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Virginia Judge Shoots Down Gun Show, Citing Capacity Rules

Pointing to sobering coronavirus numbers, a Virginia judge refused Thursday to let organizers of a massive gun show ignore occupancy limits put in place by the Democratic governor.

FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) — Covid-19 cases are spiking while politicians warn of a hard winter, and few will venture over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house next week. And now, one of the mammoth gun shows for which Virginia is known has been canceled.   

The Nation’s Gun Show, planned for this weekend, was scratched after a judge said it had the potential to become an “unprecedented super-spreader event” and ruled organizers must adhere to capacity limitations set out in an executive order aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.   

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Brett A. Kassabian refused to allow the gun show – scheduled to start Friday at the sprawling Dulles Expo Center in the Washington suburb of Chantilly – to ignore the capacity limits put in place by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat.

Ruling against the event’s organizers during a hearing Thursday, the judge recounted sobering Covid-19 statistics: more than 248,000 deaths have been reported nationwide, including 3,800 in Virginia, and there is “no widely available vaccine at the time of this order.”  

Northam’s Nov. 13 order limits total occupancy for entertainment and amusement businesses to 30% of capacity or 250 people, whichever is less. Four days after signing the order, the governor and Virginia Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver were named as defendants in a lawsuit arguing they don’t have the authority to force cancellation of a large economic event.    

Showmasters Inc., producer of the show, asserted that the event should be classified under Northam's order as a brick and mortar retail business, for which there is no capacity limit. 

“A fair characterization of the gun show is as a retail business, which it is,” Showmasters’ attorney David Browne said during the hearing.  

But an attorney for the state pushed back against the notion that the gun show is simply a collection of retail businesses.  

“The gun show is not like the Walmart,” countered Martine Cicconi, Virginia’s deputy solicitor general.  “When not hosting events, the Dulles Expo Center sells nothing.”    

When Kassabian delivered his ruling from the bench, the judge noted that the gun show only lasts three days and said the idea of declaring it a brick and mortar business is “a stretch the court is unwilling to make.”

 He was also dismissive of the lawsuit’s argument that the governor’s executive order was beyond the scope of his executive authority.  The judge pointed out that language in the executive order does not infringe upon anyone’s rights to buy or sell firearms and simply applies to occupancy limits.  

Even so, organizers of the event announced its cancellation an hour after the ruling. The show’s website says the governor’s executive order “would essentially shut down the Nation’s Gun Show.”

But both Cicconi and Kassabian pointed out that nothing in the governor’s order mandated cancelling the show. The group can appeal Kassabian’s decision. 

The Nation’s Gun Show would have brought together thousands of gun enthusiasts for 900 tables loaded with guns and ammunition. Its website said the event is held “in a building more than 50,000 square feet larger than the Walmart across the parking lot, which remains open.”   

The show organizers put the economic impact at upward of $20 million.

“Nearby hotels sell out of rooms, which are booked far in advance by both vendors and attendees,” the lawsuit noted, adding that vendors were en route from Florida and Texas.  

Kassabian said he was sensitive to the issue of economic loss. But the idea of thousands of people attending the event, even if they obeyed social distancing guidelines, apparently gave the judge pause. Covid-19, he remarked, is sinister in its transmission, noting a person can unwittingly spread the virus.

The show’s producers made clear that they were willing to comply with social distancing guidelines.

“Plaintiffs are willing and able to comply with and indeed exceed those requirements, as they have in the past,” their lawsuit said. They maintain that no reported cases of Covid-19 were traced to a gun show held in August. 

Showmasters Inc. is described in the complaint as “the largest organizer of gun shows in the Mid-Atlantic region.” Other plaintiffs include Sonny’s Guns and Transfers, a retail business that derives 90% of its income from gun shows, and John Crump, “a journalist specializing in the right to keep and bear arms” who is also the Virginia director of Gun Owners of America, according to the lawsuit. 

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