Virginia pandemic restrictions apply to Nation's Gun Show: judge

A judge on Thursday rejected a legal challenge from one of the nation's largest gun shows to newly imposed pandemic restrictions in Virginia that will force cancellation of an upcoming exposition.

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The Nation's Gun Show is held several times a year at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, about 25 miles outside Washington. A three-day show expected to draw thousands had been scheduled to start Friday.

The show filed for an emergency injunction this week in Fairfax County Circuit Court after it was told that tightened restrictions imposed last week by Gov. Ralph Northam would limit the event to 250 people.

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The lawsuit offered theories as to why the order exceeded the governor's authority, but Judge Brett Kassabian rejected them all 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 of the worst pandemic in 100 years is not in the public interest.”

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The gun show can appeal the ruling.

The show normally attracts roughly 25,000 attendees who each pay as much as $23 to gain access to hundreds of exhibitors and firearms dealers.

A show held in August drew roughly half as many people, as managers limited attendance to reduce crowding and the potential for spreading the coronavirus. 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.

A lawyer for the gun show, David Browne, argued Thursday 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.

Martine Cicconi, a lawyer with Virginia Attorney General Mark 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 limits 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.