Mark Nale | Firestorm over military-style rifles dooms Harrisburg show

It is Feb. 3, a time when many Centre County outdoor enthusiasts would drive to Harrisburg to attend the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show — the largest show of its kind.

Not this year — the show has been indefinitely postponed.

The tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., began a wave of heated debate over who should own guns, what type of guns and how they should be regulated. That national debate spilled over into Pennsylvania 20 days ago, when Reed Expositions, managers of the Harrisburg show, announced that “certain products” would not be displayed this year at the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show — scheduled to run Feb. 2-10 in the State Farm Show Complex.

The “certain products” in question were semi-automatic, AR-platform rifles — military-style tactical rifles that trace their ancestry to the Vietnam War-era M-16 or its civilian counterpart, the AR-15. These are the so-called “assault weapons” to which the non-outdoor oriented news media often refers to.

Some viewed Reed Exposition’s decision as a show of empathy towards the victims of the recent shootings. Reed’s own announcement hinted that they wanted to avoid protests and demonstrations in Harrisburg. Others viewed British-based Reed’s decision as an affront to Americans’ Second Amendment rights — the right to bear arms.

In part, the statement from Reed read, “As a hunting-focused event, we welcome exhibitors who wish to showcase products and firearms that serve the traditional needs of the sport.

“Clearly, we strongly support the Second Amendment. However, this year we have made the decision not to include certain products that in the current climate may attract negative attention that would distract from the strong focus on hunting and fishing at this family-oriented event and possibly disrupt the broader positive experience of our guests.

“Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show is proud to participate in the preservation and promotion of the rich hunting and fishing tradition passed from generation to generation by American families.”

At the time, a spokesperson from Reed stated that the move affected about five of their more than 1,200 exhibitors. Little did they know what was about to transpire.

Let us digress for a moment before following this story to its conclusion. I would like to zero in on just nine words from the above statement — “firearms that serve the traditional needs of the sport.” During the past month, I received well over 100 emails about this subject, and I can tell you that hunters’ views vary as to what “traditional” means and whether AR rifles should be a part of hunting. Ardent Second Amendment supporters have been very, but not totally, unified — law-abiding, mentally stable citizens should be able to own tactical-style rifles if they choose.

State hunting regulations vary widely. ARs — usually chambered with .223-caliber — are not legal for any kind of hunting in Pennsylvania because they are semi-automatic (one shot fired each time the trigger is pulled). However, .223-caliber and even smaller caliber center-fire rifles are legal in Pennsylvania if they are bolt actions. For example, I shot my first two Keystone State bucks with a .222. In Pennsylvania, ARs would be considered personal protection weapons or recreational target shooting rifles. Oddly enough, semi-automatic shotguns are legal in this state for hunting small game, but not semi-automatic .22s.

I happened to be in Virginia when this story broke, so I will cite that state as another example. ARs are legal in Virginia for hunting varmints, but not big game. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries allows semi-autos for big game hunting, but deems the .223 caliber too small of a caliber for deer.

Fearing a ban on these rifles, shooters flocked to stores, and most Pennsylvania gun dealers were sold out of AR-platform rifles within a few days following the Sandy Hook shooting. All over the United States, sporting goods stores have had record firearms sales.

Controversy surrounds these tactical guns. After several phone calls to store manager Ann Hannah, having my identity as an outdoor writer checked and even being frisked, I was allowed to photograph several AR-rifles at S P & G Shooting Range in Virginia Beach. Range master Gary Dunlop verified that the past month had also been one of their highest firearm sales periods ever.

Both the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation entered into discussions with Reed in an attempt to have them reconsider their position. Those talks were unsuccessful.

Back in Pennsylvania, protests mounted against Reed’s decision and businesses threatened to boycott the show. On Jan. 19, four days after Reed’s announcement, Cabela’s made it known that they would not participate in this year’s Harrisburg outdoor show. That started a cascade of exhibitor and presenter withdrawals from the show. The National Wild Turkey Federation was typical of organizations that cancelled their appearance at the show. On Jan. 22, it issued this statement:

“We feel strongly about the importance of the Second Amendment in pursuit of our mission of preserving our hunting heritage,” said Skip Motts, President of the NWTF Pennsylvania State Chapter. “We reached out to our chapters from across the state and received overwhelming support for taking this stand.”

Based on unconfirmed reports — Reed Expositions certainly was not publicizing this — by Jan. 23, more than 350 exhibitors and presenters had withdrawn from the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show.

On Jan. 24, Reed announced that the show would be postponed indefinitely. From his Connecticut office, Reed Exhibitions President for the Americas Chet Burchett made this announcement:

“It has become very clear to us after speaking with our customers that the event could not be held because the atmosphere of this year’s show would not be conducive to an event that is designed to provide family enjoyment. It is unfortunate that in the current emotionally charged atmosphere this celebratory event has become overshadowed by a decision that directly affected a small percentage of more than 1,000 exhibits showcasing products and services for those interested in hunting and fishing,” Burchett said in a written statement.

Winners and losers

The Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show is advertised as the largest show of its kind. For those of you only remotely connected with this entire chain of events, it is important to understand that the show’s cancellation was a major event in the hunting and shooting world. For example, Dunlop in Virginia Beach knew about the show’s postponement almost as quickly as I did.

As I see it, the winners were those individuals, businesses and organizations who protested Reed’s position or backed out of the show based on their principles that law-abiding citizens should be able to purchase the kinds of guns that they want. These actions clearly resulted in the show’s cancellation. Gun-rights activists demonstrated how deeply their beliefs run.

As far as losers go, there are many. It has been reported that Harrisburg area businesses lost approximately $44 million due to the show’s cancellation and the subsequent loss of 200,000 visitors to the region. Many non-shooting or hunting-related businesses lost the opportunity to display and sell their wares at the show. For some businesses, the show represents their biggest nine days of sales each year. Non-profit organizations having booth space at the show are now searching for new ways to attract members and/or raise funds.

Reed Expositions stood on their principles, too, but without a doubt, Reed was the biggest loser. Not only was the Harrisburg show “postponed,” with all money refunded to exhibitors, but Reed Expositions is also the manager of the famous National Shooting Sports Foundation SHOT Show — the firearms industry’s biggest trade show in the United States — which is held in Las Vegas each year.

The NSSF is very unhappy with Reed Expositions.

In a statement, the NSSF announced that it is “considering all options regarding the management of future SHOT events.”

We will never know everything that went on behind the scenes at Reed or the full reasons why individual exhibitors and presenters decided to withdraw from the show. What we do know is that the Harrisburg show’s cancellation will have lasting effects for years to come. Right or wrong, I cannot imagine any other outdoor show following Reed’s disastrous lead.