to limit the accessibility for our children’s safety,” said Deirdre Ladd, who took part in the Saratogians for Gun Safety vigil.
Similarly, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called in his State of the State address, a few days before the Saratoga Springs show, called for restricting the sale of high-capacity assault rifles.
“No one hunts with an assault rifle,” Cuomo said. “No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer.”
Within days, the Legislature responded to the governor’s call, passing the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act. The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 43-18, and Cuomo signed it into law less than an hour after the Assembly passed it by 104-43.
The new law expands the state’s previous ban on assault weapons, reduced the maximum capacity of detachable magazines from 10 rounds to seven, and imposes stiffer penalties on people who use guns to commit crimes. People who already own guns that are defined as assault weapons under the new law would not have to give them up but will have to register them with State Police by April 2014.
Petronis and other gun dealers at the Saratoga Springs show maintained that the new law is unnecessary and won’t wind up helping public safety.
"We already have over 6,000 gun laws in New York,” Petronis said. “We've had an assault weapons ban in New York since 1994.”
The new law, however, will expand the definition of weapons that are covered by that ban.
Petronis also pointed out that New York is one of a handful of states that already requires dealers to use the federal system for instant background checks on would-be buyers at gun shows. At the City Center show, bright yellow flyers posted throughout the exhibition hall informed dealers of the state law requiring that a background checks to be completed before any firearms sales or transfers.
The notion of tougher gun laws appears to have strong public support in polls, however. In a national survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University in January, for example, 70 percent supported a ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and 89 percent – including 75 percent of those who identified themselves as National Rifle Association members -- supported universal background checks for gun sales.
More shows, more debates
With the national debate over gun control still unfolding, and with at least two gun shows planned in the region in the next few months, more face-offs like the one outside the City Center seem likely.
In January, gun-control advocates unsuccessfully urged the Saratoga Springs school board to take a stand against the next NEACA gun show, scheduled for March 16-17 at the City Center. The school board wound up voting 6-2 against taking a position on the issue, at least for now.
Meanwhile in Vermont, organizers of a two-day gun show planned for Barre in early February declined the city mayor’s request to ban the sales of military-style assault firearms and high-capacity magazines at the show.
Another gun show promoter in Vermont, Bill Borchers, said he has instituted what he calls new safety measures for his 2013 shows. Borchers’ Green Mountain Gun & Knife Show Trail was initiated in 2005 and stages eight shows a year around the state -- in South Burlington, Rutland, Hartford, Brattleboro, Chester and Middlebury.
Starting with his first show of the year, held in South Burlington in January, Borchers began requiring those planning to purchase firearms to provide photo identification and submit to a federal background check.
These rules will be in place for his upcoming show in Rutland, planned for March 23-24 at the Howe Center. The show is one of his larger ones, Borchers said.
“We usually get 125 tables and a couple of hundred people,” Borchers said. “That’s always been a good show because it’s close to the border.”
Borchers said the identification and background-check requirements, which he is requiring all vendors at his shows to comply with, will help to keep felons from getting firearms.
“It’s one more step to being secure and providing safety,” he said.
Not everyone agrees, however.
“Personally, I don’t see how it makes people safer or prevents crime just by showing your driver’s license,” said Ilse Vergi, secretary of The Gun Owners of Vermont Inc., a group committed to a no-compromise position on gun-ownership rights. The organization’s Web site reminds people of the 16th Article of the Vermont Constitution, which states: “The people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state.”
Vergi said that given the wide-ranging political affiliations of Vermont gun owners, she isn’t too worried that the state would pass legislation similar to what New York lawmakers approved.
“Cuomo just completely trampled on everybody,” Vergi said. “In Vermont, we have a lot of people from both ends of the spectrum -- not just on the right. We have a lot of hardcore liberals who are pro-gun, so we’re not as concerned as New York is.”
Ackermann, the East Arlington gun dealer, said he tries to attend as many gun shows as possible, sometimes as many as one every weekend.
“A gun show is a treasure hunt,” Ackermann said. “You never know what you're going to run into, and I buy here as much as I sell.”
His interests are varied, but he said the criteria for what he buys is simple: “It's got to be old, and it's got to make smoke, fire and noise.”
He didn’t seem too worried that gun-control advocates would hurt his livelihood.
“I've been in the business since I was 11,” Ackermann said. “Now I'm 72, and I'll be doing this until I'm 122.”
Mark Baker, president of the Saratoga Springs City Center, acknowledged the gun debate can be polarizing.
“The Adirondack people are hunters,” Baker said. “They’re sportspeople, and they’re marksmen. Gun violence is not something that anyone here is promoting.
“We've had people responding with a lot of emotion and using the term ‘outrage.’ It doesn’t leave the door open for a lot of discussion.”