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Judge: Virginia pandemic restrictions apply to gun show

Judge: Virginia pandemic restrictions apply to gun show

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Beginning Wednesday, state laws will impose stricter limits on gun sales, such as those typical at gun shows like this January event at Richmond International Raceway.

FALLS CHURCH — The producers of one of the nation's largest gun shows have canceled the event after losing a legal challenge to newly imposed pandemic restrictions in Virginia.

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 organizers were told that tightened restrictions imposed last week by Gov. Ralph Northam would limit the event to 250 people.

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 the worst pandemic in 100 years is not in the public interest.”

The gun show has the ability to appeal the ruling but posted a message on its website Thursday saying the event is canceled and that organizers “respectfully disagree with the judge’s opinion.”

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

A show held in August drew roughly half as many people, as organizers limited attendance to reduce crowding and the potential for spreading the coronavirus. In their complaint, show organizers said they expected this weekend's show to be particularly lucrative.

“In recent months, the demand for firearms, ammunition and related products and services has skyrocketed," the show's lawyers wrote in their complaint, "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."

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.

Browne 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 that nobody's right to bear arms is restricted and that 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.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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