DEL MAR — The courts may have the final word on whether gun shows will resume at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Utah-based company Crossroads of the West filed a lawsuit with the United States District Court against the fairgrounds’ 22nd District Agricultural Association Board of Directors on Jan. 21, after the board imposed a yearlong moratorium on the long-disputed event in September.
The company is seeking injunctive and declaratory relief for a decision it views as a violation of its first amendment rights to free speech and assembly, as well its rights to equal protection and due process. It is also seeking damages for lost profits, among other costs to their business.
Crossroads has held a gun show on the fairgrounds’ property five times a year for the past 30 years. In early September, the board moved to cancel the event for the duration of 2019, until staff could develop a new policy regarding gun show events.
The board’s Contracts Committee recommended the moratorium, further advising the board to put in place a policy that considers holding gun shows for only educational and safety training, banning the possession of guns on state property.
In an email to The Coast News, the fairground’s Public Information Officer Annie Pierce reiterated that the board’s intent at the September meeting was not to permanently ban gun shows. The board has no further comment at this time.
However, Crossroads President Tracy Olcott sees the board’s action as a “foregone conclusion,” a view shared by local pro-gun advocates.
“I really have no faith that they’re going to come back next year and say, ‘oh hey, we’ve decided to continue on with the gun show,’” said Michael Schwartz, the executive director of the San Diego County Gun Owners PAC. “No matter what they call it, a moratorium or not, there was supposed to be a gun show in February and it’s not here … that’s a ban. The rest is semantics.”
The latest of the Crossroads of the West gun shows occurred in mid-December, drawing about 6,000 people — many of whom showed up to witness “the last one.”
The gun shows attract vendors from across the region, selling everything from artwork and crystal balls to ammunition and semi-automatic assault rifles. Crossroads runs several such shows in California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada.
A handful of frequent vendors and attendees are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including South Bay Rod and Gun Club, a shooting club based out of Dulzura, California.
Don Gussler, the club’s president, said South Bay has been attending the event for about six years, where the members hand out informational pamphlets and fliers. Gussler said the event is the club’s main venue for advertising and promotion.
Gussler calls the event “a very educational thing,” and said he believes the board isn’t “looking at the actual facts.”
Other plaintiffs include the California Rifle & Pistol Association and the Second Amendment Foundation.
The lawsuit asserts that the board is discriminating against Crossroads and gun show vendors “based on irrational public policies that are based on flawed reasoning and dubious conclusions related to gun show operations and gun shows’ impact on public safety.”
Olcott said the board is bringing its own opinions into the mix in deciding the fate of the event, and representing only the views of the immediately surrounding communities in making its decisions.
“To take a few people who are anti-gun and let them be the opinion of the whole county is pretty far-reaching,” Olcott said, stating that the events are “highly regulated” and promote “100 percent legal” gun-related activities.
The agricultural district’s statutory authority allows that the board, “without prior approval from the department, may arrange for and conduct, or cause to be conducted, or by contract permit to be conducted, any activity by any individual, institution, corporation, or association upon its property at a time as may be deemed advisable.”
In keeping with its aim to present a new policy at the board’s December 2019 meeting, the board has appointed an ad-hoc committee to study the event. At the board’s Jan. 9 meeting, Committee Chair Frederick Schenk reported that the committee was beginning to meet with interested parties — legislative leaders, city officials and activists on both sides of the gun debate.
He also pointed out the possibility of new legislation that might impact the viability of gun shows across the state. Gavin Newsom, California’s newly elected governor, has voiced his opposition to the possession and sale of guns on public land. The board is governor-appointed.
“If there’s going to be some legislative direction, we’re going to have to be consistent with whatever that will be,” Schenk said.
Area residents have been protesting the event for years. Opposition started gaining traction in early 2018, after a high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, sparked far-reaching outcries against gun violence. Locally, it spurred the formation of NeverAgainCA, a Del Mar organization aiming to end gun violence.
NeverAgainCA objects to gun show operators profiting from the proliferation of guns and ammunition sold on state-owned property, according to its founder, Del Mar resident Rose Ann Sharp.
And NeverAgainCA is not alone in opposing the event — Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas have all passed resolutions opposing the sale and possession of firearms on publicly-owned property.
“I think people do see this as a public health risk,” Sharp said. “My belief is that they don’t want more guns in their community.”
Del Mar Mayor Dwight Worden has been at the helm of local opposition at the city level — drafting Del Mar’s resolution in March and urging its neighbors to the north to do the same. Given the Parkland shooting and rising concerns over gun violence, Worden said local residents felt gun shows were “part of the problem.”
Going forward, Worden hopes the board will “develop a policy that reflects community value and not be intimidated by a lawsuit that doesn’t have much merit.”
Crossroads has been looking for a new venue to host the event, but according to the complaint, “the government has a monopoly on venues of this size and type in the area.”
Schwartz, an outspoken advocate of the gun show, has been helping Crossroads look at different venues in the area.
“It’s turned out to be really difficult,” Schwartz said. “The reality is they need about 50,000 square feet of useable space and about 12,000 parking spots. There’s not many places like that.”
With few legal precedents paving the way for Crossroads, Schwartz said this lawsuit could be a determining point for gun shows in the state — which have so far eluded local as well as state legislative efforts to put them to an end.
“I think that if they lose this lawsuit, you probably won’t see a gun show on public property five years from now … on any state property,” he said.
In a similar case that dragged on for over 10 years, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ authority to ban the possession and sale of guns in “sensitive places,” i.e. public property, after a gun show operator sued the board over its action.
However, the case’s appeals process abruptly came to an end when the board reversed its policy, and allowed gun shows to commence as long as firearms were secured to tables or fixtures via a “sturdy cable.”
Crossroad’s complaint follows close on the heels of a case out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in which a gun show operator is suing the city for opting to end the event’s 30-year operation at a popular public park.
Lexy Brodt covers all things Del Mar and Solana Beach for The Coast News, with a primary interest in coastal development. A North County native turned UW-Madison alumna, she has produced for Wisconsin Public Radio and reported for The San Diego Union-Tribune and Wisconsin State Journal.