When a Bay Area county decided to pass a law that effectively banned gun shows from its fairgrounds, it sparked one of the nation’s longest running legal battles over the right to bear arms.
In the end, the county conceded and the gun shows were allowed to resume under stricter rules, leaving some of the central constitutional questions around the issue unsettled.
Once again, gun shows at publicly-owned convention centers and fairgrounds are being targeted for expulsion around the state. And the legal roadmap is no less clear.
History around such efforts shows a mix of outcomes, marked at times by a lack of political support for such bans and protracted litigation ending in shrugs. And renewed pushes for gun show bans — from Del Mar to the Bay Area — would seem to face similar uncertainty.
“They are stepping into a lion’s den here of potential litigation over this,” said Chuck Michel, a prominent gun rights attorney in Long Beach and president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association.
The potential for a court battle is weighing heavily on the Del Mar Fairground’s board of directors, who will be officially considering the issue in September.
They are aware of the drawn-out Alameda County case that bounced around the courts for 12 years before ending at the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal cost millions of dollars in legal fees.
“We can’t afford to have that kind of fight on our hands,” said Stephen Shewmaker, president of the fairground’s board of directors.
Just about every weekend of the year, a gun show can be found in a fairground or convention center somewhere in California.
Last weekend it was here, one of five annual events run by Crossroads of the West Gun Show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It’s come for the past 28 years.
Next weekend it will be in Costa Mesa at the OC Fair and Event Center, and the weekend after that at Daly City’s Cow Palace fairgrounds.
The shows draw thousands of gun enthusiasts and their families who plop down money for parking and entrance fees. Shoppers roam booths selling firearms, of course, but also ammunition, holsters and scopes next to used books, jewelry, leather goods and posters. You can find tips on American flag etiquette and gun safety classes and Second Amendment causes.
In many ways, California gun shows are markedly different than others across the country. Most notably, no one heading home with a new gun in hand.
California law requires gun show sales to follow the same rules as gun shops: firearms transactions can only be made through federal licensed dealers, background checks are a must, and a 10-day waiting period to take possession of a newly purchased gun remains in place.
Gun shows have always drawn their detractors, but scrutiny intensified with Columbine — especially after it was discovered that two of the weapons used in the Colorado massacre were purchased by a friend of the shooters’ from unlicensed sellers at a gun show in 1998.
The scrutiny — and frequency and deadliness of such indiscriminate mass shootings — has only increased since.
“This issue is a classic clash of cultures,” said Donald Kilmer, who represented the gun show operators in the Alameda County case.
Promotion of the gun culture is what worries many gun control advocates the most, making gun shows a prime target.
“We are not opposed to gun shows, per say,” said Carol Landale, president of the San Diego chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, applauding California’s stringent rules.
But Landale, who walked the aisles of Del Mar’s gun show last weekend, said she was troubled by the children being exposed to a culture that revolves around violent weapons, as well as immediate safety concerns with the display of guns and knives and what she said seemed to be a lack of oversight.
“If we stop glorifying guns, it’s one step in the right direction toward reducing gun violence,” she said. “Obviously it’s not the only step. It’s complicated, so many things need to be done. But it’s just one small effort that can help.”
Despite California’s strict rules governing gun shows, critics worry that the gatherings connect buyers and sellers who make unlawful, off-the-books gun transactions.
“We have to shut this down, our society is being ripped apart by this,” said Rose Ann Sharp said of the nation’s gun violence. The Del Mar resident, along with her husband, has spearheaded the most recent gun show ban effort. “It’s the most natural place to start.”
Gun rights advocates bristle at the characterization that they say demonizes gun owners.
“There are people frustrated with criminals and criminal activity who have made the headlines, and I totally understand that,” said Michael Schwartz, CEO of San Diego County Gun Owners, a pro-gun political action committee that has waded into the Del Mar debate. “But they are taking it out on law-abiding people, and shutting down a gun show is not going to save a life and not going to prevent crime. All you do is send the message to a group of people exercising their rights telling them ‘You are undesirable.'”
Michel, the attorney who specializes in Second Amendment law, noted many events are held on public property that don’t match his values or viewpoints. “So what?” he said.
“This is classic viewpoint discrimination,” Michel said. “Thousands and thousands of gun owners are law-abiding. Good citizen gun owners go to shows for entertainment, education, good deals.”
A call for change
It’s this polarized landscape that the state’s 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees the Del Mar Fairgrounds, must navigate.
Calls for a gun show ban have grown increasingly louder over the past few years, and board meetings have recently drawn crowds from both sides who argue their points during spirited public comment periods.
The issue of a gun show ban is now set for official consideration on the September agenda, and a separate meeting eliciting public comment will likely be held to accommodate the oversized, impassioned crowd expected to attend.
Another, more immediate wrinkle has also surfaced. At a meeting last week, it was brought to the board’s attention that the family who owns the Crossroads show has a felonious background of gun convictions.
Patriarch Bob Templeton, 79, who founded the show, was indicted in 1980 on charges of unlawful sales of firearms, making a false statement and aiding and abetting, according to a 1994 story in the Desert News. The case involved the shipment of firearms to Mormons in South Africa.
Templeton pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully selling a .38 caliber revolver out of state, was sentenced to probation and successfully petitioned to have his gun possession rights restored despite the felony conviction.
One of Templeton’s sons, Jeff, 51, has more recent convictions involving possession of firearms by a drug addict.
He is no longer involved with the show, the elder Templeton said. To avoid conflicts with licensing, Templeton’s daughter has been handed the responsibilities of running the show and signs the contracts, he said.
The fairground’s chief executive has asked the state’s Bureau of Firearms to investigate if the licensing rules had been followed. The board hopes to have an answer by the time the show swings through Del Mar again in July.
In Orange County on Thursday, uncertainty over the Templeton situation prompted the fairground board members to hold off on deciding whether to approve future contracts with Crossroads of the West until state investigators clear the licensing question. A broader debate about gun shows is also beginning to simmer there, and elsewhere.
In Santa Clara County, the county’s board of supervisors this month approved an ordinance that would ban possession or sale of guns on county owned or leased property.
In the Bay Area, state legislators have drafted a bill that would ban the sale of gun and ammunition at the Cow Palace, a state-owned venue in Daly City.
“Our country is awash in guns, and schoolchildren are dying,” Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said in his announcement Monday. “We need fewer guns, and we need to stop the proliferation of guns whose only purpose is to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. We should not have gun shows in the heart of the Bay Area. The Cow Palace gun shows should have ended a long time ago. Better late than never.”
Such efforts have resulted in a tangled history of rulings and settlements.
In the late 1990s, Santa Clara County tried to ban gun shows on county land, but the federal 9th Circuit court in 1997 said the shows can remain under First Amendment protections for commercial speech — a past that makes the new ban all the more interesting.
In 1999, Los Angeles County enacted an ordinance that barred gun and ammo sales on county property. Two lawsuits followed by the operators of the largest gun show in the nation, the Great Western Gun Show, held for years at the county fairgrounds.
The cases won in California Supreme Court with a 2002 ruling that said city and county governments have a right to ban gun shows on their property. But the ruling only clarified how to apply state law and could not address the federal questions being litigated in the matter at the same time elsewhere.
In 2003, L.A.’s four-year legal battle ended with a settlement, with the county agreeing to pay the show $1.6 million while the ordinance remained intact.
Then there was the marathon litigation in the case filed against Alameda County by the Nordykes, gun show operators who were behind an earlier Santa Clara lawsuit.
A federal district court upheld Alameda County’s 2009 law banning guns on its property, ruling that governments had the right to restrict firearms in “sensitive” places. But that was far from the end. The case pinballed repeatedly to the 9th Circuit for various considerations.
During a rehearing in 2012, the county did an about-face and told the 9th Circuit panel that gun shows would be permitted as long as the weapons were secured somehow, such as being tethered to tables.
The court found this to be an adequate solution and issued an opinion that said local government was allowed to add its own restrictions on gun shows as long as the rules weren’t too onerous or infringing on civil rights.
The larger constitutional issues in the case, then, went undecided.
Attempts to ban gun shows at the Cow Palace have failed politically. The state Legislature approved two such bills in recent years but they were vetoed by Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.
A bill in 2004 fell short of required votes to get it past the Assembly.
Gun show bans have survived in other places, including San Mateo County and San Francisco — both Democratic-leaning communities.
The city of Glendale banned gun shows in 2013, and the small gun show that operated there found another venue rather than sue.
Yet another lawsuit resolved earlier this month appears to buoy local ability to restrict gun sellers, although it’s a gun store case, not a gun show case.
The lawsuit was brought by three men stopped from opening a gun shop by an Alameda County law that prohibits new gun stores from being located within 500 feet of schools, bars, residential districts and other specific areas.
The 9th Circuit ruled 9-2 last year in the county’s favor, saying the Second Amendment applies mostly to the right of gun owners, not gun sellers, and noted that the county’s restrictions did not prevent the people from buying guns in the area.
On May 14, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case, leaving the 9th Circuit’s ruling intact. It is another example of the nation’s high court refusing to wade into the gun debate in the past several years.
While the gun show issue won’t be heard in Del Mar until September, the board is doing its homework. That includes a request to the state Department of Justice to complete a legal analysis on the viability of a ban.
There’s also the potential for some kind of compromise.
Shewmaker, the board’s president, said board members in April asked gun show president Templeton to consider placing an 18-and-up age restriction on the gun show, as well as prohibit kits that provide the parts to build unregistered AR-15-style rifles, sometimes called “ghost guns.”
Templeton’s daughter, Tracy Olcott, told the San Diego Union-Tribune last week that barring children would do more harm than good because the shows provide positive exposure and education on how to safely be around guns with a supervised adult.
The San Diego County Gun Owners group is preparing for what they’d consider a worst-case scenario, doing some advance scouting for Plan B locations for future gun shows should they be banned at the fairgrounds. Options are limited: the venue must be at least 80,000 square feet and offer 1,500 to 2,000 parking spaces.
Venues both private and public in the East County, Escondido and Indian reservations are all being looked at, said Schwartz.
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